Kind Courtsey: ROBIN MALINOSKY-RUMMELL (www.rtravelworks.com)
Buddhist statues reveals the importance of hand placement; often the hands are the most obvious quality distinguishing one statue from the next. These hand and finger gestures are known as mudras, and may seem akin to flashing gang signs. However, they couldn’t be further in meaning.
In Sanskrit, mud means joy and dra means to bring forth, so mudra literally means “to bring out joy” or “that which brings forth the naturally hidden joy within all of us.” Taken together, the word mudra means seal, mark, or gesture. Mudras are therefore symbolic, ritual, or spiritual gestures, or energetic “seals of authenticity” used in the practice of Hinduism and Buddhism. While some mudras involve the entire body, most are performed with the hands and fingers, known as Hasta Mudras (hasta means hand in Sanskrit). Apparently there are more than 100 known mudras that have been developed over the centuries.
Yogis form hasta mudras with their hands and fingers during asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing), and meditation to facilitate the flow of different energy currents in the subtle body and to enhance one’s journey within. According to the Tantras (ancient Hindu or Buddhist texts dating from the seventh century or earlier), each mudra carries out a specific goal of channeling the energy flow between the body and mind, stimulating different areas of the brain.
Rub your fingertips together, and you can already feel a lot of sensation. We, humans, have numerous neural pathways in our fingers, so a lot of energetic impulses can be triggered there. In fact, humans are the only animals that can touch their thumb and finger together. Dr. Melissa West shares some cool physiological information behind the importance of mudras on her website here.
Beginning yogis are probably already aware of the “Anjali Mudra,” or “Prayer position,” formed by joining the palms and the tips of the fingers together. The Anjali mudra is a gesture of respect, love, and gratitude to the universe and the yogi him/herself. Physically, the hands and fingers contain nerve circuits to the brain, linked throughout the entire upper body. As the hands come together, the right and left hemispheres of the brain connect, one of many unification processes in yoga.
Because yoga is all about union, or yoking together the mind, body, and spiritual being, mudras are often practiced with pranayama yoga (breathwork). They enliven the prana (breath, or life-giving force) throughout the body and therefore energizing various body parts.
Somit explains that touching the thumb to each finger symbolizes different qualities, triggering specific energy forces based on either Ayurvedic texts (the traditional Hindu system of medicine) or yoga philosophical texts.
Curious about these mudras after Somit’s lesson, I spent some time researching the concepts behind these mudras. The Ayurvedic explanations appear to be most pervasive, so we’ll begin with those.
AYURVEDIC EXPLANATION OF MUDRAS
According to Ayurvedic theory, the human body contains five basic elements (the Pancha Tattvas), which include fire, air, space (ether), earth, and water. Each of these five vital elements have a specific and important function inside the body, and they correspond to the five fingers of the hand. In ancient times, the sages used to perform yoga mudras to balance the five elements within the body. An imbalance of these five elements causes disease.
People still practice yoga mudras to adjust the flow of energy, thus affecting the balance of fire, air, space, earth, and water. Bringing fire (as symbolized by the thumb) to ignite each of the other elements by touching the tip of the corresponding finger increases their intensity. In contrast, by pressing the thumb on top of the finger, the intensity diminishes, bringing that element more in harmony within the body. (See more information about this and the visual at this website.)
Scene from the Bhagavad Gita, acted out in Kerala, Southern India
YOGIC PHILOSOPHY RELATED TO MUDRAS
On the other hand (see how I did that?), each finger can be linked to yoga philosophy. The ancient teachings of yoga, like the story of the Bhagavad Gita, talk about three essential aspects of nature called the Gunas. “Guṇa” is a concept in Hinduism and Sikhism, which can be translated as “quality, peculiarity, attribute, property”. There are three gunas that have always been and continue to be present in all things and beings in the world. These three gunas are called: sattva (i.e., good, knowing, constructive, and harmonious), rajas (i.e., passionate, active, and confused), and tamas (i.e., dark, lethargic, destructive, and chaotic).
According to the ancient teachings, everything is made up of different combinations of these three qualities. They underlie matter, life and mind. Every experience we have is composed of the three gunas in different proportions, which are constantly changing in relationship with each other. We need all three qualities in our life. We need rajas to get us going, tamas to stop and rest, and sattva to gain understanding, clarity and wisdom. Problems arise when one of the gunas is dominant. (Read more about these at this website.)
Tamas manifests as darkness, inertia, lethargy, dullness, illusion, and heaviness. Tamas can be seen as the past, your lot in life, the given. When we feel tamasic we feel depressed and unmotivated, being unable to get out of bed and drag ourselves through the day.
Rajas manifests as the energy of passion, emotion, desire, activity, and even sorrow. Rajas can be seen as the future, desire, and externalization. A rajasic state means you feel passionate, manic and hyperactive, and your mind keeps going, unable to stop and focus.
Sattva is associated with the principles of harmony, knowledge, happiness and goodness. Sattva is the present, awakening, and the process of consciousness unfolding. It transcends the tension between tamas and rajas. When we feel mostly sattvasic we feel clear, calm and harmonious.
Getting back to our mudras, yoga philosophy suggests that every finger has a deeper connection with the subtle layers of the human existence. The middle, ring and little finger represent the three Gunas. The middle finger symbolizes sattva (intellect, reasoning, purity, wisdom and true understanding). The ring finger symbolizes rajas (emotions, passion, activity and movement). For this reason we wear a ring on this finger to symbolize passion and emotional commitment. The little finger represents tamas (laziness or dullness), an expression of the physical body. Therefore, a yogic mudra can bring the gunas back into balance.
The index finger expresses the consciousness inside each human while the thumb is an expression of supreme consciousness. Samadhi, the complete unification of body-mind-soul, is the ultimate goal of the yogic journey. Samadhi happens only when the individual consciousness reaches beyond the body, emotions, and intellect and achieves the supreme consciousnesses. Therefore the joining of the thumb and index finger symbolizes this union of the individual yogi to supreme consciousness. It is the most powerful of all mudras and most often seen and used in yoga.
Not sure if this is quite the best place to do a mudra but if it’s all you can squeeze in….
PREPARATION TO DO A MUDRA
In order to increase the benefit of a yogic mudra, these rules should be followed:
Set aside at least 15 minutes and up to 50 minutes a day for maximum benefit.
Mudras are best practiced at dawn (between 4-6 am) to enhance their benefits because it is most quiet and easy to concentrate.
Get into any position (e.g., Sukhasana, or Easy pose) where the spine can be held erect for that length of time.
Bring together the tips of the finger and the thumb and let them touch slightly, without any extra force.
Rest both hands on the knees, relaxing the palms.
Keep both hands as steady as possible.
Some mudras can also be performed with the tip of the respective finger placed at the base of the thumb. This mudra modification is helpful to beginners if they find that keeping the two fingertips touching each other for a long time is difficult to hold.
The hands must be kept on the knees within the body’s boundary. No part of the hand must project beyond the respective bent knee, in order to conserve the Prana (energy). (I personally find this one quite difficult as my arms are long and naturally jut out past my knees.
Breath deeply, focusing on your breath.
Close your eyes.
For best results, practice regularly for two months.
THUMB AND FIRST/INDEX/POINTER FINGER:
The most popular mudra in yoga, Gyan, jnana, or chin mudra, is formed by touching the thumb to the index finger. The other three fingers are often kept straight and together to indicate yogic control of the senses, and reduce outside distractions. Practicing this mudra with palms facing up symbolizes giving and receiving, facilitating receptivity and insight, while resting the hands with palms down creates a sense of grounding.
The names are derived from the Sanskrit words Chit, which means consciousness, and gyan or jnana meaning knowledge, or understanding the truth about something. As noted above, yoga philosophy explains that by forming this mudra, the yogi joins his/her individual consciousness (as symbolized by the index finger), with supreme consciousness (as symbolized by the thumb), thus achieving samadhi, complete understanding, wisdom, and unification of body, mind, and soul.
Forming this gesture represents the progression from ignorance to wisdom, transcending individual to greater consciousness, and therefore seeks to gain knowledge. This mudra improves comprehension, enhances concentration, aids memory, increases creativity and insight, and reduces negativity. It redirects the energy inward, calms the mind, reduces distractions, and assists in reaching the spiritual benefits of meditation (as a way of reaching samadhi). Therefore, Gyan mudra can help alleviate mental health illnesses such as depression, anxiety, inattention and restlessness, and anger management, and can assist with addictions.
Ayurvedic theory indicates that the index finger stands for the element Vayu or air. The air element is inherently mobile, unsteady, or flighty. When the thumb adds the fire element to air in Gyan mudra, it stabilizes the air element, steadies the mind, and allows wisdom to set in (consistent with yoga philosophy) . It also soothes the nervous system and pituitary gland production.
Vayu mudra differs from Gyan or Chin mudra in that the tip of the index finger is touched to the thumb’s base, and the thumb is positioned over the finger with a slight thumb pressure being exerted. Ayurvedic theory indicates that this Vayu mudra is good for diseases related to air imbalances, such as gas-related pain, flatulence, joint pain and arthritis, bloating, and abdominal discomfort, by bringing the air element back into its proper flow. It is also reputedly beneficial for neck, back, and spinal pain.
THUMB AND MIDDLE FINGER
Akash/Akash Vardhak Mudra
In Akash Mudra, the practitioner joins the tip of his middle finger and thumb, while the remaining three fingers are kept straight. In Sanskrit Akash means open space or sky, and Vardhak means an increase, so that taken together, Akash Vardhak means to increase space.
Shunya/Akash Shamak Mudra
In Shunya Mudra the middle finger’s tip is put at the thumb’s base, and the thumb is placed over the finger while putting slight pressure on the thumb being put on the finger. The other three fingers are kept straight. In Sanskrit, Shunya means emptiness or void, while Shamak means to calm or decrease, so that Akash Shamak means to decrease space. It balances the excess of space in our body.
Benefits of Akash and Shunya Mudras
Despite increasing versus decreasing space, the reported benefits of both of these mudras appears to be similar. When teaching us about mudras, Somit emphasized that the most important benefit of this mudra is for the heart. The Akash and Shunya mudras assist in a wide variety of heart diseases and blood pressure disorders, and help stimulate the heart chakra, sending positive energy to the heart.
In addition, these mudras reportedly create healing spaces and cure ailments arising from the spaces within the body. For instance, they provide comfort from conditions caused by congested spaces within the body: migraines, blocked sinuses, watery eyes, ear problems including tinnitus, vertigo, and motion sickness, and infections in the chest such as asthma. They detoxify the body by facilitating the flow of toxins and metabolic waste out of bodily spaces. They reduce thyroid disease and hormonal imbalance, and fortify the gums, throat, teeth and bones due to a boost of calcium. They improve balance and numbness by restoring the balance of space in the blood, and reduce the discomfort of overeating, feeling heavy, and jet lag.
In addition to the physical benefit, these mudras have several spiritual benefits. Because in yoga philosophy the middle finger symbolizes sattva (the guna of purity, wisdom, and true understanding, NOT the American association with the middle finger!), Akash mudra steadies the mind and increases intuition, purifies emotions and thoughts, and helps to alleviate anger, sorrows, and fears, as well as tendencies towards untruthfulness. This heightened awareness is a tremendous aid in meditation. (You can find some additional information about Shunya mudra here.)
THUMB AND RING FINGER
In Prithvi mudra, the tip of the ring finger is joined with the thumb while keeping the other three fingers straight. In Sanskrit, prithvi means “the vast one” and is known as earth. The ring finger represents the earth element (prithvi), so this mudra increases the earth element in the body. At the same time, it decreases the agni (fire) element, so it can also be called Agni-Shaamak Mudra (Fire-reducing mudra).
When Somit originally explained these mudras to us, I grasped onto his description of this mudra as causing an increase in energy. Again, it was early morning, pre-coffee. I really needed energy.
Now there are two reasons why this mudra increases energy. First, philosophically, by “igniting” the ring finger we increase rajas, the guna (human quality) of activity and passion. Secondly, by increasing the Ayurvedic element of earth, we build body strength, stamina, and endurance. Reputedly, this mudra will help gain weight, improve digestive functioning, increase immunity against disease, and improve bodily tissues such as bones, cartilage, skin, hair, nails, muscles, and internal organs. It is associated with the nose and can improve nasal disorders. The earth element also reduces fire and disorders of excessive fire element such as fever and inflammation.
Conversely, in Agni Mudra, or Surya Mudra, the ring finger is kept at the thumb’s root and the thumb presses on it. In Sanskrit, agni means fire, and surya means the sun. Because the thumb represents the fire element, this mudra activates the fire energy in the body, generating heat to boost metabolism and assist in weight loss. Additional physical benefits are reputed to be improving diabetes and liver problems, increasing the body temperature, strengthening the body and reducing cholesterol. Ayurvedic philosophy associates fire with energy, so I would imagine that this increase in fire element would increase energy as well. It’s also believed to increase self-confidence, willpower, and determination. Now who wouldn’t benefit from that?
THUMB TO RING AND PINKIE FINGERS
Two for the price of one! While Somit explained about the benefit of each finger applied to the thumb, it seems that these benefits might even increase if you touch both your ring finger AND pinkie to your thumb. This Prana mudra is said to be one of the most important mudras due to its ability to activate dormant energy in your body. Prana is the vital life force within all living things. This mudra will help awaken and enliven your personal prana, and put you more in tune with the prana around you. It also reportedly strengthens our immune system, and improves our breathing and concentration power, which would prove quite helpful for meditation practice.
THUMB AND LITTLE/PINKY FINGER
In Buddhi or Varun mudra, the tip of the little finger joins with the thumb while keeping the other three fingers straight. In Sanskrit, buddhi means intellect or perception, so that this mudra is used for mental clarity, openness, and improving the channels of communication, including both internal and external dialogues. You can perform this gesture when you need to understand intuitive messages from your subconscious (i.e., dreams or meditations that puzzle you).
In Ayurvedic philosophy, Varun is a Sanskrit reference to a diety with several possible descriptions, including a God of everything, rain, and primarily, water. Therefore, this mudra is also known as Jal–Vardhak, where jal means water in Sanskrit, and vardhak means to enhance. Because the pinkie finger is considered a symbol of the water and the thumb represents fire, bringing the fire element to enhance the water element in this mudra protects the body from diseases caused by water, such as dehydration. Because water makes up 60 percent of our bodies, the ability of the Varun mudra to help balance our body’s water element renders it a very powerful mudra. It is beneficial in alleviating problems related to blood, the circulatory system, the dryness of skin, and urinary issues. The water element provides coolness and improves digestion and elimination disorders