Cosmic Gestures: A Beginner’s Guide to Yoga Mudras
Hand Mudras are symbolic gestures and healing modality in spiritual practice. Learn more about their origin, purpose, benefits, and more.
By Vineet Kaul
Yoga Mudras leverage the ancient knowledge of body sciences and a newtwork of energy pathways (nadis) through which prana flows. They are not a primary protocol in Ayurveda, Meditation, Pranayama, or Asana. Instead, they are a healing modality.
There are hundreds of mudras, each with a unique purpose and fine-drawn potency to bring balance and harmony. They balance or stimulate zones in the body by “re-wiring” the flow of prana (life force).
The results are a subtle but significant effect on breathing, consciousness-awareness, and internal organs like the throat, eyes, abdomen, and erogenous zones.
The 5 Types of Mudras used in Spiritual Practice
Various classical texts of yoga such as the Gheranda Samhita, Tantraloka (Light on Tantra), and Hatha Yoga Pradipika describe how to integrate mudras into yoga.
The five elements and mudras have been used in conjunction with pranayama, kriya yoga, meditation, and Kundalini awakening.
Based on the information of these texts, there a five types of yoga mudras:
1. Hasta Mudras (Hands):
Hasta Mudras are the most commonly used type of Yoga mudras. As you bring your fingers to touch each other, they create subtle connections that influence the main and unconscious reflexes associated with them.
They balance, promote, or redirect the flow of prana and subtle energy to influence the sense-perception, sense of being, and state of wellness.
Yoga classes begin and end with the Anjali mudra or what is colloquially known as Namaste. During Anulom-vilom pranayam (alternate nostril breathing), the right-hand forms the Vishnu mudra, and meditative practices commonly use the Chin Mudra.
Also see: Five yoga mudras to enhance your pranayama practice
2. Kaya Mudra (Posture):
Kaya refers to the anabolic traits of human biology in Ayurveda. In Vedantic philosophy, it is said to be the “abode of the jiva (soul)”. In Buddhism too, you’ll find rupa kaya and nama kaya, which are said to represent the physical and mental body.
The Sanskrit words kaya means “to contemplate upon”. Kaya mudras use a combination of hand gestures, asana / seated poses, and breathing to focus your concentration on a particular aspect of kaya.
They are combined with yoga and pranayama to improve the functioning of the nervous system and to improve lung capacity.
Examples: Pashinee mudra, Vipareet Karani, and Prana mudra
3. Mana Mudra (Head):
Mana mudras only use parts of the head like the eyes, nose, tongue, and lips. In Sanskrit, mana refers to "desires" or "inherent tendencies". A mana mudra distances us from these desires. They are designed to break the chain of our compulsive nature so we may move towards a more conscious Self.
Mana mudras are not used in conjunction with pranayama, but they are a significant tradition of meditation, Kundalini, and Kriya Yoga.
Examples: Khechari Mudra, Akashi Mudra, and Shambhavi Mudra
4. Bandhas: In yoga, a bandha is a body lock, although you could think about it as creating a dam over a river to stop the flow of water. These body locks momentarily block energy flow to certain parts of the body to stimulate them.
There are three bandhas or locks:
Mula Bandha: Root lock
Jalandhara bandha: Throat lock
Uddiyana bandha: Abdominal lock
Maha bandha: The 'great lock' - holding all 3 locks simultaneously
Bandhas are used in advanced variations of pranyama and are an integral part of Kundalini yoga. One should only attempt bandhas under the guidance of an experienced pranayama practitioner.
5. Adhara (Perineum): Adhara refers to the foundation located at the perineum in the human body. Practicing adhara yoga mudras such as Vajroli Mudra or Ashwini Mudra is said to direct energy-flow to the pelvic floor to cultivate/control sexual energy.
Adhara mudras are associated with sexual energy and potency. Such mudras are obsolete and have been declared repugnant by modern yogis and scholars. They inappropriate for modern practitioners. We do not recommend practicing any adhara mudra as they are considered to be harmful or dangerous.
Yoga Mudras and Ayurveda: The Five Great Elements
Ayurveda (translates to life science) is a holistic view of human health that emerged over 5000 years ago in the Indian sub-continent. It is based on the core principle that all life is intricately interwoven and to achieve total wellness, we must strive to harmonize the internal and external worlds.
Everything in the universe is a permutation or combination of these five elements. Fueled by sound (vibration), they partake in the infinite cycle of creation and destruction.
At the heart of Ayurveda, lies the concept of the five great elements (Pancha Maha-bhoot). The 5 elements are represented in the human hand as follows:
Thumb – Fire – Agni
Index finger – Air – Vayu
Middle finger – Ether – Aakasha
Ring finger – Earth - Prithvi
Pinky/Little Finger – Water – Jala
We tend to overlook the possibility of our hands being axiomatic to our health. Yet, many traditional medicinal systems avow that they contain pressure points and access to energy pathways that can be harnessed for better health.
Mudras and Bhuta Shuddhi: The Role of Tattva in Yoga
In Yoga, the reverence for the five elements is evident in the pursuit of Bhuta Shuddhi - the quest to purify each tattva (element) in the body to attain mastery over the Self.
There are five Shiva temples in Southern India, each with a lingam that represents one element.
Agni Lingam - Fire - Arunachaleswara Temple
Vayu Lingam - Air - Srikalahasteeswara Temple
Akasha Lingam - Ether - Thillai Natarajar Temple
Prithvi - Earth - Ekambareshwarar Temple
Ap Lingam - Water - Jambukeshwarar Temple
These temples were built by the Nayyars (devotees of Shiva) in the 4th to 7th centuries. Each temple's lingam is believed to be a manifestation of Lord Shiva with fascinating folklore and mythic tales of how the lingam was created.
Many yogis perform Bhuta Shuddhi. They attempt to purify/balance each element through kriya - a set of spiritual practices like mudras, bandhas, pranayama, asana, and meditation.
Mudras and Pranayama:
Mudras can be an invaluable tool to enhance your pranayama practice. The two most commonly used mudras are:
Hasta Mudras - Hand Gestures
Bandhas - Locks
Bandhas are advanced and we'll leave them for a separate article. Hasta mudras are far more innocuous and beginner-friendly. They only require you to form the mudras when you are seated in asana and performing pranayama and/or meditation.
In Kundalini Kriya, each chakra has a corresponding element and a set of mudras to stimulate that element.
Hatha Yoga has highlighted ten of these. TSome of these such as Vajroli and Maha Mudra are hand mudras while others like Divya mudra aren’t.
Kundalini is "a goddess sleeping at the entrance of Brahma’s door" that can be awakened by using mudras.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that Kundalini is a “sleeping goddess at the entrance of Brahma’s door” that can be awakened by using mudras. Here, Brahma’s door alludes to the Muladhara chakra or the root chakra located at the base of your spine.
Mudras, Nritti (dance), and Nrutya (dance)
In Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva's avatar Natraja dances the cosmic dance of creation, preservation, and dissolution. Based on this, Lord Brahma created the "Book of Dramaturgy" (Natya Veda) and the sage Bharata (Bharata Muni) was the first human who gained access to this knowledge through great penance.
However, since this dance was "too masculine", Brahma instructed Bharata Muni to balance it with "beauty and grace". This led to the creation of mudras - the soul of dance-drama and the epicenter of emotions.
In classical texts of Dramaturgy, mudras are called hastavedah. In this context, mudras are described as mudam anandang rati dadati - that which brings ultimate joy.
Natyashastra gives detailed descriptions of 24 mudras while Abhinaya Darpana enumerates 28. The literary scholars describe mudras as the true language of dance-drama. The dancer expresses emotions by showing his/her palms with various positions of the fingers.
Indian classical dance forms like Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Sattriya, and Kuchipudi. These dance forms use mudras to creatively express the sentiments of the tales as they are told and retold over generations.
In the Vedic period, these mudras were also used by priests while reciting mantras and performing religious rites and ceremonies. Once you include the mudras of dance, you’ll find that the total list stands close to 400 mudras.
While nearly all of them are used by dancers even today, only a handful are relevant to contemporary spiritual practices.
Final Thoughts: The Evolution and Obfuscation of Mudras
The epistemological aspects of mudras stand at the confluence of art, culture, religion, and spirituality. They have found permanent integration in the reverential practices of the Indian culture.
Anjali mudra, for instance, was integrated into the abhinandan, namaskara, and other forms of respectful greetings. Mudras like shastanga and ashtanga became ways to bow down to elders, grandparents, gurus, and deities as a form of veneration.
On one side of the spectrum, mudras have also been used as a tool to balance elements and cure irregularities or imbalances in the body. Many schools of yoga call they critical in attaining mental clarity and enriching spiritual practices.
On the other hand, the more skeptical view frowns upon the lack of scientific literature and clinical studies to validate any such claims. Although, given the improbability to monetize touching your fingers together, I’m not surprised at the lack of enthusiasm (and funding) for the subject.
The mind-body connection is intriguing and complex. You can approach it with science, spirituality, or both. Nevertheless, its intricacies elude our grasp and understanding, especially when we attempt to articulate them in words.
In any case, mudras are not a miraculous technique to change your predicament overnight. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
They are a gesture of communication, a seal of admiration, a quiet dedication that affirm your faith as an unspoken indicator. They help you venture inward through practices like yoga, pranayama, and meditation.
Even if they are placebos, they are only as beneficial or harmful as your mind is willing to believe. As is the case with all spiritual practices, language can be frustrating barrier in articulating the experiential without diluting it.
Recommended books for more information:
A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya - Swami Satyananda Saraswati
Kundalini Tantra - Swami Satyananda Saraswati
Mudra Vigyan; Philosophy and practice of yogic gestures