Anyone who’s ever heard the expression “talk to the hand” knows that gestures communicate just as powerfully as spoken words. Think about the emotions stirred by loud clapping, a thumbs-up sign, or even being given “the bird.” Hands can express quite a lot in very simple, clear terms. Beyond sending messages, though, gestures can also be used to move energy in different ways throughout the body.
Popular in both Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions, mudras (Sanskrit for “gesture”) are not just religious symbols; these arm, hand and body positions are used in Indian classical dance, martial arts and yoga as well. In yoga, the purpose of mudras is to combine hand gestures with breathing exercises in order to stimulate different parts of the body and guide the energy flow. These mudras can greatly affect both mind and body, to the extent that they can have healing effects on different ailments.
One of the first things a new student learns in yoga class is Anjali mudra, or prayer position—palms pressed together in front of the heart. Anjali mudra, also known as Atmanjali mudra, has calming effects on the mind and body, helping to create peace, harmony and balance. Many styles of yoga include Anjali mudra throughout a practice to help students re-center after moving through a number of postures. This mudra is also used to express gratitude or respect (“Namaste”).
According to Gertrud Hirschi, the author of Mudras: Yoga in Your Hands, “The very nature of mudras is repose, silence, and peace.” Part of the beauty of mudras is that, since they require only your hands, they can be practice anywhere at any time.
Most often, a conscious mudra practice is done in a comfortable seated position, either cross-legged or kneeling. Calming mudras can be practiced with slow, deep breathing; energizing mudras work best with intensified rhythmic breath.
Because mudras can engage certain areas of the brain, they can have a great physical effect on the body as well. Just as Chinese medicine teaches that specific places on the hands are connected to other areas of the body, affected by acupressure or acupuncture, Ayurveda (an ancient Indian healing system) connects individual organs with the fingers. Taking this into consideration, moving the fingers and hands in different ways can have varying effects on other parts of the body.
For example, Surya mudra is believed to stimulate the thyroid, helping with cholesterol and weight reduction and digestive problems. This mudra is performed by bending the ring finger to the base of the thumb and pressing it gently with the thumb. The other fingers are straight. Practice the mudra with both hands, palms turned upward. Hold the gesture for 10-15 minutes, two or three times a day; caution is advised, however, that over-practicing this mudra can lead to overheating.
Mudras can be practiced for simple relaxation and centering. They can also provide heath benefits for ailments ranging from dry cough to psoriasis! For guidance on how to perform individual mudras according to your own health issue, check out MudraGuide.com.
Reviewed May 19, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton
Hillary Easom is a yoga teacher and mom of two young children who often uses mudras to help calm her down. She believes it’s amazing how simply folding her hands can slow her racing heartbeat!