“Therefore, the goddess sleeping at the entrance of Brahma's door should be constantly aroused with all effort, by performing mudra thoroughly.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika (3:5)
In the context of yoga, when we think of mudras we tend to automatically think of the specifically Asian gestures of anjali or chin mudra. However we all use hand gestures everyday without thinking or knowing about the origins of them. For example when we cross our fingers for good luck, wave hello, shake someone’s hand, or even show someone ‘the finger’. We also see mudras in more spiritual contexts like in Christianity where priests give mass laden with hand gestures. All of these gestures have a complex and fascinating history behind them and the mudras we see in yoga are no exception.
Kalarnava Tantra traces the word mudra to the root ‘mud’ meaning ‘delight’ or ‘pleasure’ and ’dru’ which means ‘to draw forth’ but it more commonly translated as ‘gesture’ ‘seal’ or ‘attitude’. Yogis use mudras to channel energy flow, or prana, through the body and they are intended to link an individuals pranic force with the universal or cosmic force. A mudra is a subtle physical movement which could be anything from a combination of asana, pranayama and bandha, or as simple as a hand gesture. It is the hand mudras that we see more commonly in yoga classes. These movements alter attitude, perception and mood, heighten concentration and awaken the chakras and kundalini. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika and other yogic texts consider mudra to be an independent branch of yoga, requiring a very subtle awareness, and previous training in asanas and pranayama was required before the student could move on to mudras.
The nadis and chakras constantly radiate prana which usually flows out through the body and into the universe. The use of mudras can be said to manipulate this flow in the same way that a mirror would change the direction of a lightwave, or a cliff face would change the direction of a sound wave. In this way, the energy flow is redirected back into the body. Yogic texts state that once this flow of energy through the use of mudras has been captured, the mind goes within itself in a state of pratyahara – sense withdrawal, and dharana – concentration. Ultimately, mudras provide a link between the physical, mental and energy koshas and pranic flow is directed up though to the highest chakra, to a higher state of consciousness.