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If you type “yoga” into your search engine and look for images, you’re likely to come across someone standing in Natarajasana (Dancer Pose)–lifted heart, arched back, reaching one hand back to hold a foot high and reaching the other hand forward with a delicate gesture–thumb and forefinger making a circle and three fingers outstretched.
It’s an image that makes yoga and ayurveda teacher Indu Arora shake her head. The problem isn’t the demonstration of the asana. It’s that combination of the asana and the mudra.
“When you combine hand mudras like that with random asanas, you are making a mishmash,” says the author of Mudra: The Sacred Secret. In some instances, the pose and the hand gesture are energetically at odds with each other.
What’s a mudra?
We tend to think of mudras simply as gestures—putting our fingers and hands in various positions. But Arora explains that mudras have a much deeper meaning. They are a form of nonverbal communication with yourself, as well as a state of mind expressed through the body. Each is designed to leave a signature on your prana, or breath. “Because of that subtle shift in the breath, it changes the state of the mind,” she says. This makes it easier to get into “a certain state of awareness or consciousness.”
Mudras aren’t just the hand positions. They include any number of internal and external body positions, gestures, and locks. When you roll your tongue in Sitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath), you are creating a mudra. The same happens when you cross your eyes and gaze up between your eyebrows in Simhasana (Lion Pose). And each of the bandhas, or locks, is an internal mudra designed to contain and direct the prana in a particular way.
The same way that the term “yoga” refers to both the active practice and to the state of being that results from the practice, mudra describes the gestures as well as the resulting state of being. “Mudra is a state of mind expressed through the body,” Arora says.
Just as each asana has a purpose, each mudra has a job–and ideally the two work together.
How do mudras impact yoga practice?
In hand mudras, the thumb and each finger represent an element. According to yoga tradition, the thumb represents fire, the index finger, air; the middle finger, space or ether; ring finger, earth; and the pinky, water.
It is the positioning of the fingers and palms in relation to one another that creates energetic signals in the body. Holding different hand positions creates different effects on the body systems.
For mudras to be effective, we have to hold the position, be still, and wait for a pranic response. “You have to give it time and not interfere in the process,” Arora says. “Allow the time for it to affect the breath. And that breath leads to a state of mind that becomes a mudra.”
Because the impact of the mudra relies on stillness, mudras are appropriately used during meditation or in asanas that require you to sit or lie still and breathe, such as Sukhasana (Easy Pose) or Padmasana (Lotus Pose). If you’re using a mudra during an active pose, a moving meditation, or even an intentional pranayama practice, you may be negating the effect of the hand gesture.
When you practice a mudra that’s designed to lock energy with an asana or pranayama exercise designed to unblock energetic pathways, you are confusing the body, she says. Thus the mishmash.
“For example, in seated forward fold, Paschimottanasana, the main purpose of the asana is to stretch, which means allowing for extension. A mudra is a lock. So you are confusing the body,” Arora says. There’s a similar energetic friction when you practice Dancer Pose, an open-hearted extension, with Jnana Mudra, a closed circuit that you practice when you want to contain energy.
Using mudras the way they’re intended–to help direct the subtle energies of the body—may mean learning new ways to practice some very common mudras, including the ones below.
The praying-hands gesture that we generally call Anjali Mudra is more properly called “Namaskar” when you are respectfully greeting another person. “Namaste” is the plural form, reserved for when you are addressing a group.
Anjali Mudra means “palms full,” Arora says. “This is used when you are making an offering to a divinity, not a person.” This follows the Hindu tradition of holding flowers or some other offering between your palms to offer at an altar or in a temple.
Because this gesture symbolizes unity, it’s important to keep the fingers together, not spread out. Your thumbs will make contact with your heart, lips, forehead, and sometimes the crown of your head. It’s a gentle, quiet gesture. “When you join the hands with a clap, that is considered offensive,” she says.
And when you join the hands in this mudra, the gesture automatically communicates its meaning. You don’t have to say Namaste. “You know when you are writing something and you also bold and underline it? That is what it is like when you’re joining the hands and also saying ‘namaste,’” Arora says.
This mudra—the first finger and thumb forming a circle with the other three fingers extended—is familiar to people who have been practicing yoga for a while. The pronunciation of it? Less so. It’s tempting to pronounce it the way it looks: janana. In fact, it’s pronounced with a hard g sound and that first n is silent: g’yana.
“It is also called ‘the Wisdom Seal’ and it has an incredible depth of meaning,” Arora says. The index finger represents the individual mind or ego; the thumb represents conscious awareness and the collective mind. When the two gently meet, they represent the movement from duality to Oneness. The circle your fingers create represents nothingness–the non-attachment we are working toward with yoga.
“When we hold this gesture, we are communicating to our mind, to our breath, that we are beyond this multiplicity and moving toward Oneness,” she says. For this reason, it’s an appropriate hand position to hold during meditation.
“The best time to do this mudra is when you’re sitting still or reclined in meditation, or reciting mantras,” she says. Keep the hands relaxed so that the energy can flow. This is not the mudra to hold when you’re doing an intentional pranayama technique or in an active asana practice.
When it comes to Vishnu Mudra—the hand position used during Anuloma Viloma and Nadi Shodhana (two variations of Alternate Nostril Breathing)—the issue is not the shape you make with your hand as much as it is the placement of your hand during the practice.
Bring the index and middle finger of your right hand to the base of the thumb, and extend your thumb, your ring finger, and your pinky. Place your thumb and last two fingers at the bridge of your nose. Draw your fingers down your nose until the bony ridge yields to the soft cartilage. That is the place to apply gentle pressure to seal off the flow of breath.
The correct position of the hand triggers the two marma points—energy centers or neurolymphatic points. These connect to the lunar and solar energy channels, or nadis. As you inhale and exhale in this pranayama practice, don’t take your fingers away from your nose. Just release the pressure enough to allow the air to flow. If maintaining focus during the practice is a challenge, untuck your first and middle fingers and place them between your eyebrows at the third eye.
Apana Vayu Mudra
Arora urges the practice of a less familiar, but extremely therapeutic, mudra called Apana Vayu Mudra or Maha Mrityunjaya Mudra. To practice it, fold your index finger to touch the root of your thumb, then bring your middle and ring fingers to touch the tip of your thumb. Keep your pinky stretched out. Hold the mudra for at least two minutes.
“Think of it as the best therapeutic hand gesture—good for everyone, anytime of the day,” she says. It is associated with heart health and with digestion, so it may be helpful to practice before or after meals to help with bloating or gassiness.
“You can do it with one or both hands,” she says. “This can be held when you’re reading a book, watching television, going for a walk, sitting in meditation, before going to bed.”
Learning the meaning and mystery of mudras
Don’t worry if you’ve been practicing mudras all “wrong.” Arora isn’t judging–and says we shouldn’t judge ourselves.
“It’s important on this path to accept that at every different level, no matter what, we will be doing something wrong, because we don’t know it all,” she says. “To think that we know it all is the biggest illusion and the biggest mistake on your own path. We have to stay humble.”
Practicing mudras effectively includes continued study. “Mudra has become a part of selfie culture. It has become a part of posing,” she says. We may find ourselves holding positions without necessarily understanding the history, context, or the deeper meaning.
Learning new ways to practice familiar mudras–and understanding the impact mudras can have on your practice–may take a little effort. There are dozens of mudras with different purposes that result in different expressions on the physical and subtle body. Arora created a week-long mudra workshop to give students a deeper dive. But she says it’s a lifelong practice.
“Isn’t it better to be curious so that you can pair things up intelligently?”
Tamara Jeffries is a senior editor at Yoga Journal.