What is a Mudra?
Many oriental religions, such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, have a meticulous series of gestures, movements and rites that involve specific items, costumes and parts of the body.
We can compare them to the meaning of some Christian traditions, like the prayer, the rite in churches and costumes during festivities.
Among all the traditions followed in those religions, symbolic gestures fill an important spiritual role and therefore are essential in the religions themselves.
We are talking about mudra, a Sanskrit word that indicates ritual gestures and poses, which involve the entire body, or sometimes just the hands.
Mudras are connected to some important Indian dances and yoga, connected with breathing exercises and yoga positions to enhance specific parts of the body.
Each religion has its own gestures, but some of them are in common, so it’s really important to know the main mudras for each religion and their application on yoga.
But why are mudras connected with yoga, and why are they so important?
It has been proved that the use of specific gestures of hands and fingers positively influences your body and mind, bringing you joy and inner peace and activating your Muladhara.
They can connect your body to your mind, ease pain, change your mood and make you feel more energized; in other words, they channel the vital flow of energy, using it to modify your connection to the inner world.
There are currently 400 mudras we know, which are spread among religions and practices, which means it is pretty tough to know and master all of them.
In this article, we will see the different mudras, divided into religions and practices, to have a general view of the world of mudras.
Then, we will focus on some of the mudras used for yoga purposes (the goal of this article) and explain how to do them and their positive effects to your body.
Finally, we will discuss the main benefits of mudras and how to get the best of them.
What does Mudra mean for each religion and practice?
The name Mudra derives from Sanskrit roots and means “mark”, “gesture”, “seal”.
It is possible to observe different mudras in religious iconographies, and they assume specific meanings depending on the religion.
For example, Buddhism and Hindu describe two different kind of mudras, “asamyuta” (which means “one-hand”) and “samyuta” (“two-hand”), but most of them are practised two-handed, and some mudras are in common.
They are connected with “asanas” (“seated posture”) and are used for meditation, or even to tell stories.
In fact, some of the main Buddhist mudras describe moments in the life of Gautama Buddha: let’s see some examples.
We can encounter the Abhaya Mudra, (“sign of fearlessness”), which is usually made while standing with the right arm bent and raised to shoulder height, the palm facing forward, the fingers closed, pointing upright and the left hand resting by the side.
It was used by Buddha while he was attacked by an elephant to calm it, so it is a sign of protection and to deflect hostility.
Then there is the Dhyana Mudra (“meditation mudra”), which his essential in yoga too, where the two hands are placed on the lap, right hand on left with fingers fully stretched (four fingers resting on each other and the thumbs facing upwards towards one another diagonally), palms facing upwards and creating a shape of a triangle.
It is also known as the “medicine mudra”, as it was used to hold a bowl of medicine on the hands, and it also has many variations among the territory of China.
While mudras are religious gestures in Buddhism and Hindu, they assume an interesting meaning in Indian and Thai dances.
Depending on the style of the dance, there are described 24 to 32 mudras with different meaning, and they combine hands, arms, body and face movement/expressions.
Therefore, mudras assume a performative meaning in Indian classical dances, and they usually represent and animal, a plant or objects.
For example, the mudra “pataka”, which is made with the palm and all the fingers straight and close to each other, is used to express the words “flag”, “cloud” or “forest”.
Even some martial arts, especially the old martial arts Ryu (“schools”) have tier own mudras, for example the “knife hand”, which represents the sword of enlightenment.
As we can see, mudras assume very different meanings if we move from a religion to another one, or if we use them for performative purposes.
However, all of mudras have a strong effect to the user and the spectator, as they activate specific energy channels and affect their body permanently.
This is the reason why mudras are essential for the practice of yoga, therefore they must be known, at least the most important ones, by the users.
Let’s see what the meaning of mudras is for yoga and what the main mudras are.
Why should you use mudras in yoga?
We said that mudra means “gesture” or “mark”; we can see a mudra as a symbol used in specific occasions that can activate inner channels and connect body and mind.
In yoga practice, mudras help the flow of the energy, but each of them has a personal purpose and enhance determined powers of your body.
The two main sources of yoga signs are Gheranda Samhita (one of the most important texts of yoga) and Hatha Yoga Pradipka (a manual of hatha yoga).
Not all of them involve only hands and fingers, but they require movements of the legs, head and body too.
We now make a list of the principal mudras, how to achieve them and what their purpose is.
We begin with Kali Mudra, which derives its name from the goddess Durga. Kali stands for “goddess of fearlessness and inner strength”.
It is practised by bringing your hands together, interlacing your fingers and extending both your index forward.
The two index fingers represent the sword of the goddess Durga that she uses to slay illusions: it is a gesture of truth, power and strength.
Then, there is Chin Mudra, the seal of consciousness, also known as the seal of wisdom, or knowledge.
This is probably the most known mudra in yoga , and you can perform it by resting your hands on your tights (or knees, depending on your sitting position), palms open and downward.
Then, gently connect the tip of your index with the tip of your thumb, while the other fingers are lightly extended.
As the index finger indicates individual consciousness and the thumb the universal one, the connection between them stands for a connection between the limitation of ourselves and the vast universal “self”.
It is an useful mudra gesture for connecting us to a higher self, raise consciousness, calm the mind and reach a more receptive state.
There is also another similar gesture, the Gyan Mudra (or Jnana Mudra), in which the palm is upward, while the fingers have the same position as the Chin Mudra.
Let’s continue with the meditation seal, the Dhyana Mudra (or Dhyani), an useful sign to ease your nerves and calm your mind.
You can do it by resting your hands at your navel, upturned, with your right hand on top, then bringing the thumbs together, to form a triangle with their tips.
Use this mudra to quiet your mind after a period of great stress and effort, or to re-balance the sides of your body and recreate stability between them, like the Tree Pose.
The Prithvi Mudra is known as the gesture of earth, and you perform it by gently touching the tip of ring finger and thumb, while the other three are stretched or free.
It is a great sign to improve stability and strength, boost self esteem and confidence; this means it is a rejuvenative and empowering seal, useful to strengthen your body.
Continuing with the elements, we have Suraya Mudra, the gesture of fire, associated with the temperature of your body and metabolism.
For this reason, we suggest you to practice it only in a sitting position and on an empty stomach every day.
Perform it by folding the ring finger and touching the tip at the base of the thumb, while the tip of the thumb presses the second phalanx bone of the ring finger.
Use it to dissolve excessive fat on your body, quicken digestion, boost your metabolism and regulate the thyroid gland.
Regarding the water element, we have Varun Mudra, a very useful seal, due to the fact that most of the body is made out of water.
Lie down and slightly touch the tip of the thumb with the little finger. The rest of the fingers can be left freely without any stress.
Use this to prevent all the disease you may occur due to the lack of water, like skin dryness, blood flow and muscle aches.
We finish with the elements with Vayu Mudra, the gesture of air, connected to your lungs and excess air in your body.
Fold the index finger, and press the second phalanx bone with the tip of the thumb, and the tip of the index finger should touch the base of the thumb.
You can perform it to reduce excessive air and the issues it may cause, like constipation and flatulence, but it can be useful to ease arthritis, neck pain or paralysis.
Another well known seal is the Hasta Mudra, the open-hands seal, which can be found in ancient iconography from Buddhism and Hindu.
Bring your hands in front of you, palms facing up. Feel your hands like two open vessels, emptying the mind of static. You can stay here or turn your hands down to the Earth, emptying the outer mind of static.
It is useful to meditate about generosity, openness and joy connected to humanity and solar energy from your body.
A really important mudra is the seal of life, the Prana Mudra, which is helpful to re-activate life and energy locked in your body.
In order to perform it, place the ring finger and little finger at the tip of the thumb gently and keep the other two fingers stretched.
If you feel tired or drained, use this mudra to cleanse your aura and activate the dormant energy in your body; it also has a particular positive effect to your eyes and sight.
The lotus seal, called in Sanskrit Padma Mudra, indicates the flower of purity and perseverance, floating above desire and attachment.
It is made by two steps: first of all, bring your hands into Anjali Mudra, the salutation seal, bringing your palms together and touching every tip of your finger with the tips of the other hand.
Make sure one hand doesn’t dominate the other (they must be parallel and at the same height and pressure between them; if they are not, decrease the pressure of the dominant one).
Then, slowly unfurl your hands like a lotus flower blossoming open. Keep the base of the hands together, along with the thumbs and little fingers, and gently open index, middle and ring fingers.
The lotus mudra is a great seal to establish purity, perseverance, reminding you of the beauty of your soul and calming your mind.
If you need something more particular to find courage and reject fear, hate or anger, the Abhaya Hridaya Mudra (the fearless heart seal) is what you need.
There are few steps in order to achieve the fearless heart seal, but it will be worth it.
First of all, cross your right wrist over your left wrist in front of your sternum, with the palms facing away from each other, and touch the back of one hand with the other.
Wrap your right index finger around the left index finger, then your right middle finger over your left, skip over the ring finger and wrap your right little finger over your left.
Finally, touch the tips of your ring fingers with the tips of your thumbs: these are the image of your heart, which means you have to perform it in front of your sternum.
Perform this seal to build courage in front of difficulties, rejuvenate vital forces and boost vitality and calm.
Inner strength can also be helped by the unshakeable trust seal, the Vajrapradama Mudra, a great sign of solidity and faith.
Interlace your fingers with your thumbs pointing up in front of your chest, then draw your elbows wide.
The power of your interlaced fingers helps improving self-confidence and restore faith in your abilities and for something greater.
We conclude this short, yet essential list, with the Ganesha Mudra, the seal to remove obstacles (Ganesha is the Hindu deity remover of obstacles and problems).
After you got the Anjali Mudra position, swivel your hands so that your fingertips point toward opposite elbows, with your right palm facing your heart.
Bend your fingers and slide your hands across each other until your fingers lock, then do it on the other side and repeat.
Use this to mitigate anxiety, relieve stress and tension, lift spirit and boost confidence; more generally, use it when you feel you are in front of an insurmountable obstacle.
We only listed the mudras that require movements of your hands, but there are some that need you to move the entire body.
Some of them are even painful (like the Khechari Mudra), but we don’t recommend them, as they have more a spiritual meaning than a physical and mental one, so they are not really helpful to our purposes.
However, if you are interested in the vast world of mudras, we recommend you to find a manual of history of mudras; they are so many, and so powerful!
When and where practice mudras?
Mudras can be an important part of your yoga routine, especially when you need to rest from a yoga pose to another.
Considering the fact that each mudra has its own meaning and power, we recommend to find the best seal for your needs and practice it everyday.
In fact, you can practice mudras for 20 to 40 minutes every day, all in one session or dividing it into 2-3 moments during the day.
It is a resting pose, so it requires some time to be effective and restore your energy, make you feel calm and so on.
Try to feel as much comfortable as possible, as you need to stay for several minutes motionless, like in the Corpse Pose (a yoga pad is highly recommended for the sitting positions).
In this article we listed the most important mudras in yoga practice, we showed how to do them and what their positive effects are.
Although there are hundreds of different mudras among different religions and practices, it is essential to know these few ones we listed.
However, we highly recommend you to explore the vast world of mudras and their meaning, so you will have the perfect seal for any occasion/problem you might face.
Mudras are a powerful tool to meditate, find concentration and mindfulness, if you add to them breathing control, body sensations and the use of sounds.
Adding the use of mudras in your yoga practice will undoubtedly positively affect your mood and energy, but also it will give you something new and entertaining to work on!
Have fun and enjoy the limitless world of mudras!