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The Magic of Mudras - How Mudras Can Help Enhance Our Mood and Well-being
Mudras are specific hand gestures that are meant to have symbolic, energetic, and healing qualities.
I like to start my day by holding a deck of mudra cards in my hands, closing my eyes, taking several deep breaths, and asking myself: “What do I need today?” After two to three minutes like that, I pick a random mudra card from the deck. More often than not, the random card I pick seems to match the state that I am in.
I’ve picked Headache Relief mudra when I had a headache, Fearlessness mudra when I felt defensive, Harmonious Life Transitions mudra when I was going through turbulent times. Sometimes, when I can’t even formulate what’s bothering me, the mudra card I pick seems to reflect my undefined state. After I pick a card, I fold my hands into the pictured mudra, close my eyes and take 12 full deep breaths, trying to embody the core quality of that mudra.
Sometimes images or sensations come up; sometimes, I just focus on my breath. And most of the time, once I open my eyes, the world seems brighter, bigger, friendlier, and more manageable. Why does it work that way? What exactly are hand mudras meant to do? Let’s take a look.
What Are Hand Mudras?
The word mudra is usually translated from Sanskrit as “lock” or “seal.” According to the Sanskrit Heritage Dictionary, मुद्रा (mudrā) is formed from the root मुद् (mud) and the ending -र (-ra). The root mud means “to be joyful or delighted.” The ending -ra, means “that which gives.” Therefore, the word mudrā means “that which gives joy, delight.”
Hand mudras have been present in religious traditions all around the world. For example, many religious deities are portrayed with specific hand gestures to communicate a certain message or quality. In addition, hand mudras are used in performing arts, especially dance and spiritual practice.
According to the yoga tradition, mudras have multiple layers of meaning, including neurological, energetic, psychological, and symbolic. Today we will focus on the neurological layer.
Hand Mudras and the Brain
Our brain’s cerebral cortex is responsible for the majority of our intellectual functions and behavior. It is made up of three types of areas: sensory, motor, and association areas. The parts of the brain responsible for interpreting sensory information include the primary sensory cortex, visual cortex, auditory and olfactory cortex. Sensory information about touch, pressure, proprioception, pain, and temperature from different parts of the body travels to the primary sensory cortex of the brain via somatic sensory pathways.
Hand Gestures and the Sensory Cortex
Our sensations are localized, meaning that sensory information from the toes always arrives at one end of the cortex and information from the face at the other. Therefore, the size of the area within the sensory cortex devoted to a particular body region is proportional to the number of sensory receptors it contains.
Sometimes you see the primary sensory cortex represented by a symbolic figure called a sensory homunculus. It’s a creature with a large face, lips, tongue, and hands because many more neurons are required to process sensory information from those areas than to analyze the sensations from the back, for example. The large parts of sensory homunculus indicate the body areas that are most complex sensation-wise. For example, the brain area dedicated to processing sensory information coming from your hands is equal in size to the area of the brain dedicated to the sensations from the rest of the body (except the head).
(3-D Sensory and Motor homunculus models at the Natural History Museum, London)
Hand Mudras and the Motor Cortex
The motor areas of the cerebral cortex are involved in the initiation of movement. The motor cortex area that processes information about the movement of your hands is even bigger than the one in the sensory cortex. Another creature called motor homunculus demonstrates the body parts that have a higher degree of fine motor control. Here, again, the hands, face, and tongue appear large because they are capable of varied and complex movements, while the trunk is relatively small.
The Association Areas of the Brain
Association areas are spread throughout the cortex. They interpret incoming data from multiple brain regions and coordinate a response (motor and cognitive). They receive information from different senses and construct cognitive maps of one’s environment and one’s own body. They are involved in complex cognitive processes like language, artistic creation, decision-making, and even the formation of our personalities.
Our hands and fingers are highly sensitive to both touch and movement. So, by applying light pressure to specific spots on the hand and folding our fingers a certain way, as we do in hand mudras, we stimulate specific parts of the brain, which, in turn, affects our associations. This means that the kind of sensations and stimulation we receive through our hands and fingers can impact what we think, how we feel, and how we view the world. And, in turn, we can consciously give meaning to our tactile sensations and the shapes that our fingers form. This is why mudras can be a powerful tool for affecting our mental state.
Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.
Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006, becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz-a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability, and medical history, specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.