From Hand to Heart


By Kelly McGonigal   |  

Yoga classes often begin and end with the hands in Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal, sometimes called Prayer

Position), as a reminder that your practice is a form of prayer or offering to your true Self. By joining your hands together like this, you make a physical

gesture of union—a symbolic reference of the union of your individual sense of self and the universal Self, in which you are aware of the

interconnectedness of all living beings. As you hold the gesture and infuse it with the intention of union, you might notice a shift take place in your mind

and your heart; you might clearly
see how to act from that sense of connection.

Mudra (hand gesture) is a method
of citta-bhavana, or cultivating a specific state of mind. There are dozens of mudras, and each represents a certain quality, such as compassion,

courage, or wisdom. It is
believed that, by practicing mudra, you awaken the seeds of these states within you.

Mudras can be found in the art and rituals of many sacred traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and hatha yoga. Many of the best-known mudras represent

the qualities of a bodhisattva, a yogic warrior who fights fearlessly to end the suffering of all beings. The origins of specific mudras are unknown, but

it is believed that each gesture is the natural outer expression of an enlightened inner state. You can think of mudras as the sign language that springs

from an open mind and an awakened heart.

Practicing mudra during asana, meditation, Pranayama, or kirtan (chanting) will help you quiet the background chatter of your mind. But the power of

these seemingly simple hand gestures goes far beyond adding focus to your practice. Mudras can remind you of two important pieces of yogic wisdom. First, you

are already whatever you seek to be. It’s easy to see courage and wisdom in the stories and images of Hindu deities or the Buddha. It’s much more difficult

to see that those qualities reside in you. Mudras can remind you that these are not traits that you either have or don’t have. They are states that you

consciously choose to feel and express. Second, mudra practice can help you find a way to translate good intentions into skillful actions. Mudras are the

bridge between your inner spiritual experience and your outer interactions with the world. Actions speak louder than words, and mudras are like prayers

translated into physical form.

You can include mudras in your yoga practice in many ways, and they can add inspiration to any meditation. Choose one whose meaning matches the focus of your

meditation—such as Lotus Mudra, which suggests heart opening, for lovingkindness meditation. To help you focus your mind and channel your energy

during pranayama or kirtan, choose a mudra such as Dharmachakra Mudra to reflect a state of devotion. Combining mudra and asana can enhance the power of a

pose. In a typical practice, it’s easy to focus so much on the alignment of your knees and shoulder blades that you fail to notice the alignment of your

mind. Adding a mudra reminds you of the meaning of a pose; Abhaya Mudra with a Warrior Pose, for example, will tap you into your fearlessness and

compassion.

Perhaps the greatest gift of mudra is that it honors your deepest, most heartfelt reasons for showing up on the mat. Mudra can become the catalyst for a yoga

practice that brings out the best in you. Try the five suggested mudras in asana or meditation to spark your inner compassion, strength, and wisdom.

Lotus Mudra

In Buddhism the lotus blossom represents a heart opening. The lotus flower blooms on the surface of water, with its roots deep below in mud—making it

a symbol of light and beauty emerging from darkness. Practice Lotus Mudra in Vrksasana (Tree Pose), hands

held at heart center. Feel connected to your roots, and remember that the greatest source of steadiness in life is an awakened heart. Or sit in Padmasana (Lotus Pose, shown here) and use this mudra as you practice metta (lovingkindness) meditation to

assist in your own heart’s awakening.

Bring the heels of the palms together, thumb tips and pinky fingertips touching. Keep your knuckles separate and let your fingers blossom like the petals

of a flower.

Vajrapradama Mudra

Vajra means "thunderbolt," which is considered in yoga to be an expression of powerfully focused energy. In Buddhism, the thunderbolt

represents the ultimate weapon against doubt. Vajrapradama Mudra symbolizes unshakable confidence, and practicing it can remind you of both your personal

power and your faith in something greater. Practice this mudra in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) to let go of self-doubt, mistrust of others, or hopelessness

in the face of obstacles.

Rest the hands on the heart center, with fingers crossing and thumbs wide. Feel the subtle movement of the breath under the hands.

Uttarabodhi Mudra

Uttara means "realization," and bodhi means "enlightenment." This mudra symbolizes the experience of nonseparateness,

described in the Yoga Sutra as samadhi. Use this mudra to remind yourself that strength comes from interdependence, not independence. Practice in

poses like Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) and Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III). In a seated meditation, hold this mudra at heart level and bring to

mind how connected you are to others.

Interlock the middle through pinky fingers, press the pointer fingers together, and pull the thumbs away from the pointer fingers, with the thumb tips

touching and palms slightly separated.

Abhaya Mudra

Abhaya means "fearlessness." This mudra is a gesture of protection and courage, and a reminder that the true yogic warrior offers

friendship, not attack. In Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) practice this mudra as a way of dropping your

sword. Raise the hand on the side of the lunging leg in Abhaya Mudra and let the back hand rest on the back thigh. For meditation bring both hands to Abhaya

Mudra while sitting in Virasana (Hero Pose). Bring to mind who and what you are willing to fight for in

life, through fearless and compassionate action.

Lift the arm, hand at shoulder height, elbow soft, and palm facing forward.

Dharmachakra Mudra

Dharmachakra translates as "wheel of dharma," and this gesture represents speaking your truth and serving from the heart. Dharmachakra Mudra

connects you to your deepest desire to create, teach, heal, or help. Sit in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle

Pose) or another seated pose, and think of an area of your life to which you want to devote your energy. Sit with the questions, "What is the next

step?" and "How can I serve?"

Bring the thumb tip of each hand to touch the tip of the index finger. Bring hands to heart level, right palm facing out and left hand facing the heart. The

two hands can touch lightly, left middle fingertip to right thumb tip.

Kelly McGonigal teaches psychology, yoga, and meditation at Stanford University. She grounds her teaching in Buddhist philosophy. She is also the editor of

the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Learn more at openmindbody.com.