What are Yoga Mudras?
The Sanskrit word mudra is translated as ‘gesture’ or ‘attitude’. Mudras can be described as psychic, emotional, devotional and aesthetic gestures or attitudes. Yogis have experienced mudras as attitudes of energy flow, intended to link individual pranic force with universal or cosmic force. The Kularnava Tantra traces the word mudra to the root mud, meaning ‘delight’ or ‘pleasure’, and dravay, the causal form of dru, which means ‘to draw forth’. Mudras are also defined as a ‘seal’, ‘short-cut’ or ‘circuit by-pass’.
Mudras are a combination of subtle physical movements which alter mood, attitude, and perception, and deepen awareness and concentration. A mudra may involve the whole body in a combination of asana, pranayama, bandha, and visualization techniques, or it may be a simple hand position. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika and other yogic texts consider mudra to be a yoganga, an independent branch of yoga, requiring a very subtle awareness. Mudras are introduced after some proficiency has been attained in asana, pranayama and bandha, and gross blockages have been removed.
Mudras have been described in various texts from antiquity to the present day in order to preserve them for posterity. However, such references were never detailed or clearly delineated as these techniques were not intended to be learned from a book. Practical instruction from a guru was always considered to be a necessary requisite before attempting them. Mudras are higher practices which lead to awakening of the pranas, chakras and kundalini, and which can bestow major siddhis, psychic powers, on the advanced practitioner.
Mudras and Prana
The attitudes and postures adopted during mudra practices establish a direct link between annamaya kosha, the physical body, manomaya kosha, the mental body and pranamaya kosha, the energy body. Initially, this enables the practitioner to develop awareness of the flow of prana in the body. Ultimately, it establishes pranic balance within the koshas and enables the redirection of subtle energy to the upper chakras, inducing higher states of consciousness.
Mudras manipulate prana in much the same way that energy in the form of light or sound waves is diverted by a mirror or a cliff face. The nadis and chakras constantly radiate prana which normally escapes from the body and dissipates into the external world. By creating barriers within the body through the practice of mudra, the energy is redirected within. For example, by closing the eyes with the fingers in shanmukhi mudra, the prana being radiated through the eyes is reflected back. In the same way, the sexual energy emitted through vajra nadi is redirected to the brain through the practice of vajroli mudra.
Tantric literature states that once the dissipation of prana is arrested through the practice of mudra, the mind becomes introverted, inducing states of pratyahara, sense withdrawal, and dharana, concentration. Because of their ability to redirect prana, mudras are important techniques for awakening kundalini. For this reason they are incorporated extensively in kriya and kundalini yoga practices.
A Scientific Look At Mudras
In scientific 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. Each mudra sets up a different link and has a correspondingly different effect on the body, mind and prana. The aim is to create fixed, repetitive postures and gestures which can snap the practitioner out of instinctive habit patterns and establish a more refined consciousness.
Five Groups Of Yoga Mudras
The yoga mudras can be categorized into approximately five groups, which are described as follows.
1. Hasta (hand mudras)
The hand mudras we will discuss here are meditative mudras. They redirect the prana emitted by the hands back into the body. Mudras which join the thumb and index finger engage the motor cortex at a very subtle level. They generate a loop of energy which moves from the brain down to the hand and then back again. Conscious awareness of this process rapidly leads to internalization. Techniques included in this category are:
2. Mana (head mudras)
These practices form an integral part of kundalini yoga and many are meditation techniques in their own right. They utilize the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and lips. Techniques included in this category are:
- Shambhavi mudra
- Nasikagra drishti
- Khechari mudra
- Kaki mudra
- Bhujangini mudra
- Bhoochari mudra
- Akashi mudra
- Shanmukhi mudra
- Unmani mudra
3. Kaya (postural mudras)
These practices utilize physical postures combined with breathing and concentration. Techniques included in this category are:
4. Bandha (lock mudras)
These practices combine mudra and bandha. They charge the system with prana and prepare it for kundalini awakening. Techniques included in this category are:
5. Adhara (perineal mudras)
These techniques redirect prana from the lower centres to the brain. Mudras concerned with sublimating sexual energy are in this group. Techniques included in this category are:
Between them these five groups engage substantial areas of the cerebral cortex. The comparatively large number of head and hand mudras reflects the fact that the operation and interpretation of information coming in from these two areas occupies approximately fifty percent of the cortex.
Mudras are performed either in combination with or after asana and pranayama.