A Mudra is a small action with the hands. But it’s no new phenomenon that actions can speak louder than words, particularly when it comes to the use of hands. Different religions and nationalities throughout time have instinctively used hand gestures to silently externalise inner thoughts and feelings, or as a vehicle for facilitated healing.
Eastern traditions have told entire stories with delicate hand positions through traditional dance or energy-replenishing exercises such as Tai Chi and qigong, and used corresponding acupressure points to restore health and vitality. Many religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism, use the hands in various ways to demonstrate piousness or prayer.
In daily life, it could be a simple clap, handshake or wave, holding hands with another, the healing touch of massage or Reiki—or perhaps less endearing symbols of anger or frustration. In yoga, however, it is the therapeutic act of mudras (pronounced mood-ras, meaning “seal”), an important practice commonly misunderstood—and sometimes forgotten—in yoga’s modern execution.
Yoga mudras come in many forms, including eye and body positions and breathing techniques. Hasta mudras, or hand gestures, are perhaps the most common and accessible place to start when discovering their purpose and potential. While the spelling, meaning and execution of mudras deviates somewhat across lineages, their use shares a commonality of reconnecting practitioners with their internal source of prana, or life-force, to achieve wellbeing and spiritual evolution.
“Hasta mudras channel prana emitted by the hands back into the body. This simple connection of the various digits creates a psycho-energetic resonance within,” explains Amanda Fuzes of Prana Space in Sydney.
Many yoga greats believe hasta mudras can awaken kundalini energy, or coiled power, in advanced practitioners; guiding them toward deeper meditative states, self-realisation and ultimately enlightenment, particularly when used in conjunction with breathing exercises, postures, meditation and chanting.
Kundalini expert Lothar-Rüdiger Lütge explains that “every area of the hand forms a reflex zone for an associated part of the body and brain”, and thus the hands can be a mirror for our mind and body. This reflects the age-old notion among yogis that mudras re-establish the link between our physical body (annamaya kosha), pranic body (pranamaya kosha) and mental body (manomaya kosha); essential connections that are often impaired in response to the hectic pace of modern living.
Science of mudras
For some, the notion of mudras may seem far-fetched, but even modern science has begun acknowledging the role energy fields play within living things. One research paper published in the National Academy of Sciences revealed that hand gestures stimulate the same regions in the brain as language. Another study by the University of Pennsylvania discovered that performing the Kundalini Yoga practice of Kirtan Kriya—which for the most part combines mudra and chanting—for just 12 minutes daily over eight weeks significantly improved clarity, empathy, emotional equilibrium and memory.
Such findings are no doubt impressive, but ancient yogis didn’t require science to identify the vast benefits of mudras. It was instinctively known that each finger corresponds to a specific universal element and chakra (energy centres in the body) that may awaken or heal associated characteristics via nerve endings and energy pathways in the fingertips, as shown in the diagram, above.
The Chinese medicine modality, acupressure, is based on the understanding that each part of the hand relates to certain meridians that channel energies to organs and glands and impact on bodily functions. Similarly, yoga considers these channels of pranic energy as nadis.
“There are 72,000 nadis in the body, which are activated and cleared when the hands are in a particular mudra,” explains Kundalini Yoga senior teacher trainer, GuruJivan. “This has an impact on the body and, thereby helps facilitate physical and psychological healing.”
Gertrud Hirschi, author of Mudras: Yoga in your Hands, advises performing mudras for chronic complaints at the same time every day for the same length of time. Mudras for acute complaints like flatulence or exhaustion should be discontinued once relief is achieved.
The length of time to hold any given mudra is somewhat debatable. Indian researcher Keshav Dev suggests holding one mudra daily for 45 minutes, or three 15-minute periods, to manage chronic complaints. Other masters of mudra, such as kinesiologist Kim da Silva, believe the ideal time is individually based. Ultimately, a few seconds alone may be of some benefit—but remember to keep the hands relaxed and, unless uncomfortable or specified otherwise, perform gestures with both left and right.
Meditation & mudras
Much like postures, the most effective mudras for meditation are often the simplest. The mudras pictured are not only easy to perform, but also highly effective for meditation.
Easy Sitting Pose (Sukhasana) is a common seated position for mudras and meditation, and comfort can be enhanced by sitting on a folded blanket or cushion. Lotus Pose (Padmasana) may be suitable for practitioners with sufficiently open hips and strong backs.
The best position in which to perform mudras is what the meditator finds most comfortable and natural. Those who feel too stiff to sit on the ground may need a chair. Others who may be injured, elderly or unfit may prefer lying down.
Don’t let your ego lead when choosing a position. If your mind is constantly on the unease of the pose, you won’t be able to still the mind.
I don’t recommend sitting with the back against a wall, as eventually the practitioner slumps and loses awareness.
Gently close your eyes, or hold a soft gaze if not too distracting. As you relax into the practice, you may begin to notice your fingertips subtly pulse, or perhaps a tremendous flow of energy generate between the palms. You may experience sensations immediately, or it may take some time—just be patient and practice, constantly inspired by the notion that health and harmony rests in the palm of your hands.
The simplest mudra
You don’t have to be a seasoned yogi to be familiar with the Atmanjali Mudra, also known as Anjali Mudra. Most classes will begin and end with the palms pressed gently together in prayer position.
It’s often accompanied by the Sanskrit word Namaste, meaning peace, greetings and respect, or the chanting of Om. It may also be combined with a physical practice, such as Tree Pose (Vrksasana). Atmanjali Mudra embodies yoga itself as a symbol of union; balancing left and right brain hemispheres, yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) energies, sun (ha) and moon (tha).
The hands are traditionally placed at the heart to invoke gratitude, harmony, balance, unconditional love and kindness. Placing Atmanjali Mudra to the third eye calms our thoughts and helps us see clearly. Placing the palms above the head connects us with the universal consciousness, purusha.