The power of yoga mudras
Last year, I returned to Africa to nurse my mother through the last few months of her life. By that time, she was confined to bed, struggling with the debilitating effects of a brain-stem tumour. One particular day, she had an intense headache and I decided to do a healing on her. I closed my eyes and said a prayer. I let my hands move to the areas of her body to which they were most drawn.
I stayed there with her for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, she slept deeply for three hours. Dad was worried because it was unusual for her to sleep during the day. I made myself some lunch and then went back to check on her. Without any instruction from me, I found her lying very peacefully with her hands in ardi mudra.
It was this very mudra (thumbs folded into the palms of the hands and fingers wrapped around the thumbs) that I was intending on show her later that day. It’s a mudra that directs energy specifically to the brain. When mum came out of her three-hour journey, she was particularly relaxed and peaceful. It’s often said that our bodies know what they need and what to do to heal themselves. The problem is we often get in the way with our intellectual diagnosis and interrupt the natural healing process.
Mudras have long been recognised in Eastern cultures for their ability to assist in the healing process, whether it is physical, mental or emotional. Each area of the hand corresponds to a specific part of the body system. Each finger, transmitting its own unique frequency, is able to direct energy flow and so, by curling, crossing, stretching and touching the fingers and hands together, we can talk to the body and mind. Through this silent conversation, we are able to alter our mood, attitude and perception and deepen our awareness and concentration.
Mudras have long been recognised in Eastern cultures for their ability to assist in the healing process, whether it is physical, mental or emotional.
When I asked my mother if she had any recollection of her hands being in a certain position, of course she didn’t know what I was talking about. It seems the unconscious healing benefits of the mudras needed no conscious permission from Mum before they could do their talking.
In more technical terms, mudras provide a means to access and influence the unconscious reflexes and primal, instinctive habit patterns that originate in the primitive areas of the brain around the brain stem. They establish a subtle, non-intellectual connection with these areas.
The origin of mudras
Even wizened yogis agree the origin of mudras is not known, but one thing is certain: mudras are ancient yogic practices and have been used throughout the world for many centuries. Statues and artworks surviving from pre-sand ancient Egypt often depict a range of mudras. In Hindu and Buddhist iconography, mudras help identify various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (one who seeks enlightenment not only for him/herself but also for everyone) and deities. In fact, mudras feature in the arts of almost every ancient culture and religion and are also used routinely by current-day Japanese monks in their spiritual exercises and worship.
It’s believed that mudras date back to Lord Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration) himself and are illustrated in various drawings and paintings as well as documented in transcripts of his conversations with his consort, Parvati. In one picture, Shiva can be seen with his hands in chin mudra, acknowledged as a wonderful mudra for inducing a clear, peaceful state of mind. Here, the tip of the thumb lightly touches the tip of the index finger, while the other fingers are extended.
Detailed descriptions of mudras can also be found in ancient texts such as the Tantra Shastra, Upansana Shastra and Nritya Shastra.
Benefits of mudra practice
“Mudra” is a Sanskrit word that literally means “sign” or “seal”. Although it may involve the whole body, here we will look at the various hand mudras, or hasta.
Mudras manipulate and redirect the prana (life force, or energy) being emitted through the hands and fingers back into the body in much the same way that energy in the form of light or sound waves is diverted by a mirror or a cliff face. Each mudra sets up a different link and therefore has a correspondingly different effect on the body, mind and prana. Tantric literature states that once the dissipation of prana is arrested through the practice of mudra, the mind becomes introverted, inducing states of pratyahara, or sense withdrawal, and dharana, concentration.
Easy to do but very powerful, mudras liberate the energy locked within the body and have been known to benefit ailments from simple earache to heart disease. While some take as much as 45 minutes to balance the elements of the body, others are effective within seconds. Practice of mudras on a regular basis has also been known to cure insomnia, arthritis and memory loss.
The five elements
The human body is like a miniature of the universe, made up of the five elements — fire, air, water, earth and sky, or ether. When we become stressed or ill, the proportions of these elements go out of balance. The five digits of the hand represent the five elements. The thumb represent agni (fire), the forefinger vayu (air), the middle finger akash (ether), the third or ring finger prithvi (earth) and the fourth or little finger jal (water).
The roots of all diseases ultimately lie in an imbalance of the five elements and therefore can be corrected with mudras. Mudras help normalise, stabilise and balance the five elements within the body system. Without generating an excess of energy, they act like a thermostat, simply seeking the optimal balance of prana.
Guidelines for practising mudras
No previous experience with yoga is needed to practice mudras, but they are a more subtle feature of yogic practice. For this reason, they are often introduced to yogis after they have established a more heightened level of awareness of their bodies, gained through experiences in asanas (poses), pranayamas (breathing techniques), and bandhas (locks). Mudras are suitable for everyone. Here are a few guidelines to bear in mind while practising them.
- Foods: The most supportive diet to follow if you wish to receive the greatest benefits from practising mudras is a vegetarian diet free of white sugar, white flour, tobacco and alcohol.
- Position: The most common position in which to practise mudras is a comfortable sitting position in which the spine is straight, shoulders relaxed and eyes closed, such as the cross-legged padmasana position or vajrasana, (sitting on your heels), but mudras can be done standing or even walking. While you may not get the same calming effect as when you’re sitting still, your practice will not be ineffective if done while taking a stroll with your hands casually tucked into your pockets in a mudra position. Mudras can even be done while lying in bed sick, as long as you can move your arms and hands freely and keep your awareness on your breath.
- Duration: They can be practised for up to 30 minutes a day, either in one go or divided into three separate 10-minute periods.
- Sequence: Mudras can be practised before, during or after pranayama or asana practice.
- Time and place: They can be practised any time and anywhere as long as the stomach is not full.
- The body: The body should be relaxed and when the fingers touch, the pressure should be very light, hands relaxed. It’s best to practise mudras on an empty stomach, but vayu mudra (see below) can be done soon after eating as it supports the gastric process.
- The breath: Long, slow, deep breaths can be taken, allowing the natural pause that occurs between the in and the out breaths. Simply becoming aware of your breath will bring your mind to the present moment, a much desired and beneficial state. When you then combine conscious, slow breathing with mudra practice, the positive effect is further enhanced.
Certain mudras are best done only when you are suffering from a specific condition. Others, such as gyan dudra, vayu mudra and prana mudra, can be practised daily and will benefit any condition. However, don’t be in a hurry to practise the following variety of mudras. First read over the benefits of each, then decide which would be most beneficial to you at this time. As with anything, the more regular and committed you are to any practice, the more likely you are to experience and reap the benefits.
Touch the tips of the right thumb, index finger and middle finger together, keeping the other two fingers (the ring and the little finger) extended. On the left hand, touch the tip of the middle finger, the ring finger and thumb together, keeping the index finger and the little finger extended. This can be practised four times a day for five minutes each time.
Benefits: Signifies accepting and receiving with the one hand and letting go with the other. Also strengthens the digestion and elimination processes and stimulates the brain.
Press the fingernails of the middle fingers together while keeping the other fingers extended.
Benefits: Great for those who suffer from asthma and during or just after an attack can be practised for a few minutes until the breath becomes calm again.
On both hands simultaneously, bring the tips of the thumb, ring finger and little finger together, keeping the index and middle fingers extended. It can be practised for half an hour a day or three times a day for 15 minutes.
Benefits: Activates the root chakra and increases vitality.
Place both palms together and interlock your fingers. Keep one thumb upright and encircle it with the thumb and index fingers of the other hand. Keep both hands in front of your chest. This can be done three times a day for 15 minutes.
Benefits: Boosts the immune system and loosens mucus that has collected in the lungs, making the body more resistant to colds and chest infections. By generating heat in the body, it burns away accumulated phlegm in the chest. It’s also useful in weight reduction. However, as it generates heat, this mudra can be trying and can result in a feeling of lethargy.
Apan mudra is also known as the “energy” mudra. Place the thumb, middle finger and ring finger together, keeping the index and little finger extended. Do this for 45 minutes a day or three times for 15 minutes.
Benefits: Assists in the removal of toxins from the body and has a balancing effect on the mind, helping to develop inner balance and confidence.
Common in Hindu temples, shankh mudra represents a conch shell. Encircle the thumb with the four fingers of the right hand. Touch the right thumb to the extended middle finger of the hand and hold the hands in front of your sternum, chanting the sound of “ohm”. This can be done three times a day for 15 minutes.
Benefits: Great for healing problems of the throat.
Bend the index finger of each hand until its tip touches the ball of the thumb. Press the thumb lightly onto the index finger and keep the other three fingers extended but relaxed.
Benefits: Vayu means wind, so this mudra, aimed at alleviating flatulence almost immediately, is aptly named. As soon as flatulence stops, the practice should be discontinued. If the problem is chronic, it can be practised three times a day for 15 minutes.
On each hand, bend your middle fingers until they touch the ball of the thumb and then press the thumb lightly into the finger, keeping the other fingers extended but relaxed.
Benefits: Shunya mudra is beneficial for ear and hearing problems and can be done three times a day for 15 minutes.
Place the tip of the thumb on top of the ring finger and apply a little pressure, keeping the other fingers extended but relaxed. Do this with both hands three times a day for 15 minutes.
Benefits: Activates the root chakra, which is home to our vital and creative energy.
Place the tip of the thumb on the little finger and keep the other fingers relaxed but extended. Do this with both hands. Bhudi mudra can be practised three times a day for 15 minutes.
Benefits: Helps maintain fluid balance in the body.
With the right hand, touch the thumb, middle finger and little finger together and relax but extend the index and ring finger. On the left hand, place the thumb joint of the nail of the index finger. This can be practised four times a day for four minutes.
Benefits: Excellent for backache.
Place the index fingers of both hands vertically against each other so that just the tips are connecting and there’s space between the two fingers. Interlock the other fingers and cross the thumbs over each other and relax the hands. While seated, ensure that the index fingers are pointing towards the ground. If you are lying down, the index fingers should point in the direction of your feet. Hold for seven to 15 breaths, focusing on the exhalation, then end by placing the hands on the thighs, palms facing skywards.
Benefits: Stimulates elimination through the large intestine, kidneys and lungs and helps relieve physical tension.
This mudra can be practised anywhere, any time. Place the fingertips of both hands together and direct your gaze upwards. While inhaling, place the tip of your tongue on your gums and then, while exhaling, allow your tongue to relax.
Benefits: Improves memory and stimulates the brain.