Mudras are important practices in yoga. Mudra means a “sign” or a “seal” in Sanskrit. Mudras are various yogic gestures or positions using the fingers, hands, eyes or other parts of the body to channelize energy in a certain way. It can indicate a certain inner state of mind. These are advanced practices which were kept secret by the yogis and passed on from Guru to disciple according to tradition. Mudras are also used in traditional Indian dance forms (like Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Kathakali, etc.) to express inner emotions and attitudes.
Here we will discuss only the mudras related to yoga which were used to channel the flow of energy, to attain a certain effect in the body and mind. The channeling of energy can be used either to attain a higher state of consciousness or can be directed towards the body and mind for healing and curing various diseases. The channeling is achieved by using various gestures of the hands, fingers, eyes, etc. In some of the mudras, ‘Bandhas’ or pranic locks are also used to direct the energy. These techniques were traditionally kept as a secret for a long time. But today with growing interest in Yoga, these practices have come into the public domain.
The subject of Mudras is discussed in various yogic texts like Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, Tirumandiram (by Tirumoolar), Siva Samhita, various tantric texts and even in the Upanishads. In Gheranda Samhita about twenty five mudras are mentioned, while in Hatha Yoga Pradeepika only ten are mentioned.
The Gheranda Samhita mentions the following twenty five mudras – Maha mudra, Nabho mudra, Uddhiyana, Jalandhara, Mulabandha, Mahabandha, Mahavedha, Kechari, Viparitakari, Yoni, Vajroli, Shakti Chalini, Tadagi, Mandavi, Sambhavi, Panchadharana (five dharanas), Ashvini, Pashini, Kaki, Matangi and Bhujangini.
The Hatha Yoga Pradeepika mentions the following ten mudras – Maha Mudra, Maha Bandha, Maha Vedha, Khechari, Uddiyana Bandha, Mula Bandha, Jalandhara Bandha, Viparita Karani, Vijroli and Shakti Chalana.
In the Gheranda Samhita, Lord Shiva instructs Goddess Parvati on the mudras and says that the by practicing mudras the yogi becomes an adept. It gives great happiness to the yogi; that even the gods cannot dream of enjoying.
In Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, it is said that the practice of mudras lead to awakening of the Kundalini Shakti resting at the base of the spine. The Kundalini passes through the Sushumna nadi (the central pranic channel in the spine) and pierces the six lotuses (or chakras) and frees the yogi from all attachments. Mudras should be practiced to awaken the Goddess who is sleeping at the base of the spine. It this text, Adinatha (Lord Shiva) declares that through practice of mudras, the yogi attains all the siddhis (or the eight supernatural powers – anima, mahima, garima, laghima, prapti, prakamya, Ishtva and Vashtva).
Benefits of the individual mudras are also listed in the yogic texts. For example, Maha mudra can cure consumption, enlargement of spleens, indigestion and fever.
Nabo mudra is said to correct all problems in the body and cure all diseases.
Practice of the bandhas along with Maha mudra is said to remove decay, aging and the fear of death.
Kechari, the king among mudras is said to prevent aging and fills the body with divine nectar (amrita). Kechari induces the state of Pratyahara (or withdrawal of the senses) and is used for attaining higher states of consciousness – Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. It awakens the kundalini Shakti of the practitioner. It is said that once the mudra is mastered, the body can survive without food or water for long time. Doing this mudra, the yogi gets to taste a substance that falls from the roof of the nasal cavity, which is described as ‘amrit’ or nectar. Even a snake bite does not affect a yogi who is adept in Kechari mudra. The yogi becomes immortal and can defeat death and live for a long time.
With the Pancha dharanas, the yogi can travel to various astral planes and also overcomes the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and space. He has no fear of death from these five elements.
In the third chapter of Tirumandiram, the yogic text written by the siddha Tirumular, it is said that the practice of Sambhavi and Kechari mudras lead the yogi to the state of Samadhi. The yogi also attains the eight siddhis with this practice. Also, these mudras give youthfulness. Greying of hair and wrinkling of the skin disappears.
In some Upanishads too, there are references to mudras. The Maitrayani Upanishad talks about a practice where the tongue is rolled up and touches the upper soft palate during meditation (This is similar to Nabo Mudra or may be even Kechari Mudra, though the name is not used). It is said that practicing thus and checking the body, speech and breath, one can reach Brahman (the Inner Reality).
Some of the mudras like Jnana Mudra and Chin Mudra are commonly used today for meditation. In Jnana mudra and Chin mudra, the fingers are used to create an energy cycle. The thumb and the forefinger touching together creates a loop back for the pranic energy emanating from the fingers, thus redirecting the energy inwards. The mudras can also have esoteric philosophical interpretation. In Jnana mudra the thumb indicates Brahman (or the Ultimate Reality) and forefinger indicates the Jiva (the inner Reality). Bringing them together signifies the oneness of the two realities. Also the three other fingers indicate the three gunas or qualities of nature – Satva (purity, light, clarity of mind, etc.), Rajas (activity, passion, etc.) and Tamas (inactivity, dullness, etc.). Going beyond the three gunas, one attains the oneness of the self with Brahman.
The subject of mudras is not directly dealt with in the Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Patanjali. It is only in the other yogic texts that it is explained in detail. The yoga Sutra deals mostly with the theory of Yoga, while Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, Tirumandiram, etc. deal with the practical aspects of Yoga.
Mudras are practiced after one learns asana (postures) and pranayama (yogic breathing techniques). It enables the practitioner to reach the higher states of consciousness.