This article is written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
‘Sri Krishnamacharya would resolve (vigraha) the sanskrit compound word (samasa) Mudra as that (procedure) which gives joy –mudam raati dadaati iti mudraa. It is made from two different roots, ‘mud’ to rejoice and ‘raa’ to give. The word has been put to use by several disciplines in different contexts, from dancers, yogis, to philosophers and is also much in common usage.
‘Classical dancers use several gestures, especially hand gestures, called mudras to give expression to inner feelings. It is a very beautiful aspect of Indian traditional dances. I understand that there are many hand mudras used in South Indian dance format, Bharatanatyam. In fact many of us use hand gestures when we speak to add depth to the spoken words. Many of us, speakers like me, use hand gestures and body language a lot to make up for the inability to find the appropriate spoken words.
‘Hand gestures or mudras are used by philosophers and yogis as well. Chinmudra is a very well known mudra among the vedantins. It is a gesture in which the tips of the thumb and the index finger of the right hand are joined together by curving/bending these fingers, while keeping the other three fingers straight. This is supposed to be a hand gesture which signifies that the jivatma, the individual soul and paramatma, the supreme soul, are one and the same. It may also indicate a stage of Sayujya the ultimate stage of a Bhakti yogi when the jivatma merges with the paramatma.
‘These hand gestures help the abhyasi to maintain the ultimate goal or thought perpetually, never to deviate from that. They are said to be more powerful than the spoken words.
‘The other popular hand gesture used by many people in India including those who practice yoga is called mrigi mudra in which index and the middle fingers of the right hand are bent inward and theother three, thumb, ring and little fingers are kept straight. This hand gesture is useful for nadisodhana pranayama. The thumb is used to control the right nostril and the other two fingers are used to control the left nostril. This is a very commonly used mudra. The hand when in mrigi mudra looks like a deer running or looks like the face of a deer with prominent beautiful horns.
‘Perhaps the most well known hand gesture is the anjali mudra, the gesture that is used to greet elders or while praying. It comes from the root anj to anoint. The way my guru maintained añjali-mudrá while saying the prayer was a point of study. He said that in this mudrá the palms should be slightly cupped while keeping the hands together. There should be a hollow between the palms sufficient to hold an imaginary lotus or your heart in a gesture of loving offering to the dhyeya, the object of your meditation. The arms should be close to the body but not touching the body, and the folded hands, inclined by about thirty degrees, should be held in front of the heart or the sternum.
‘With a straight back and head slightly bowed, Sri Krishnamacharya would be a dignified picture of peace and devotion. Another mudra, using hands, that many of Krishnamacharya’s students are familiar with is Shanmukhi mudra. In it the yogi sits in a comfortable asana and after completing the asana and pranayama sessions and before starting meditation or chanting would close the eyes, the ears, the nostrils and the mouth with the fingers of both the hands in a beautiful mudra. It looks like the action of the three wise monkeys, speak no evil, see no evil and hear no evil all rolled into one. It can be considered a symbolic gesture to indicate that for a viveki everything in the universe is only pain, YS II 15 . But this shanmukhi mudra, also known as Yoni mudra in some traditions – is it a hand gesture or a seal as mudra also is used to mean?
”The word mudra is also used as to seal or to close tightly– or a seal or any instrument used for sealing or stamping, a seal ring, signet ring. In the olden days the King’s proclamation would contain the seal of the emperor with the impression of the royal ring. Mudra is used to indicate the signature of a poet or a painter, an author in their respective works. “I see the mudra of Kalidasa in these works” a
critique would say. Mudra also is used in common parlance as a seal in a legal document. The stamp in your passport is called a mudra. So is canceling the postage stamp. When I was very young I used to visit an extension post office–one man post office near my house. Every now and then I would go and watch in fascination the way the postperson would cancel the postal stamps on a stack of envelopes. The rapid hand movement from the inkpad to the postage stamp and then to the inkpad, all at breakneck speed, to place the postal mudra by the postperson would be fascinating, That was when I decided that when I would grow up I would be a post-person working in the sorting office of the post office stamping mudras on the post cards and envelopes.
‘Yogis, especially hatayogis, do a set of unique procedures called mudras, the prerequisites of which are asanas and pranayama. In this, one could see that the yogi is able to access several of the internal organs, the kosas and other supporting organs inside the body. But more than that there is an esoteric purpose. By Pranayama the Hatayogi is able to cleanse the various nadis and draw in the dispersed prana, enabling the union of prana and apana. Now the yogi would like to further elevate the united prana through the Sushumna and achieve the goal of Hatayoga which is known by various names such as unmani avasta and others. Towards that the prana withdrawn from the various nadis should be prevented from going outward and this is supposed to be achieved by blocking the various nadi pathways by sealing them through the procedures called mudras like the check valve used by plumbers.
‘Mudras thus help to seal some of the nadis, arouse the Kundalini, open up the chakras and thus pave the way for the upward movement of the Prana through the Sushumna. The mudras also create the condition for the Yogi to achieve the unmani avasta or immense joyful state within oneself. Without the distractions of the sensations like the visual, tactile and other sensations the Hatayogi is able to achieve immense joy.
‘There are a number of mudras mentioned in hatayoga texts and many of them regularly practised too. Mahamudra leads this package of mudras recommended by Svatmarama in his Hatayogapradipike. The others would be Mahabandha, Mahaveda, khechari, uddiyanabandha, mulabandha, jalandharabandha, viparitakarani mudra, vajroli and saktichalana. These dasa mudras are said to seal the nadis and prevent the wayward movements of prana and help to move the prana along the royal path of sushumna. Of these the three bandhas (bandha traya), Mula, Uddiyana and Jalandhara bandha are practised very regularly with asanas. Sri Krishnamacharya would ask the students , in addition, to practice Mahamudra and the Viparita karani mudras (sirsasana and sarvangasana) regularly.
‘In his Yoga Makaranda, he has mentioned many more mudras, overall twenty, some of the descriptions follow those of Hatayogapradipika and some entirely different and some not found in other books. Some of his descriptions follow the Rajayoga school according to him, and some others the Hatayoga school. What are the benefits of Mudras? According to my Guru it is as follows: “ ….to keep the ten vayus moving in their respective nadis and perform the assigned functions without obstruction and to prevent diseases…for the prana to be taken along the Sushumna nadi and maintained in the brahmarandhra, and for the gaze to stop wavering and remain fixed on one spot. “–Yoga Makaranda
‘The details of how to perform these mudras and the benefits thereof can be found in a number of yoga books, especially Hatayogapradipika and Brahmananda’s commentary and of course Sri Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Makaaranda. Sri Krishnamacharya also taught a few more mudras to his students like jihwa bandha, tataka mudra (a variant of what he describes in Yoga Makaranda), Yoga mudra. He also warned against getting involved with a few of the other mudras. Why so? The Hataayogaapradipika proclaims that hatayoga is like a ladder to reach the lofty heights of Raja Yoga or Yoga of enlightenment of which the classical Ashtanga Yoga is an integral part. It is generally assumed that Rajayoga is the Yoga described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, but some modern scholars have questions about it.
‘Brahmananda , the commentator on HYP, says in his commentary on the opening sloka “raajayogaasca sarvavrittinirodha lakshanh..” thereby confirming that by Rajyoga is meant, the yoga enunciated by Patanjli. So the conventional view is that hatayoga and Raja yoga are compatible and can be practised in tandem.
‘But Sri Krishnamacharya had some strong reservations about some of the mudras, so do several orthodox Indians. He would say, inter alia, that there are several practices under the name of yoga and it becomes important to pick and choose those practices that are wholesome and reject others that could be harmful to the unsuspecting yogabhyasi. So his advice would be to stick to Patanjali’s yoga as the bible of yoga and anything that goes against the tenets should be eschewed in one’s practice.
‘What were the practices, especially mudras, my Acharya was not in favour of? Mudras like the famous Kechari mudra, Yoni Mudra as
described in HYP, Vajroli Amaroli and similar practices. Why so? Because these practices were not conducive to the satvic goal of
Kaivalya which Raja Yoga is meant to take the abhyasi to. But then hatayoga is meant to be a stepping stone for Rajayoga. Yes but then
the Rajayogi will have to see if any of the procedures of hatayoga violate any rajayoga rules and these mudras mentioned are considered to violate that. Even as hatayogis claim that these procedures help one to maintain Brahmacharya under the most provocative circumstances they are unnecessary risks and many yogabhyasis fail miserably, like even the great sage Viswamitra. And they have no bearing whatsoever on the ultimate goal of Kaivalya which the orthodox Rajayogi is after and they directly violate the yama niyamas like saucha and brahmacharya. If they violate these aspects of yamaniyamas don’t hatayogis believe in these tenets?
‘Further Sri Krishnamacharya has himself mentioned and described some of the mudras like kechari mudra, vajroli mudra in his Yogamakaranda.. But if you carefully read his Yoga Makaranda the rather embarrassing benefits mentioned with Kechari mudra in Hatayogapradipika are not referred to by TK. Further his Vajroli mudra as per Rajayoga is very different from what you find HYP, and his own alternative description of Vajroli mudra following the hatayoga school is more a therapeutic tool and not as described in HYP.
‘He also mentioned during my classes that the somewhat surgical procedure mentioned HYP ( as also in Yoga Makaranda) of kechari mudra is a risky procedure and he would suggest use of Jihwa bandha instead rather than the more extreme Kechari mudra using a knife.
‘I think Krishnamacharya’s teaching should be understood not merely by reading his books but by following what he really taught to his students. In a book one has to present the subject in its totality but while teaching he would teach what is acceptable and what is not. If you take the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali described various siddhis but he also wants the Rajayogi who has the goal of Kaivalya in mind to guard against the distraction of these fascinating but addictive Siddhis.
‘But Hatayogis subscribe to Yamaniyamas, dont they? It may be of interest to note that HYP published by Adyar Library contains the Yamaniyamas in Ch I but in parenthesis suggesting perhaps that these slokas are an interpolation between verses 16 and 17. Further Brahmananda who has written the detailed commentary on each and every sloka of HYP has not written any commentary for these slokas on yamaniyamas, whereas Patanjali uses up maximum number of sutras for the yamaniyamas, the foundation of ashtanga yoga.
‘Brahmananda in his commentary for HYP I.17, also says that Hatayoga is made up of four angas, asana, kumbhaka (pranayama), mudras and nadanusandhana, whereas the ashtanga of Rajayoga has yamas and niyamas as the first two angas, HYP does not seem to recognize them as part of Hatayoga.
‘Does Patanjali recommend Mudras? He seems to recommend one Mudra for sure which is the graceful and charming Shanmukhi mudra. It is symbolic hand mudra and also seals the indriyas perfectly meeting the definition of pratyahara. It is both a seal and joyful procdure.
‘So there are different schools of yoga with different goals and so it is necessary for a yogabhyasi to have some clear goal set and choose that yogapath that will help achieve the goal. Sri Krishnamacharya while teaching HYP to me in 1967 said as follows (extract from my written notes) regarding the mudras:
“If we look at (yoga) as per sampradaya (tradition)…aacharah prathamo dharma ,following the right tradition is the first duty. Yoga which is inconsistent with (varnasrama) dharma is an impediment in achieving Moksha (freedom of the spirit). As there are three types of karmas and one should avoid karmas that are Rajasic and Tamasic, likewise in Yoga only satvic practices should be observed. From that viewpoint, Kechari mudra is not acceptable. From among mudras some are absolutely essential, like Mahamudra, Aswini mudra, Yoni (Shanmukhi) mudra. As per our Sampradaya (tradition) mudras such as kechari, vajroli, etc.,should be avoided” He further. added….. “Mudras give vitality. They enable movement of Prana along the required pathways. They also enable granthis/ organs not to be displaced from their respective positions.” ‘
(c) Srivatsa Ramaswami 2013 www.vinyasakrama.com