Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
When we meditate, we often think of “going inside.” We close our eyes and focus our attention on some internal
process occurring spontaneously, like our breathing, or performed deliberately, like the repetition of a mantra.
The logical assumption—and an idea reinforced by our teachers—is that the object of our meditation, our
authentic Self, is somewhere “inside” us. Accompanying this belief is the idea that the “outside” world, with its
distracting hustle and bustle, is an obstacle to meditation. Patanjali outlines this classical view of meditation
in the Yoga Sutra. For him, the material world was devoid of Self, and was ultimately a hindrance to Self-realization.
The classical yogi is often compared to a tortoise retracting its limbs and head into its shell, as here in the Bhagavad
Having drawn back all his senses
from the objects of sense, as a tortoise
draws back into its shell,
that man is a man of firm wisdom.
(Bhagavad Gita 2:40, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
But some yoga schools are founded on the belief in a divine Self that creates, sustains, and pervades the surrounding
world and its inhabitants. In the words of the Tantric scholar Daniel Odier, the universe is an uninterrupted density
of consciousness fulfilled by the Self. While the outside world is infinitely diverse, it’s unified in that divine Self. “Inside” and “outside” are thus better understood as relative rather than absolute locations.
According to these schools of thought, if we exclude the outside world from our meditation, we figuratively cut the
Self in half, and the best we can hope for is a partial Self-realization. “Going inside” is an important first step
in establishing what we think of as inner awareness. But then, from this center of awareness, the next step is to reach out and embrace the outer world as not different from what we think of as our inner Self.
the seal of happiness
Most of the traditional hatha yoga books from the 14th to 19th centuries mention this kind of “bifocal” practice,
which is commonly known as Shambhavi Mudra—the seal (mudra) that produces happiness (shambhavi).
Shambhu (from which the word shambhavi is derived), or Shiva, then refers to the Self-realized state,
which produces happiness. A mudra is thought to be like a sealing device with a raised surface, like a signet ring.
In the same way the ring stamps an impression on a soft waxlike surface, so Shambhavi Mudra stamps, or seals, its
divine imprint on the receptive consciousness of the meditator, who is transformed into an image of the Divine.
Through some type of physical or mental technique, a mudra also seals, or closes off, a normally open energy channel, thereby sealing in and recirculating the body’s energy to intensify the meditative effort.
You might be familiar with hand seals (the hasta or kara mudras), which are simple configurations of the hands and fingers that are typically performed during Pranayama or meditation. But there are two other categories of mudras: consciousness seals (citta mudras) and body seals (kaya mudras). Consciousness seals are detailed visualizations said to seal consciousness in certain areas of the body. Body seals are exercises that involve shaping or joining different body parts or organs, such as the lips, tongue, or belly; for example, the Crow Seal (Kaki Mudra) involves pursing the lips like a crow’s beak and sipping in air. It’s claimed that mudras can ward off disease, extend one’s life span, and if performed properly, lead to Self-realization. About two dozen mudras (including their close relatives, the bandhas, or locks) play a central role in traditional hatha yoga, though today the body and consciousness seals are mostly neglected or forgotten in the Western asana-centric practice.
Shambhavi Mudra, then, is an open-eyed meditation designed to integrate (or perhaps reintegrate) our inner and
outer worlds. In the historic texts, the instructions for practicing Shiva’s Seal don’t extend beyond practicing
the seal in meditation (see “Practicing the Seal” below). But if you truly want to embrace the outer world through
meditation, it seems appropriate to bring the practice of Shiva’s Seal out into the world.
You might first try applying Shambhavi Mudra during your asana practice, equating whatever asana you’re working on with the outside world. Attempt to identify with that world in such a way that you no longer do but instead
become that pose. Then you might be ready to bring shambhavi awareness into your daily life, cautiously at
first, maybe while walking down a quiet street or sitting in the park, gradually expanding the reach of your embrace.
Eventually through Shambhavi Mudra, as Hindu scholar Mark Dyczkowski writes in his book The Doctrine of
Vibration, the power of awareness “manifests itself on two levels simultaneously,” that is, individually and
cosmically, so that these “two aspects are experienced together in the blissful realization that results from the
union of the inner and outer states of absorption.” It is in this way that we are sealed and stamped with
Practicing the Seal
Begin by imagining your body’s subtle energy channels, or nadis, which traditionally number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. They’re often compared to nerves or veins, but I think a more apt analogy is to think of them as ocean currents, flowing from a spot behind the bridge of the nose. This spot has enormous significance in yoga,
and is known variously as the Wisdom Eye (jnana chaksus), the Command Wheel (ajna chakra), or as we’ll
call it, Shiva’s Station (Shiva sthana).
For the first stage of the meditation, close your eyes, “go inside,” and for a few minutes slowly circulate your
consciousness like a subtle fluid through these imaginary channels, until you sense it percolating in every cell
of your body. Then, just as slowly, imagine drawing this fluid out of the channels and gathering it to a point in
Shiva’s Station. Imagine that no fluid consciousness can leak out of this point.
The old texts don’t describe any preliminaries to stage 2, but I think it’s best to take a few baby steps before
attempting full Shambhavi Mudra. Begin in a darkened room facing a blank wall. With your awareness fixed firmly
in Shiva’s Station, the source of your fluid consciousness, open your eyes about halfway, steady them, try not to
blink (half-closed eyes will help to still your blink reflex), and, to paraphrase the traditional instruction,
“Look outside, but don’t see.” Of course, in a dark room staring at a blank wall, there’s not much to see anyway.
What you’re doing here is twofold: You’re getting accustomed to meditating with open eyes, and you’re providing a
situation in which your attention won’t be tempted to rush out into the world.
Once you’re comfortable with this practice, illuminate the room and continue to stare at the blank wall. Next,
turn away from the wall and focus on a familiar but relatively featureless object, like a yoga block, positioned
on the floor in front of you. Finally, as you become more comfortable with the practice, look “out” into your practice
What happens next, to paraphrase Patanjali, is that the physical and psychological grip of your limited individual
body-mind relaxes. Your consciousness expands beyond its normally perceived boundaries to encounter what Patanjali calls the “endless,” the consciousness that pervades all space. At this stage of the meditation, I often experience a -feeling of great openness and peace, as if “I” am still there, but there’s more to that “I” than I am usually aware of.
Contributing editor Richard Rosen is the director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California.