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YOGA in your HANDS
By GERTRUD HIRSCHI, Christine M. Grimm
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1998 Verlag Hermann Verlag KG
All rights reserved.
Exploring the Mudra Concept
WHAT ARE MUDRAS?
Mudra is a term with many meanings. It is used to signify a gesture, a mystic position of the hands, a seal, or even a symbol. However, there are eye positions, body postures, and breathing techniques that are called mudras. These symbolic finger, eye, and body postures can vividly depict certain states or processes of consciousness. Conversely, specific positions can also lead to the states of consciousness that they symbolize. What does this mean in concrete terms? For example, a person who frequently and fervently does the gesture of fearlessness, which can often be seen in the depiction of Indian deities, will also be freed from fearfulness with time. So mudras engage certain areas of the brain and / or soul and exercise a corresponding influence on them. However, mudras are also effective on the physical level. I discuss this in the section called "Mudras and Other Hand Therapies."
We can effectively engage and influence our body and our mind by bending, crossing, extending, or touching the fingers with other fingers. Isn't this wonderful?
In Hatha Yoga, there are 25 mudras. These also include eye and body positions (asanas) and locks (bandhas). In this book, I will only briefly touch on them and mainly describe the hand mudras. Especially in Kundalini Yoga, the hand mudras are used during the body postures to intensify their effect. The kundalini expert Lothar-Rüdiger Lütge explains: "In this respect, Kundalini Yoga assumes that every area of the hand forms a reflex zone for an associated part of the body and the brain. In this way, we can consider the hands to be a mirror for our body and our mind."
As I recently meditated on the term mudra, I became particularly aware of the symbol of a lock. A lock always conceals a secret. We frequently use gestures in an unconscious way to seal something; for example, when giving special weight to a decision, or reaching an agreement with another person, or even with cosmic consciousness. In precisely the same way, we may also seal something with our inner forces—we reach an understanding with ourselves. I don't believe we will ever completely understand the essence of the mudras. The enigmatic touches on the Divine—so each mudra ultimately creates a special connection to cosmic consciousness (or however you prefer to call the Divine). This symbolism, in particular, is the basis of the best-known hand mudra of yoga, the Chin Mudra.
The thumb is symbolic of cosmic (divine) and the index finger is symbolic of individual (human) consciousness. The ultimate or primary goal of yoga is the oneness of humanity with cosmic consciousness. With this gesture, the human being expresses this desire, this longing. It is interesting to note that both these fingers belong to the metal element in Chinese Five Element Theory (see Appendix C for more about this topic). Metal is the material that is the best conductor—it conducts energy. According to this teaching, the metal element also creates the connection with the cosmic world, and inspiration and intuition dwell in this element. The index finger represents inspiration (energy from the outside) and the thumb stands for intuition (inner energy). In this gesture, intuition and inspiration form a closed unity. The power of the microcosm and the macrocosm are connected and mutually fructify each other. We see that if we dig into the depths of the ancient teachings long enough—or go far enough into the heights—we will find ourselves at the other end again.
ORIGIN OF MUDRAS
The origin of the mudras is a mystery. Mudras are not only found in Asia, but they are also used throughout the entire world. In their rituals, our European ancestors certainly were familiar with specific gestures, which they used to underline and seal what they thought and wanted to say. During the Christianization of the Nordic peoples, many gestures were initially prohibited, such as invoking the gods with raised arms. Later, these gestures were partially integrated into the Christian teachings. If we observe the various gestures made by a priest saying the Mass, we can perhaps sense how these ancient peoples expressed themselves. But our everyday life is also characterized by gestures, the origins of which hardly anyone knows today: crossing our fingers for someone, clapping our hands as applause, the handshake, holding hands, or "giving someone the finger" to display our low opinion of them.
In India, mudras are an established component of all religious activities. The various mudras and hastas (arm poses) are significant in the depiction of Hindu gods. In addition to body postures and attributes, they also represent the distinguishing characteristics of various deities. The person at prayer sees a special power, capability, and strength of character in these mystical hand poses. The best-known mudras of the major gods Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Destroyer) are numbers 41, 42, 43, 46, 47, and 48.
The mudras are just as familiar in Indian dance, where the hands, eyes, and body movements act and / or dance the entire drama without words. Mudra specialist Ingrid Ramm-Bonwitt describes this beautifully, "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. Through its variety of interpretive possibilities, the rich symbolism of the dance's language of gestures gains a greater significance for the mind than words could express.... The spiritual meaning of the mudras found its perfect expression in Indian art. The gestures of the deities depicted in Hindu and Buddhist art ... symbolize their functions or evoke specific mythological occurrences."
Mudras are also practiced in Tantric rituals. They play a large role in Buddhism, where six mudras are very familiar in the pictorial depictions of Gautama Buddha. These are very closely related to his teachings and his life (see mudra numbers 41, 43, 46, 47, 48, and 49).
Hatha Yoga also expresses the many states of mind, such as mourning, joy, anger, and serenity, through gestures and body positions. They realize that the reverse also applies—certain gestures can positively influence the psyche.
How Are Mudras Practiced?
Quite simply: Form your hands and place the fingers as they are shown in the various illustrations. When you do this, the pressure of the fingers should be very light and fine, and your hands should be relaxed. But perhaps you may notice that this isn't all that simple! The fingers are rebellious, too inflexible, and the hands slip away or tire quickly. The flexibility of the hands has a direct relationship to the flexibility of the entire body. If we are tense at a certain place in the body, this tension will be expressed at a corresponding area in the hands. Even a person's age can be determined on the basis of the spread fingers—at least this is what the Chinese healing practitioners claim.
My body and my hands have become very flexible through many years of yoga practice. Yet, I can only do the mudra against backaches, which I need the most, with one hand because I have to use the other to hold the fingers in position. At the beginning, you may perhaps also have problems in doing some of the mudras with both hands because you will first have to arrange and hold the fingers of one hand with the other. If this is the case, just do the mudra with the one hand for the time being. If the fingers that should actually be stretched curl on their own again, simply press them onto your thigh or some other place where you can rest them. With time, the tensions will dissolve in the fingers or hand, as well as in the corresponding area of the body.
Do the mudra as well as possible and the effect will appear in any case. In the beginning, it may be difficult to keep the fingers extended. When the fingers get tired, they give in. With time, I am certain that you will gain more strength in your hands, become more flexible, and will be able to use both hands. You will also feel more refreshed and flexible. It is also possible that you will feel somewhat younger.
Even when you have become stronger and more flexible, always treat your fingers in a careful and loving way. It doesn't matter why you are doing the mudra, it should not only be a healing gesture, but also a holy gesture.
Mudras can be done while seated, lying down, standing, and walking. Be sure that your body posture is symmetrical and centered, and that you are as relaxed and loose as possible. If you sit on a chair while doing them, your back should be straight and your feet should have good contact with the floor. If you do them while lying down, resting on your back is naturally the most suitable position. If you stay in this position for a long period of time, put a small pillow beneath the back of your head to take the strain off the neck. To relieve your back, you can put a cushion under the hollow of the knee or thigh. It is important to remain comfortable and relaxed, for any tension will also hinder the inner flow of energy and we want something new to flow with the mudras. If you do them while walking, make sure you move in an even, calm, and rhythmic way. If you stand while doing them, keep your legs shoulder distance apart. The knees should be relaxed, and the tips of the toes must point forward.
If you have a bit more time, you can also do the mudras in a seated meditation position—this will turn them into a longer period of meditation. When you do this, take into consideration the following basic principles of meditation technique:
Sit with an upright pelvis and a straight spinal column on a stable cushion. Both knees should be flat on the ground or at the same height (if necessary, support the lower knee with a cushion until it is at the same height as the other knee).
Let the hands relax on the thighs.
Let the shoulders fall back and down in a relaxed way; your chest should be open and free.
Pull the chin back a bit, and let the neck be long and relaxed.
Breathe in an even, slow, flowing, and gentle way.
Never end the meditation suddenly. Always vigorously stretch your arms and legs.
You can also form a mudra and think of something else at the same time. However, I have found that the effect is accelerated and intensified when you simultaneously assume a meditative position, focus on your hands, and observe your breathing. Observing the normal flow of the breath or influencing and directing the breath is a very important way of supporting the mudra. How to do this is explained for the individual mudras. Corresponding visualizations and affirmations can be used so that this never becomes just a routine matter. These also intensify the effects of the mudras. For some exercises, I am no longer certain what has the greatest effect—the mudra, the breathing technique, the visualized image, or the spoken word. But who cares? It fulfills its purpose, lets you feel good, and makes you happy!
Where and When Can You Practice Mudras?
You can actually practice the mudras at any time and in any place. Modern authors take the view that mudras can even be done while stuck in traffic, watching television, or when you have to wait for someone or something. However, my opinion differs somewhat from this perspective for the following reasons: mudras should be done in a meditative, harmonious mood. Can you guarantee that while stuck in traffic you won't be stressed and fuming with annoyance because you aren't getting to where you want to go, or that you sit in front of the television because you are "relaxing" by watching a hard-core thriller or vehement political debate on taxes?
I invite you to do an interesting test: place your thumb and index finger together and think about something wonderful for a few minutes while you do this (an experience in nature, winning at sports, sex, etc.)—it doesn't matter what it is, as long as it lets you float on pink clouds. Now try to feel the energy that flows from the index finger to the thumb. Finished! Now do the same thing again, but this time imagine something terribly sad. Once again, feel the energy of the fingers. Do you notice a difference? You will certainly have discovered how dull the flow of energy felt the second time.
This little experiment shows me how important it is to practice mudras while in a good mood and in a positive atmosphere. Feelings and thoughts influence the energy fields and the flow of energy in a negative or positive manner, even if we don't notice it. This is no joking matter. As I will explain later, we want to engage these energy fields in a positive sense. This is why the basic tone of our momentary mood and situation is so important. However, there are also mudras and breathing techniques for serenity, patience, and composure. These can be used to initially get into the right mood. For example, when stuck in traffic, standing in line, or sitting on a train, we can first calm down and then begin practicing the actual mudra.
When holding a mudra while watching television or listening to the radio, one further factor should be taken into consideration—the time we spend on a mudra should always be a time of self-communion as well. The only exceptions are special programs or music with a much more calming than stimulating effect on the nerves. If we have planned our days so poorly that we don't have three peaceful minutes, if we let ourselves constantly be exposed to the radio or television from our first waking moments until we fall asleep at night, then mudras actually have no place in our lives.
Mudras can truly be practiced almost anywhere and at any time, but only when we can also withdraw within ourselves almost anywhere and at any time. This really isn't all that difficult and can be learned, like everything else. It concerns our health—we need a few silent minutes now and then every day. These silent moments can be the most precious to us; and like the salt in the dough that gives the bread its good taste, silence adds the right spice to our lives.
A good time to practice mudras is a few minutes before getting up and a few minutes before falling asleep, before or after meals, when you walk somewhere (we all need to walk a certain distance every day), while on public transportation, or during breaks at work.
However, don't just try out a number of mudras in a row at random. Specifically select just one or two. Practice these according to a time plan. Decide when, how long, and how often you want to do them every day. Or plan to fill both the usual and unpredictable times with them when you have to wait. Practice only these mudras over the next few days. The effects may occur immediately, especially if you have acute complaints or mood swings. But it may also be that the effects you hope for only occur after several days. For chronic complaints, it usually takes several weeks or even months before an improvement takes place. Only patience can help here. Moreover, it is always worth it since many new perceptions can be gained and wonderful moments experienced, in addition to the desired healing. You should also know that when something changes within, there is a corresponding change in your surrounding world.
Every healing within also brings healing into your world. An illness in the body is always connected with thoughts and feelings that make people sick. A certain amount of time is required before healing takes place on every level. So allow yourself the time—practice ardently and remain completely serene and confident while doing so. Then the chances of healing will be the greatest.
How Long is a Mudra Held?
The great masters do not agree on the length of time to practice a mudra position. The Indian mudra researcher Keshav Dev recommends holding one mudra per day for 45 minutes; chronic complaints can be eliminated in this way. If it isn't possible to do this, these 45 minutes can be divided into three time periods of 15 minutes each. The kinesiologist Kim da Silva, who has tested the effect of mudras over longer periods of time, recommends an individually, precisely determined time for holding each mudra. If you use a mudra as support for some type of therapy or to heal a chronic complaint, then I think it is beneficial to use it routinely, like a medication: every day at the same time and for the same length of time.
Mudras that are used for acute complaints—such as respiratory and circulation problems, flatulence, exhaustion, or inner restlessness—should be discontinued when the appropriate effect is achieved. Other mudras can be practiced for 3 to 30 minutes, two to four times a day. Using a stopwatch is the ideal way to time them. The time specifications that I have assigned to the individual mudras are meant to be an orientation aid, but not a dogma. You will also notice that your hands, especially the fingers, will become increasingly sensitive and respond to the mudras much more quickly after they have been given some training. If you need 5 minutes at the start to feel the effect of a mudra, in time you will only need 10 breaths. This is a wonderful experience! However, if you are confined to your bed, then you have enough time and should permit yourself to make good use of it. Also let the visualizations and affirmations continue to have their lasting effect afterward. You can use this time for your own benefit, for the healing of the body, mind, and soul.
Excerpted from MUDRAS by GERTRUD HIRSCHI, Christine M. Grimm. Copyright © 1998 Verlag Hermann Verlag KG. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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