CategoryPractice

The Definitive Guide to the Mudras

The Definitive Guide to the Mudras

Where would we be without our hands? We do so much with them.

They express our innermost feelings even when we ourselves aren’t even aware of it, the opposable thumb and index finger give us the fine motor skills that differentiate us from most of the animal kingdom (bar the monkey family). Our hands are used to stroke our children, communicate, write, shake hands in greeting, and also as weapons when curled into fists.

mudra jana yoga meditation
Image Credit: Syed Bukhari via Pexels.

The hands are also important in yoga, and nowhere more important than in the practice of mudras, meaning seal, mark or gesture. Most mudras (but not all) are gestures with the hands and are specific positioning of the fingers, thumbs, and whole hands. Historically they are used in religious ceremonies and rites to symbolise different meanings.

But what are they? Can they actually benefit us, or are they just symbolic gestures used in ceremonies and rituals?

The Mudras and Prana

Mudras are not just symbolic hand gestures, they are so much more. This becomes clearer when we factor in prana – or subtle energy. The goal of the yoga postures is to prepare the body for pranayama, or control of the breath. When we practice the mudras, this is another way of influencing the dispersal of prana throughout the body.

In Mudras for Modern Life Swami Saradananda writes:

Since ancient times, Indian philosophy has taught that how the fingers move and touch each other influences the flow of prana, the life-giving energy within the body.

Mudras are so effective because they help to clear energetic blockages, which impede the flow of prana through the body.  This is because the energetic pathways (called nadis) mostly either start or finish in your hands or feet. So working with your hands is a particularly effective way of cleansing these subtle channels of any impurities, and directing the prana in healthier directions.

Mudras and the Chakras

The mudras also affect the flow of prana through the chakras. The chakras are particularly important to clear because they are points where the nadis intersect with the most density. The seven main chakras are located along the spine, moving up from the root, lower abdomen, solar plexus, heart, throat, forehead and the crown of the head. But there are also other chakras, such as the ones in the hands. These are also essential as they are directly linked to the heart and transmit a flow of healing energy out from the heart centre.

For example, Anjali Mudra (or Namaskarasana), which is the joining of the palms and bringing the base of the thumbs to the base of the breastbone, aligns the hands with the heart chakra.

The Mudras and the Elements

mudras earth element yoga
Image Credit: Bartosz Bąk via Unsplash.

Each finger and thumb relates to one of the five great elements.

  • the thumb relates to fire
  • the index finger relates to air
  • the middle finger relates to ether
  • the ring finger relates to earth
  • the little finger relates to water

So, mudras that focus on the different fingers and thumbs have a different set of elemental, energetic and emotional benefits.

Some Important Mudras

Some mudras come up with more frequency and are perhaps more important than others. Jnana Mudra, for example, is traditionally used in Siddhasana (Sage Pose) and during pranayama. B K S Iyengar gives this clear description in Light on Yoga:

Stretch the arms out straight and rest the back of the wrists on the knees. Join the tips of the index fingers to the tips of the thumbs, keeping the other fingers extended. (This position or gesture of the hand is known as the Jnana Mudra, the symbol or seal of knowledge. The index finger symbolises the individual soul and the thumb the universal soul. The union of the two symbolises knowledge.)

Sanmukhi mudra is another important mudra, which is often used to prepare the body and mind for pranayama and meditation. San means six and mukha means mouth. Sanmukha is the name of the six-headed god of war, also known as Kartikeya. This mudra is also known as Parangmukhi Mudra (facing inwards), as the student looks within himself to find the very source of his being.

Sanmukhi mudra is when the hands are placed over the face shutting out the outside world. The ears are blocked by the thumbs, the index fingers and middle fingers rest over the eyelids and the ring fingers and little fingers control the breath. The senses are turned inwards, the sound of your own rhythmic breathing calms the mind, and there is a feeling of inner peace.

Some Non-hand Mudras

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, not all mudras are to do with hand gestures. Khechari Mudra – literally ‘roaming through space’ – is a tongue mudra, and is NOT to be tried at home. Described in the religious text Gheranda Samhita (3:25 – 28), it is described as cutting the lower tendon of the tongue and moving the tongue constantly (aided with the addition of fresh butter) and drawing it out with an iron instrument. Once achieved the practitioner will experience no hunger, thirst, fainting or laziness…we’ll pass on that one, thanks!

Maha Mudra – the great seal, is a whole-body mudra, or pose, which also encompasses the three main bandhas, Jalandhara Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha, and Mula Bandha, in order to seal prana within the body.

The Benefits of the Mudras

In order to feel the benefits of the mudras, you need to practice regularly, preferably daily, and for a decent amount of time. But if you are prepared to put in the time, regular practice can help to:

  • ensure prana moves freely to keep your body and mind well-balanced and healthy
  • increase flexibility and mobility of your hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders

    meditation yoga man seated mudra
    Image Credit: Spencer Selover via Pexels.

  • improve technique if you play an instrument or hand-intensive sport
  • boost mental acuity and concentration
  • ease symptoms of common ailments
  • overcome emotional difficulties, from anger to grief
  • purge your sub-conscious mind of negativity
  • develop a regular meditation practice
  • encourage inner peace and a sense of oneness with the universe

However, there are a couple of mudras that you can do, which will give you an immediate result, such as Bhairava Mudra. Place the left hand in the lap and rest the right hand in the palm of the left, cradling it. This mudra is for when you find yourself in a situation that you find scary, and will bring you an immediate sense of peace.

Poppy Pickles

Perfect Poses to Prep for Headstand

Perfect Poses to Prep for Headstand

Headstand is one of my favourite poses. A headstand demands much. It requires strength AND flexibility, but that is not all. Turning upside-down and balancing on your head takes courage. And self-belief. A headstand is a mental and physical challenge that, once mastered, continues to be a highlight of time spent on the mat.

Though many of us effortlessly stood on our heads as children, it seems that it is a skill lost to us as adults. So often life robs us of the physical attributes and self-belief that a headstand demands. For me, a headstand requires four things – four things that can be relearnt and woven together to become the joy that your first adult headstand will be. And it is truly a joy.

So What is a Headstand?

A yoga headstand is usually salamba sirsāsana or sirsāsana 1- ‘the king of all poses’ and one of the twelve original poses of hatha yoga.  Here the weight of the body is supported on the forearms and head, with the legs in line with the body. Having said that, there are a whole host of variations to headstand – sirsāsana 2 (tripod headstand); mukta hasta sirsāsana (no hands) and any number of leg positions from padmāsana (lotus) to garudāsana (eagle) legs. The world is your oyster.

Preparation Pathway

The journey to a headstand is a long one path paved with many smaller goals. It is a wonderful journey – full of achievement and self-awareness. For me, it took two years. Twenty-four months of patient, mindful practice, then one day it just came together and there I was upside-down. Have I persuaded you to step on to this path? I hope so. And this is how you can get there.

1. LONG HAMSTRINGS

To be able to get into a headstand you need a whole lot of length down the back of the body. Particularly in the hamstrings. Short hamstrings draw the pelvis forwards from their ideal position directly over the shoulders and head before you lift the legs. This forward pelvic position makes balancing incredibly hard when you lift the second leg.

The solution? Working on hamstring length within a practice before attempting the pose can work if your hamstrings are nearly long enough.

forward fold yoga headstand prep
Image Credit: Jen Armstrong via Zenarmstrong.

But for most of us, it will be a case of working on hamstring length over weeks or maybe months before you can achieve that ideal of hips over head. My favourite poses for this are parsvottanāsana (intense side stretch), janu sirsāsana (head to knee pose) and every version of uttanāsana (forward fold).

2. SUPER SHOULDERS

While balancing in headstand, the forearms are actively pushing down into the mat to allow the body to grow upwards from a firm base. All of the muscles around the shoulder blade are engaged to stabilise the actual shoulder joint. It takes time and effort to build enough strength in the right places to achieve this action. This is where arm balancing poses will help – adho mukha śvānāsana (down dog) and any plank variations are a great place to start. As your shoulders strengthen up move on to ardha pincha mayurāsana (dolphin) and maybe bakāsana (crow) as they will really reap further benefits for your upper body strength.

3. CORE CONTROL

Headstands need core strength in spades. Your core is what provides the stable foundations from which you can lift your legs. It is what gives the inversion stability and balance. Core strength can even compensate for lack of hamstring length or upper body strength.

plank core prep headstand yoga
Image Credit: Li Sun via Pexels.

My favourite core strengtheners are side planks and planks in any variations you like. They are great for static strength. But what about the dynamic strength needed in the core as the legs leave the ground and float overhead? For that, you need a dynamic workout. I use forearm plank into dolphin and back. Repeated 5, 10, 20, 30 times – starting with just a few reps and gradually building up by adding one or two reps each week. As a strength and conditioning workout this exercise is best done on alternate days – not every day. It is fabulous at getting a strong and toned core – what’s not to love?

4. COURAGE

For me, this is the keystone of any inversion. You can have all of the physical elements of a headstand in the bag, but if your head won’t let you turn upside-down it will never work. It takes nerve to balance on your head. It is natural to fear toppling over and hurting yourself. So how can we work to build the courage up to try our first headstand?

Spend time in dolphin – stay there for a few breaths at a time. Try lifting one leg at a time to get the body used to the action needed to get into headstand in the future. Try using the headstand arm and head position in a variation of dolphin and walk the feet towards the head to work on getting the hips over the shoulders. This also helps you to get used to being upside-down. One day you will feel a delicious lightness in the body as you reach the point of balance. Here is where leg lifting is possible. If you find this point – practice lifting one leg at a time in line with the body into one-legged headstand. And when you can do this you are almost ready for the full expression of the pose.

prep headstand yoga inversion
Image Credit: Dane Wetton via Unsplash.

But most importantly – imagine yourself floating into the perfect headstand. Picture yourself poised on your head as you breathe deeply. Explore how it will feel and what you will see in your mind’s eye. Did you know that imagining an activity actually lights up the same parts of the brain that we need to physically do an activity? This sets up the neural pathways needed to succeed. It makes that activity familiar and altogether less scary when you try it for real. Isn’t that amazing?

Bringing it All Together

The path to a perfect headstand is not always smooth. You may find some of the elements come easily but others elude you for months. Be patient. Do not rush. Headstands are worth waiting for.

And of course, not every yogi will be able to achieve a full headstand. Injuries may make it impossible. Headstands are traditionally contraindicated for folk with high blood pressure or hiatus hernia amongst other things. I would also add that anyone with neck problems should think carefully before attempting the full expression of the pose. This is where a headstool still might be worth considering if you want to invert but not put pressure on your neck.

I really hope you enjoy your journey to headstand as much as I have enjoyed mine. It has been one of the most satisfying yoga poses I have, as yet, accomplished. I wish you happy headstand-ing!

Sally Schofield

6 Basic Principles for Beginners and Beyond

6 Basic Principles for Beginners and Beyond

Ever wondered how your yoga teacher knows when to breathe in or out as you move through a sequence of poses? Do you know how hard to push that stretch – I mean, how much stretch is a good stretch after all? And what is that ‘microbend’ in knees and elbows all about? I know it all confused me to begin with – knowing when to do what was a bit of a ‘black art’ I thought. But no – there are a few basic rules that can be learnt and applied to any pose or practice.

And getting to grips with a few basic principles opens up a whole new world of yoga opportunities. Home practice becomes SO much less daunting. You might become confident enough to try a Mysore class (where students work through poses at their own pace without instructions from the teacher). Or you might just enjoy your current classes more because you have one less thing to worry about. Wherever you are on your yoga journey, these simple rules really do have the potential to deepen your practice. So, read on to discover some of the best foundations for your yoga practice.

1. INHALE TO BACKBEND

Anytime you are doing backbends or opening the front of the body you are extending the spine and hips. Think bhujańgāsana (cobra) or utthita hastāsana (arms overhead) and notice the stretch at the front of the body. When this is happening the chest is able to expand beautifully too, so taking a deep breath in as you back bend makes sense. Working with the body like this adds value to the extension and expansion combination of the movement – we are simply working with what nature designed us to do. And it feels good!

2. EXHALE TO FOLD

yoga fold janu sirsasana
Image Credit: Jonathan Borba via Pexels.

Folding forwards stretches the back of the body and ‘squashes’ the front. Think about uttasāsana (standing forward fold) or janu sirsāsana (head to knee pose). Notice that there is less room in the chest for air as the diaphragm is pressed up under the lungs – basically the abdominal contents are squashed upwards. This makes us naturally breathe out when we bend forward so this basic principle is really easy to get the hang of. Breathing out on forward folds is simply more comfortable than the alternative.

3. EXHALE TO TWIST, INHALE TO RETURN TO CENTRE

This one is partly about space available for air too. As we twist the abdominal contents are squashed and press up under the diaphragm just like in forward folds. So air is naturally pushed out of the lungs as we move into a twist and we are, once again, working with nature here. When we untwist and come back to the centre, our abdominal organs all settle back down taking the pressure away from under the diaphragm and the lungs can fill again. Hence, breathing out to twist and in to return to centre, makes good biological sense.

4. SUKHA VS DUHKHA

sukhasana yoga pose beginners
Image Credit: Patrick Malleret via Unsplash.

Translated from Sanskrit this means ‘comfort vs suffering’. Think of a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 = really comfortable (sukha) and 10 = horrible (duhkha). Then imagine you are awarding a number between 0 and 10 to how comfortable a particular yoga pose is for you as you are doing it. If you are awarding high numbers (maybe 6/10 or over) then you are probably pushing too hard to achieve something that your body is not yet ready to do. On the basis that yoga should never be painful then low numbers are generally better than high numbers so my advice would be to ease off until you are more comfortable. Poses like savasana (corpse pose) or sukhasana (easy pose) need to be really comfortable, ideally scoring 0 or 1, so modify the pose and use props until you can score 0 or 1.

5. HOW MUCH STRETCH IS A GOOD STRETCH?

One of the great joys of yoga is the way it increases flexibility. In fact, many people will start yoga simply to get more mobile. But can you stretch too much? Yes, yes, and yes again – you can definitely stretch too much. Overstretching risks damaging soft tissues and causing injuries. So how do you know when to stop stretching – when to stop pushing?

The answer is simple – listen to your body. Ask yourself a few simple questions. Is the stretch feeling comfortable? If so, good – if not, ease off. Is the stretch increasing or decreasing as I hold the pose? A stretch feeling that is decreasing or staying the same is a good, safe stretch. A stretch feeling that is increasing is a bad and dangerous stretch – ease off! Mild, comfortable stretches that stay the same or decrease when held are the ones that safely and easily increase range of motion in soft tissues. Trust me – they are the ones that you want.

6. MICROBENDS IN KNEES AND ELBOWS

yoga knees bend beginners
Image Credit: Roman Davayposmotrim via Pexels.

This is also about protecting the soft tissues around the joints. Allowing the knees or elbows to flop into a passive stretch risks injury to the back of the joints. Keeping a microbend activates muscles around the joints and allows the stretching forces to fall on the tissues that can safely lengthen while protecting those that need protecting. The same principle applies to the spine too. Keep the abs activated to prevent the lower back just folding into a hinge in backbends and keep the chin gently pulled towards the chest any time you are looking up activates the right neck muscles – both will protect your spine.

So, next time you are on your mat think about applying these few simple rules and see how your body likes them. Be mindful and work with what nature designed for us – it really does work a treat!

Sally Schofield

Self Care: Welcoming the New Year with Ayurveda

Self Care: Welcoming the New Year with Ayurveda

As the New Year approaches, many of us are drawn to reflect on the past year with the intention to create something new, something better than what we experienced the preceding year. Your soul wants to expand and your mind wants to work diligently to discover, analyze, and create a new story. In this scenario, we’re oftentimes driven by the ego-mind which gives us a sense of Self. The ego-mind is what you learned about yourself from outside sources: other people, experiences you’ve had, and the society where you grew up. And so, it’s helpful when it comes to navigating the practical matters of life that we’ve created. For example, thanks to the ego, you can identify yourself as a Mother, Father, European, Accountant, etc. And while it helps create order it also creates a sense of separation, which ultimately is devastating to humankind. You can, however, use the ego-mind as it was intended, to help you evolve. The gateway to do so begins with self-care. Self-care gives you the space to quiet the ego-mind, look within, and create more consciousness.  (more…)

Jaclyn Andrews

Yogi’s guide: Starting a Home Practice

Yogi's guide: Starting a Home Practice

The New Year will soon be upon us. That time where resolutions and good intentions abound. Are you wanting to start something to improve your fitness? Maybe help you deal with stress or sleep better? Are you looking for something to look after your physical and mental health that only takes up a few minutes a day? Well, a home yoga practice could be just the thing for you. (more…)

Sally Schofield