Use mudras to deepen your yoga practice, prepare you for yoga teacher training, and focus your prana or life force energy.
Over the years we’ve noticed that most students who come to Shades of Yoga to complete their RYT 200 or RYT 300 yoga teacher training have some experience with or have at least heard about mudras. Have you ever questioned the significance of the different mudras, though? Where do they originate from? What is their purpose? Why and how do you use them? Let’s take a look at this fascinating practice and its impact on our yoga practice and bodies.
The Sanskrit word mudra means “gesture”, “seal” or “mark” and in this context refers to the symbolic, some say sacred, gestures practiced in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, using primarily the hands and fingers and sometimes the whole body. Here and now, we’ll focus on the Hasta Mudras or hand mudras, the ones yoga teachers most commonly use to help focus the mind when opening or closing a yoga class with a brief meditation or during asana practice to control the flow of prana or energy.
If you’re quite certain you’ve never actually used a mudra during yoga, you’re probably in for a surprise. Especially if you’re accustomed to fast-moving yoga classes where teachers are pressured to stick to tight schedules and aren’t able to label the various hand poses as mudras, let alone explain their significance. For example, you know that practice of bringing your palms together at heart centre, before starting a sun salutation series, during tree pose and at the end of practice as you wish each other namaste? That sacred gesture is in fact the Anjali Mudra.
Before we look at some specific mudras, let’s take a deeper dive into their significance.
What’s so special about the mudras?
We borrow the mudras from the ancient tradition of yoga – think remote Himalayan hilltops as opposed to high-traffic, polished yoga studios. The mudras have been practised for literally thousands of years and they remain as relevant today as they ever were. Those who’ve practised mudras will agree that it’s a great sensation. The warmth of your hands and the gentle pressures exerted by your fingers in various positions makes you aware of the subtle flow(s) of energy in your body, which can be directed at will, using different hand positions to achieve a variety of outcomes, including to still the body and mind and create a centre of focus for meditation. In fact, next time you form a mudra, take a minute to check in with your body and observe how it makes you feel.
Mudras are believed to affect our physical, emotional and energetic bodies. Some of the listed benefits of the mudras include better memory, healthier sleeping habits, lower stress levels, better control over the mind and the body, detoxification, pain relief, and more besides.
You may well ask: “How can something so subtle work such miracles?” But isn’t that the case with all the many shades of yoga, from Asana practice to the practice of Pranayama? The subtle magic of mudras lies in how these sacred gestures help us to direct our life force energy (prana) according to our needs.
Why use the hands?
Our hands have highly active and sensitive energetic centres or chakras. Even if you’re not sensitive to energy you may be able to feel the hand chakra by doing a simple exercise. Spread the arms to the sides to shoulder height and begin to vigorously extend the fingers and clench and unclench your fists really fast for 20 seconds. Now pause and flip your palms up. Do you feel the tingling sensations in your palms? If not, try rubbing your hands together vigorously then activating each hand chakra in turn, by pressing the thumb of your opposite hand into the centre of your palm.
Apart from the chakras, each finger is also associated with a particular energy channel in our bodies. So, by touching the fingers in a certain way, we can regulate the energy flow in those channels. Each finger moreover represents one of the five elements. The thumb is fire, the index finger is air, the middle finger is the ether (the sky), the ring finger is the earth, and the little finger is water. The thumb is also associated with will and rationality, while the index finger correlates with wisdom, the middle finger with patience and balance, the ring finger with health, and the little finger with creativity.
Why direct our energy at all?
Have you ever gotten caught up in a cycle of worry – endlessly stressing about the same thing for days on end, when there was nothing you could do about it anyway? This is common to the human experience. However, energy follows thought, so when we keep worrying about something, we are constantly sending energy in that direction. At best, we are wasting energy on something that we cannot change, and at worst that very energy may cause the thing we’re worrying about to manifest!
It’s clear that there are times when we need to redirect our energy to other areas and pursuits more beneficial to us. The mudras help us achieve that. For example, if you are having a health issue, you can use mudras to direct your prana to help with your recovery. You’ll agree, that’s a far better use of energy than worrying.
Let’s take a look then at the four common Hasta Mudras.
The Gyan Mudra is also known as the Chin Mudra. In Sanskrit, chin means consciousness. The Gyan Mudra helps to focus the mind and calm the consciousness. This pose indicates your receptiveness to knowledge and wisdom and helps you to connect to your higher self.
We perform this mudra by bringing the index and thumb fingers together to form a circle and stretching out the other three fingers. In this configuration, the thumb symbolises the universal consciousness and the index finger the individual consciousness. By bringing them together, we fuse our individual consciousness with universal consciousness. The other fingers symbolize the three aspects of the physical world and our liberation from the limits of that world. These are, sattva or purity and true wisdom (middle finger), rajas or passion and action (ring finger), and tamas lethargy and darkness (little finger). Do this with both hands.
Vayu is Sanskrit for air. The Vayu Mudra (mudra of air) balances the air energies in our energetic body, usually reducing the air component to achieve this balance and calming the nervous system as it does so. This mudra is an especially useful tool to calm anxiety.
To form the Vayu Mudra, fold your index finger towards your palm, so the tip of that finger touches the base of your thumb, while gently pressing your thumb against the tip of the index finger. Do this with both hands.
In Sanskrit, buddhi means intellect or perception, and we use the Buddhi Mudra to balance the water element in our bodies and achieve greater mental clarity. This connection of the elements of fire and water encourages intuitiveness and enhances our communication skills. Thanks to this increased intuitiveness, we are better able to understand messages coming to us from our subconscious via dreams, meditations or in the form of our inner voice.
To form the Buddhi Mudra, bring the little finger and the thumb together, while keeping the other three fingers upright. Do this with both hands.
The Sanskrit word Anjali means to offer or salutation, which explains its popularity as a form of greeting (salutation) in Asian countries. It is also called the prayer pose and it serves to bring into balance the feminine and masculine (yin and yang) energies in your body, connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain and increasing mindfulness and focus
To form the Anjali Mudra, press the right and left palm equally into each other, connecting the hands all the way from the base through the palms and fingertips. Do this with both hands.
It’s clear that mudras are a key component of a balanced yoga practice – one that emphasises equally the asanas, pranayama, and meditation.
Whatever the reason for your interest in mudras – whether to increase your knowledge as you prepare to embark on your yoga teacher training journey with Shades of Yoga, to deepen your yoga practice, continue your exploration of self, or as an aid to connecting your physical body with your higher self – incorporating the various mudras into your daily yoga practice, or your teaching of yoga, will help you achieve those goals.