What is Mudra?
What is mudra? Mudra means gesture. There are many different kinds of mudra, from hand gestures, to the complex bodily gestures of Hatha Yoga, to the subtle internal gestures of Kashmir Shaivism. Mudras are used in various disciplines from yoga to classical dance. This short article will not address hand and bodily mudras, and will instead focus on the subtler aspects of mudra.
What is gesture? Wikipedia defines gesture as "a form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of speech or together and in parallel with words." It is easy to see the physical aspects of this, at least with hand and bodily mudras, but perhaps not so easy to see the communicative aspects. What are we attempting to communicate with?
According to my own personal experience coming after over 25 years of practice, I would restate this definition as follows:
“Mudra is a form of non-verbal communicative movement occurring between lower and higher selves, possibly starting as an instigation of movement on a bodily level but felt/initiated as a wave-front of much deeper movement on a subtler non-verbal, instrumental level that acts to unite the lower and higher aspects of one’s self.”
Mudra, much more than communication, is actually a movement that acts to unite. This follows one of the important definitions of yoga as union. Mudra is the uniting of polarities. It is the uniting of that which is divided. It is the uniting of the various channels of flow in the subtle body, bringing the forces of prana or life energy into balance and creating a stable and clear mind.
When I first studied meditation I focused so much on the object of meditation that it rapidly became so frustrating as I could never hold it. It was only over 20 years later that I realized that the object itself is not near as important as the energy that holds it. Take for example the simple task of picking up a cup of water. We don’t need to focus on the cup as we pick up the cup of water. We only need to focus on our arm, which is moving, to pick up the cup. Our arm picks up the cup and holds it. We cannot hope to hold the cup without the arm. While this simple example may not seem relevant to the practice of meditation it is in a most vital way.
Meditation is the act of holding an object with our minds. If we attempt to hold the object in our minds without understanding our mind and how it moves, we will never achieve the goal of actually holding the object in mind. Our mind will shift. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna tells Krishna that the mind is as difficult to control as the wind. Then Krishna responds by saying that yes it is, but little by little with the help of constant practice and detachment, it can be done. Most people when they read this verse focus only on Krishna’s answer as the key to controlling the mind. The actual key is hidden in Arjuna’s declaration. “The mind is as easy to control as the wind.” Can we control the wind? Not the physical wind perhaps. But the wind Arjuna is secretly referring to is our internal wind. This statement is a reflection of another verse in the Yoga Vasistha that is quoted in Hatha Pradipika: “the mind and the prana are like two sides of one coin. If you affect one, you affect the other.” This is the secret of both yoga and meditation. This practice of affecting the prana, to thus affect the mind, is the practice of mudra and is the very essence and secret of the science of yoga.
Mudra is movement. The nature of this movement is described in the Yoga Sutras in the third chapter. The name given to this movement is what is called parinama, which means transformation of state. A transformation of state is a change from one state to another. In other words from an active, busy state to a calm one. Why would we be interested in this? To understand this we have to go back to the beginning of the Yoga Sutras and examine Vyasa’s excellent commentary of Sutra 1.1.
Vyasa in his commentary to sutra 1.1 tells us that the mind exists in five possible types of states. Mudha, kshipta, vikshipta, ekagra, and niruddha. These translate to torporous/tired, frenetic/busy, distracted, one-pointed, and restrained. Energetically, these correspond to the classical gunas of samkhya and Ayurveda. The guna of earth and water corresponds to the torporous/tired mind, which is an extreme, negative state that the mind takes on when earth and water elements are out of balance in the body/mind system. The guna of rajas, which corresponds to the element fire when it is out of balance brings the frenetic/busy state of mind. When the gunas are mixed up, we get the state we most live in, the vikshipta or “distracted” state of mind. This state allows for short-term concentration on tasks but doesn’t allow the mind to stay focused for long periods. When the guna of sattva is dominant, then our mind is transformed according to both the Yoga Sutras and the Yoga Vasistha. Our mind then becomes clear and transparent and concentration becomes very steady and can last for some time. We will leave the fifth state alone for the moment.
So how do we bring the mind to a sattvic state? According to Vasistha as described above, the mind is linked intimately to the pranic body, the energetic body. So if we examine the nature of the energetic body and make the corresponding adjustments, the mind will follow suit. The rajasic and the tamasic energies are like the twin pillars to either side of the central pillar of the sattvic guna. If we learn to bring them into balance, they in effect cancel each other out and we are brought into what we call the middle pillar or the central column. We will discuss this in more detail in a later article. For now, let us understand that balance is key to coming into a more sattvic state. In fact, this is the very definition of yoga given in the Bhagavad Gita 2.50. “Yoga is equilibrium.” Balance is the key to the sattvic state of body and mind.
How do we find balance? We begin to notice the movements that bring us into balance and the movements that bring us out of balance. The movements that bring us into balance are called by Patanjali parinama. The movements that bring us out of balance are the reverse of that parinama. What do we mean by this? How do we even focus on movement?
Everything in our life is a part of this movement. According to tantra, everything is in a state of expansion, maya, called Hrim, and contraction, liberation called Shrim. Don’t be confused by what I mean here by contraction and expansion. Here contraction means contracting towards the bindu or point of creation and expansion means the creation of the universe. We are always in an act of creation or destruction. Existence is fleeting. If you look for it, it is very difficult to find (I challenge you!). So we are NEVER separate from this movement. Never. All we have to do is learn to feel it.
Prana or energy/movement is felt. This is explained clearly in classical Samkhya which says that the air element of which prana is intimately related, is connected with the sparsa or inner touch/feeling. So if we want to understand what prana is, we need to get in touch with our inner feeling. Prana is felt. Energy is felt. Movement is felt. When I say felt here I do not mean feelings like love, happiness, sadness, etc. I mean the actual sensation of feelings. Perhaps sense would be a better word. English is a hard language here to describe exactly what we are talking about. It is important to understand intimately the meaning here though.
So we learn to feel movement. We learn to feel the movement from contraction to expansion. We learn to feel the movement from expansion to contraction. If we learn to feel these two directions of movement then we are well on our way to understanding mudra.
In Shaivism, the terms used for these two directions of movement are called unmesa and nimesa. Unmesa is expansion. Nimesa is contraction. The interesting thing here is that they can go both ways. In other words, Unmesa can be both an expansion of freedom or an expansion of bondage. Nimesa can be a contraction of freedom or a contraction of bondage. These are important aspects of the mudra which need to be understood. We will discuss more on this later.
What causes the directional shift in movement? One important concept very intimately related to mudra is called bandha. Bandha is that which binds. This binding causes a directional shift from outward to inner movement. Bandha shifts the unmesa of bondage to the unmesa of freedom. Bandha shifts the nimesa of freedom to the nimesa of bondage. Bandha is like a switch. It causes us to shift direction. It is at the heart of mudra.
The bandha that I am discussing here is far beyond physical movement. The physical bandhas may help point the way, but in my personal experience, if you don’t find that way then the physical bandhas will never take you anywhere. The real bandha is deep inside you. It is the directional shift that turns energy around and causes bondage to turn to freedom. It is the ultimate form of recycling, taking bad energy and converting it to good. It takes confusion and turns it to liberation. This is the deep secret of bandha.
When we begin to pay attention to this movement, this parinama in all of its aspects, then we begin to understand mudra. We pay attention to unmesa, to nimesa, to bandha. We pay attention to what direction things are moving. This is Krishna’s answer to Arjuna. Practice and detachment, what are called abhyasa and vairaghyam. These twin wings of yoga are like a life saver. We hold focus on what we want and discard that which we don’t. When we drive a car to Albuquerque, we don’t drive the car to Chicago or anywhere else. It’s that simple. Not complicated really.
But you have to really feel this movement inside you. Don’t get confused by objective mind. The answer isn’t found in the objective mode of mind. The answer is felt deep in the instrumental layer. It is vital to understand the difference of these two modes. If you don’t understand this, you will be confused, without a doubt. If you start to understand on an intimate level this movement, you will understand mudra.