For many people, a meditative figure seated in Lotus Pose–hands upturned upon the lap with forefinger and thumb touching—is the stereotypical image of a yogi. But mudra isn’t just something groovy to do with our hands! It’s actually a teaching—a fundamental, philosophical, tantric teaching in which the hands act as an outer expression of our inner experience. I learned this particular teaching from my own teacher, mentor, and friend, Dr. Douglas Brooks. Many of the metaphors I used in this article are his. The words are my own.
Mudra describes the ways in which we both shape and are shaped by the world. Both things are happening all the time. Think about it. For better and worse, our minds, bodies and identities are shaped by the culture that produced us. Just as, for better and worse, the individual choices that we make have an impact upon our families, communities, and the environment. The question isn’t whether or not we’re making mudra. The question is–how consciously and skillfully are we doing it?
The word mudra translates from Sanskrit to mean, seal. I’m not talking about the kind of seals that balance balls on the tips of their noses at the circus. Think more along the lines of old fashioned letters, sealing wax and insignias. To secure a letter in days of yore wax was melted to the point of malleability, dripped onto folded parchment, and then imprinted with a crest, coat of arms or insignia in order to leave a particular identifying mark. Both the image left behind in the cooled wax, and the insignia pressed into it, would be called a seal.
In order to make mudra we require two distinct and complementary energies: receptivity, and the ability to penetrate, enter and imprint upon. The metaphor entails a concavity and a convexity. You can see why metaphors of sexuality were used to describe this scenario, right? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar—and sometimes it’s not. Traditionally, receptive energies were often described as womblike. Penetrative energies were viewed as phallic.
In traditional Indian society the female’s role was to nurture, to hold, to bear the children and to be generally womblike. The traditional male role was to provide leadership, direction and guidance for his family, and to make his mark upon the world. Now, traditional Indian culture was highly cultured and artistic. It could also be deeply misogynistic, homophobic and bigoted. So, while I think it’s a good idea to understand where this imagery comes from, I also simultaneously advocate for a more complex, modern, holistic awareness.
We all have and require both qualities. All humans would benefit from skillful receptivity and action. There’s nothing particularly male or female about that in my book. Men are often nurturing. Women are effective in the world. Convexity and concavity needn’t define sexual relationships between consenting adults. We needn’t be literal to benefit from the teachings of mudra.
Let’s put it into everyday terms. If I’m having a disagreement with my boyfriend, I can make mudra by receiving what he has to say. If I don’t listen because I’m already formulating my own rebuttal then I have failed to make mudra. In other words, I’m pitching when I should be catching. On the flip side, if I don’t bring who I am forward by honestly communicating my own feelings then I’m catching when I should be pitching, and again fail to make mudra.
In the greatest scheme of things, we make mudra by receiving who we are—at heart and in reality. This requires owning all of our talents and abilities, all of our challenges and flaws, and the package it came it—with our particular I.Q., the color of our eyes and skin, the size and shape of our hips, etc.
If we’re overly receptive to the way society would shape us then we’re left vulnerable to believing that our worthiness is dependent upon shiny hair, blindingly white teeth, perfect bodies, perfect homes, perfect children—or whatever else culture tells us is or is not okay. In these instances we fail to make mudra, and we suffer for it.
We make mudra when we receive the gifts of others, and allow our own lives to be enhanced by those gifts. Can I be frank? Yoga communities, or any other kind of community, that only allow one individual–or teacher–to shine are dysfunctional. When we receive the greatness of others, and realize we are greater for it, we make mudra. Should we perceive the greatness of others as a threat then we’re looking at a serious mudra malfunction.
We make mudra by making authentic offerings of our own. When we allow our gifts and challenges to serve something greater than ourselves, we make a mark upon the world–hopefully for the better.
The physical practice of mudra—aka groovy stuff to do with our hands–reminds us that our consciousness is malleable, and that we’re free to shape it. This is true of all hand mudras, but none could better illustrate the concept than Anjali. When we fold our hands into Anjali Mudra, each hand actively projects itself into the other, and each receives the touch. That’s why Anjali is perfect for intention setting at the beginning of practice.
When we understand its hidden message, it cues us to receive ourselves upon our mats exactly as we happen to be on any given day. It also reminds us that our experiences don’t just happen to us but rather that we are free to cultivate the power to shape them for ourselves. Each of us is like a block of uncarved marble, and each of us is Michelangelo. We will both carve and be carved. Yogis endeavor to do both skillfully.
When making Anjali Mudra one can simply press your palms together, and that’s perfectly adequate. It will get the job done. However, if you enjoy being a little fancy and slightly more refined, then here’s a more nuanced way to do it:
First, join your thumbs. As the largest fingers, the thumbs symbolize spirit, possibility, and the heights of consciousness. Forgive all my metaphor mixing but if your fingers were trees then your thumbs would be the trunks. Next, join the pinkies. As the smallest fingers, they are considered the most manifested and refined. They’d be the flowers and fruits of our metaphorical tree. By connecting your thumbs and pinkies, your have metaphorically created the heavenly and earthly boundaries, and all that is possible between them, with your very own hands.
Employ that same strategy to complete the mudra. Touch your index fingers, your ring fingers, and finally your middle fingers. Let your gaze fall down gently upon your Anjali. Breathe in the gift of your own life, and the integrity of your own experience. Breathe out your ability to shape your own experience, and the world, by taking a step. And another. And another.
Teachasana Ambassador Bernadette Birney is an idealist trying to look nonchalant in a smart alec suit. She has been teaching yoga for over a decade, and is also a writer, and a life coach. Bernadette has contributed to Yoga Journal, Fit Yoga, Origin Magazine, Elephant Journal, and is the author of a quirky, award-winning blog. She is known for teaching classes chock full o’ philosophy and the legends and lore of yoga, her understanding of the anatomy of asana, surgically precise instruction, humor, and the occasional profanity. Bernadette balances a traveling and local teaching schedule, leading public classes, workshops trainings and retreats. Her events are deliberately welcoming—a yoga’tude free zone. Cyberstalk her or book workshops at www.bernadettebirney.com.