The Mudras

The Sanskrit word mudra is translated as ‘gesture’ or ‘attitude’ and the term ‘mudra’ has many meanings. Foremost it is used to describe a position of the hands or a gesture, or in some cases a seal or symbol. In ‘The Yoga Tradition’, Georg Feuerstein explains the term mudra as follows (page 359)

 ‘The word mudra is derived from the root mud, to delight in, because mudras bring delight (mudâ) to the deities and cause the dissolution (drava) of the mind. But the term mudra also denotes seal, and it is employed in Tantric contexts in this sense, because the hand gestures (or in Hatha Yoga, the body postures) ‘seal’ the body, thus bringing joy. They are also symbolic representations of inner states’

 In addition to hand gestures, mudras can come in the form of eye positions, body postures and breathing techniques. In all cases they are said to ‘vividly depict certain states or processes of consciousness. Conversely, specific positions can also lead to the states of consciousness that they symbolise.’1 It is thought that mudras engage certain areas of the brain and exercise an effect on them, and also on the physical aspects of the body.

In Yoga, mudras are experienced as attitudes of energy flow, intended to link individual pranic force with universal or cosmic force. They are also described as: ‘a combination of subtle physical movements which alter mood, attitude and perception, and which deepen awareness and concentration. A mudra may involve the whole body in a combination of asana, pranayama, bandha and visualisation techniques or it may be a simple hand position.’3 Ancient Yoga texts such as the Hatha pradipika consider Mudras to be a separate branch of Yoga itself requiring a much more subtle awareness and therefore mudras are usually introduced after some proficiency in asana, pranayama, mudra and bandha has been achieved.

Origin of Mudras

There are said to be 108 mudras (the number 108 being sacred to Hindus) but there are in fact many more. Georg Feuersteing states in ‘The Yoga Tradition’ (page 359) that ‘according to the Nirvana Tantra  fifty five are most commonly used.’ Hatha Yoga has approximately 25 mudras (including eye and body positions, and the locks or bandhas) and these are used to great effect in Kundalini Yoga to intensify the effect of the asanas.

Mudras are found throughout the world. We are all familiar today with specific gestures used to seal thoughts and conversations. Other gestures which have their origins in history are shaking hands, crossing fingers for luck, holding hands, clapping, raising the eyes, shutting the eyes, peace signs, V for victory and of course the ‘rude’ signals all too familiar in today’s society.

In India there are mudras and hastas (arm gestures) which depict Hindu gods such as Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver) and Shiva (destroyer).

Mudras are also practised in tantric rituals and also play a large role in Buddhism. Their origin in these rituals is obscure but is thought to go back to Vedic times where sacrificial ceremonies required meticulous handling of implements used in the ceremony. The other rich source of mudras in ancient time is from Indian dance which also contains gestures of the hands, eyes and body which complete the story in the dance without the use of words. Gertrud Hirschi (Mudras – Yoga in your hands (Weiser Books, 2000) page 6) quotes Ingrid Ramm Bonwitt on this subject: ‘The hands are the bearers of important symbols, which are still universally understood in the East today. With his or her hands, the Indian dancer expresses the life of the universe.’

 The Yoga Mudras

 There are five groups of yoga mudras:

 1.Hasta (hand) mudras

These are usually meditative mudras which redirect the prana being emitted by the hands back into the body. It is thought that mudras which join the thumb and index finger engage the motor cortex of the brain at a subtle level. This generates a ‘loop of energy which moves from the brain down the hand and then back again. The following mudras are included in this category:

  • Jnâna mudra (psychic gesture of knowledge)
  • Chin mudra (psychic gesture of consciousness)
  • Yoni mudra (attitude of the womb or source)
  • Bhairava mudra (fierce or terrifying attitude)
  • Hridaya mudra (heart gesture)

 2.Mana (head) mudras

These mudras form an integral part of Kundalini Yoga and many can be used as meditative techniques on their own. Head mudras utilise the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and lips. The following mudras are included in this category:

  • Shambhavi mudra (eyebrow centre gazing)
  • Nasikagra drishti (nose tip gazing)
  • Khechari mudra (tongue lock/Space walking seal)
  • Kaki mudra (the crow’s beak)
  • Bhujangini mudra  (Cobra respiration)
  • Bhoochari mudra  (gazing into nothingness)
  • Akashi mudra (awareness of inner space)
  • Shanmukhi mudra (closing the seven gates)
  • Unmani mudra (the attitude of mindlessness)

3.Kaya (Postural) mudras

These mudras use physical practices combined with breathing and concentration. The following mudras are included in this category:

  • Prana mudra (invocation of energy)
  • Vipareeta Karani mudra (inverted psychic attitude)
  • Yoga mudra (attitude of psychic union)
  • Pashinee mudra (folded psychic attitude)
  • Manduki mudra (gesture of the frog)
  • Tadagi mudra (Barrelled abdomen technique)

4. Bandha (lock) mudras

These practices combine mudra and bandha to charge the system with prana and prepare the body for awakening of Kundalini. The following mudras are included in this category:

  • Maha mudra (great psychic attitude)
  • Maha bheda mudra (the great separating attitude)
  • Maha vedha mudra (the great piercing attitude)

 5. Adhara ( perineal) mudras

These techniques redirect prana from the lower centres to the brain. Mudras concerned with subliminating sexual energy are also in this group.

  • Ashwini mudra (horse gesture)
  • Vajroli/Sahajoli mudra (thunderbolt/spontaneous psychic attitude)

In addition the following mudras are associated with Gautama Buddha and are closely related to his teachings. 

  •  Atmanjali mudra (gesture of prayer)
  • Abhaya mudra (gesture for promising protection)
  • Varada mudra (gesture of granting wishes or mercy)
  • Bhumisparsha mudra (gesture of enlightenment)

Other ritual mudras mentioned in ‘The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein include the following on pages 360-363:

  • Anjali mudra (Seal of honouring)
  • Avhani mudra (seal of invitation)
  • Sthapana Karmani mudra (seal of fixing action)
  • Samnidhapani mudra (Seal of bringing close)
  • Samnirodhani mudra (Seal of full control)
  • Dhenu Mudra (Cow seal)
  • Matsya Mudra (Fish Seal)
  • Kurma Mudra (Tortoise Seal)
  • Padma Mudra (Lotus seal)
  • Yoni Mudra (Seal of the womb/vulva)
  • Shankha mudra (Conch seal)
  • Shiva linga mudra (Seal of Shiva’s mark)
  • Cakra Mudra (Wheel Seal)

Other Hatha Yoga Mudras not previously mentioned are mentioned in ‘The Yoga Tradition’ on pages 395 –396.

  • Nabho mudra (sky seal)
  • Shakti calani mudra (power-stirring seal)
  • Pashini mudra (bird catching seal)
  • Kaki mudra (crow seal)
  • Matangi mudra (elephant seal)

Bibliography

Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, (Hohm Press, 2001)

Gertrud Hirschi, Mudras – Yoga in your hands (Weiser Books, 2000)

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha (Bihar School of Yoga, 1999 – revised)

Hatha Pradipika of Swatmarama Edited by Dr M.L Gharote and Parimal Devnath, 2001, The Lonavla Yoga Institute.

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