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Lesson 1: The history and origin of mudra and the science behind how they affect us physically mentally and emotionally

gabrielle 7 May 2024

When most people think of yoga they think of a physical practice involving stretching and strengthening exercises to create flexibility and balance but there is another way that yogis approach their practice. Rather than seeing the practice as postural, they think of the practice as a way to build energy. This energy is called Prana and it’s our life force. 

The physical postures help to detoxify the system while the breathing practices cleanse and purify the system. Once energy flows freely we can start to absorb prana more readily and seal it into our nervous system. The more prana we retain the easier it is to manage our stress. 

In yoga, mudras are the postures we use to seal energy into the body. These can be physical postures or they can be hand gestures called Hasta (hand) Mudras.  

Mudras can be done anywhere any time and can be used in combination with breathwork, visualisation and mantra. Mudras can help the healthy and the infirm. As long as you can use your hands you can use the healing power of mudra to calm and restore. 

Gertrude Hirschi the Author of Mudras, Yoga in Your Hands writes “Despite the stress that often rules our lives, we are forced to experience periods of rest from time to time. These rest times are also waiting periods. What happens to your mood when you are sitting in traffic, standing in line at the counter, missing the train, twiddling your thumbs at the computer, laying in bed with the flu or a broken bone, or after preparing a meal and your loved ones aren’t home? These can all be times of aggravation, inner conflict, or frustration. Or they can become times of regeneration and self-communion.” 

What is a mudra? 

Mudra is a lesser known term in yoga but no less potent. Its etymology is broken into two words Mud, that which pleases or brings joy and Dra, which relates to completeness. Mudra also means ‘seal’ like the seal on an envelope. Seals in ancient times were used as money and bore the symbolic impression of a certain dynasty. These seals were also called mudras. A mudra would therefore mean the deliverance of a characteristic impression of happiness or joy. 

Mudras in Tantra were mystic hand gestures used to focus subtle energy, transmit teachings through symbols and confer psychic protection or as an aid to Tantric meditation. 

Hirschi says, “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? 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. Mudras engage certain areas of the brain and exercise a corresponding influence on them.” 

In Kundalini yoga, which includes physical exercises, cleansing exercises, and breathing exercises. the hand mudras are used during the body postures to intensify their effect. 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.

Physical yoga postures also use mudra as locks or seals, known as bandhas, to achieve a particular pranic outcome. Mudras are believed to redirect prana and store it by blocking the flow in certain areas and can even activate latent dormant energy referred to as Kundalini.  

Mudras have been listed as Hatha practices and found entry into the Upanishads, where they are described as giving stability to the mind and intellect. 

Mudra can also refer to cereal grains used in Tantric rites.

Mudra can also mean woman in her role as Yogini.  

The origin of mudra is a mystery, but we do know that mudras have been around for thousands of years in India, China and Japan. Even western traditions use mudras like the prayer position or a gesture of benediction by a priest.

The science of mudras became hidden when words and language became powerful tools of expression. Originally, humans communicated through sign language and barely expended energy through sound and speech. As the communication through sign language spread the knowledge of mudras grew further. 

Symbolic marks or imprints are often found on the palms of statues and icons of Buddhas and Avatars. These marks indicate the power, virtue, or attribute of these God-incarnates.  

In Hinduism, Shiva appears the most with these hand drawings. Many kinds of marks exist. Several are to be found on just the palms of Gautama (Shakyamuni) Buddha alone.  

There are literally hundreds of mudra-gestures formed by the ancient yogis and sages; however, they are all based on four basic hand positions: the open palm, the hollowed palm, the closed fist, and the hand with fingertips together. 

Power in the Hands  

In the marriage ceremonies and sexual rites of Oriental cultures such as in Tantrism, Yoginis or Shaktis often paint Yantras and other symbolical diagrams on the palms of their hands with henna or red dye. These diagrams normally have intricate floral patterns and are magical and hypnotic. They are used to attract, to mesmerize, and to empower themselves and their sexual partners. 

Hasta Mudras and Scientific Thought on Mudras 

Hasta Mudras are gestures performed with the palms of the hand. They are used to bring about emotional balance, to connect to intuition and to heal the physical body. They purge the negativities of both, the physical as well as the subtle body.

According to Yogic science disease often begins in the mind sheath- manomaya kosha and then travels to the breath sheath, pranamaya kosha (our protective layer) If we don’t catch the disease at the breath sheath it moves to the physical body and it becomes something that we need to cure on a physical level.  

Nature has created the body in such a manner that through the spaces in the body, the head cavity ( the nose), the thorax ( the lungs), the abdominal ( digestion) and the pelvic cavity ( genitals and anus) the human body is able to automatically purge any accumulated imbalance from itself.  

Nature provides the human body with switches to control the elemental composition of the body. These switches are called mudras and they influence physiological processes linked with the currents of vital energy (Prana) and when switched on calm the mind and emotions.

When fingers touch each other in a mudra the motor cortex switches on at very subtle levels.  

For example: When we are physically threatened with something. I.e. a lion is chasing us, the fear we feel propels us to move our limbs and run away from danger. This happens because the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, feelings and rational thought is also responsible for locomotion.  

Mudras directly influence moods and emotions. Even right now as you are reading this your hands are in a very specific position which naturally enhances your ability to concentrate. It’s so automatic we don’t even notice it. Think of mudras as a conscious way to reconnect with what the body does naturally and unconsciously.  Because gesture is so natural to the body a prolonged and persistent mudra practice can bring about a definitive change and improvement to all the systems of the body.  

The sense of touch is also essential to our development. Studies have shown that children learn better when they are hugged and touched by their parents because touching releases oxytocin, the feel good hormone. By bringing fingers together, interlacing them or holding them in certain positions the mind and emotions relax. Instead of holding someone else’s hand, you hold your own. 

The Brains potential  

According to science we use about 10% of our brain potential. Mudra practices may change all that, as we use mudras to clear all of the vessels (called shrotas) both physical and non-physical of obstructions and blockages that prevent the brain from being nourished and developed.  

When the brain receives a good supply of energy (called “chi” or “prana”), new connections are formed between the neurons. This can result in a higher IQ, better memory retention, improved learning ability, and increased mental alertness. The brain forms new connections between the physical and etheric brain, which can make the brain more powerful and intelligent. These benefits are possible when the energy channels in the body are cleared and the brain is empowered. 

Mudras are hand gestures used in yoga and meditation that awaken the power of the hands to act therapeutically and magically. These hand gestures activate the psychic centres in the palms and fingertips to their optimal level, which allows the free flow of cosmic forces that can be used for various purposes.  

In some traditions it is believed that through the power of mudras, a mere touch can mesmerize, enchant, fascinate, or even awaken “the dead”.