Mudras and States of Awareness*
Swami Suryapremananda Saraswati
The aim of this study is to analyze how and why a process of expansion of awareness takes place through the practice of mudras (specific gestures and attitudes). I have sought to identify and isolate the different elements of each mudra, and show how they work together to result in the expansion of awareness. As research models I adopted the dual-functional classification of mudras, namely:
1. Mudras influencing the mind through direct stimulation of the brain, via the nervous system;
2. Mudras influencing the mind through indirect stimulation of the brain via manipulation of prana (pranamaya kosha).1
Therefore, one head mudra (shambhavi mudra) and one hand mudra (pranam mudra) have been chosen as representative models.
Introduction to mudras
Mudra is a Sanskrit word derived from the root mud, 'please' or 'delight' and dravay, the causal form of dru, 'to draw forth'.2 It has been so defined because its performance is said to give pleasure and satisfaction to the object of reference (with form or formless), which in turn rebound on the practitioner.
The term mudra has been used with different meanings at different periods of time. In this study I will refer to it as meaning gesture and attitude. Every mudra can be seen as a symbolic expression of psycho-physiological, emotional, devotional and aesthetic attitudes which the practitioner is aiming to ultimately experience.
Mudras are not mere creations of an inventive mind but originally came spontaneously to adepts and still occur today to the jivanmukta, liberated person.3 The fundamental tantric principle behind mudra is that 'whatever is in the macrocosm, also exists in the microcosm.' Man is a microcosm – whatever exists in the outer universe can also be experienced in him. 4
Tantric and yogic literatures describe over one hundred different forms of mudras.5According to their physical denotations, they can be categorized into approximately five groups: (i) Hasta, hand; (ii) Mana, head; (iii) Kaya, postural; (iv) Bandha, lock; (v) Adhara, perineal.6 Mudras are also mentioned as being of three varieties: gross, subtle and the highest. The mudras formed by bodily parts are considered gross, while mudras formed in combination with mantras are subtle. The highest (causal) mudra occurs when the symbolic meaning of the mudra is experienced or revealed to the practitioner; that meaning is itself the essence of the mudra.
Mudra, like no other yogic practice, is recognized as an external instrument with the capacity to prepare the mind for meditation.7 It sustains the flow of thoughts in preparation for recognizing more subtle levels of perception. It is at this stage that our mind must assume the quality of sakshi bhava, becoming a silent witness to mental activities. Mudra is like a key which opens aspects of our mind for us to view.
Mudras generate cues of the supreme reality, taking the practitioner nearer to the final truth, representing the nearest 'figure' of this truth as a mirror would represent reality. As the mirror reflects what is in front but not behind, similarly different mudras just reflect different aspects of the highest reality. They attempt to preserve the infinite within the finite, as a bowl of water attempts to contain the reflection of the sun. In this way the mudra can be seen as a science of connection between the infinite and the finite.
Aspect of awareness
To understand what lifts a simple posture or gesture into the realm of mudra requires some understanding of psycho-physiological interactions. One way to understand this is to look at the brain. During the process of human evolution there is a gradual linking up of the cortex with the deep primitive, sensory structure of the brain. This process is called telencephalization, which means bringing what is normally instinctive into awareness, into conscious control.8 So, awareness has a seat – if any seat has to exist – which may be associated with both the cerebral activity areas involving midbrain and cortex.
There can be no expansion of awareness without firstly starting to become aware. During mudra practice, we start to become aware of the thoughts which emerge before, during and after the practice. We are creating fixed, repetitive postures and gestures which can snap the practitioner out of instinctive habit patterns and establish a more refined awareness.9 A generalized mass of energy is then specifically focused on the cortex, an organ that can be described as the higher physical representation of the psyche.
STUDY 1 – SHAMBHAVI MUDRA
(Shambavi is the consort of Shambhu, Lord Shiva, who represents the state of higher consciousness.)
In laya yoga shambhavi mudra is defined as a pratyahara technique, i.e. it leads to sensory withdrawal.10 Shambhavi steadies the wandering mind, leading it to focus with accuracy. Wherever the eyes go the mind follows, so when the gaze is fixed on a single point, the mind also becomes single pointed and the thoughts aligned. Thus shambhavi mudra is also a form of trataka and a means to achieve dharana, the meditative state of relaxed concentration.11 Therefore, shambhavi mudra forms a bridge between hatha yoga and raja yoga. It is both a technique and a state of attainment. (A pointer about the gaze being a spontaneous representative of an inner state comes from the Western and Eastern religious iconography. We will often notice the eyes looking at the eyebrow centre, depicting the ecstatic state of saints.)
Physiology of the eye
The eye, when examined using the criteria of being an optical instrument, is found to be rather imperfect. The eye provides an image on the retina but this is just the beginning of the extraordinary neural process of decoding visual perception. The flow of neuronal stimulation is not straight from retina to cortex – midway it passes through the midbrain structures which support the telencephalization process. Furthermore, from the endocrine system's point of view, it is observed that shambhavi mudra influences the hormonal secretion of the pituitary, the master gland.
During shambhavi mudra the eyes are not kept in the primary position, but are moved to a fixed gaze at the eyebrow centre and this implies a peculiar coordination of the eyeball muscles. The motor nerves that supply the muscles of the eyes follow a different and independent path to the optic nerve, although they also travel through the midbrain to reach the occipital cortex. Here, both of the two afferent and efferent types of nerves are at work at the same time, generating a peculiar neuronal configuration.
It has been demonstrated that alpha waves arise particularly from the occipital areas of the brain and their appearance is especially associated with visual inattention. This alpha sensitivity is a matter of special interest because it is related to the hypnagogic psychological dimension where deep relaxation and archetypal imagery take place.12Alpha sensitivity thus plays an important role in the expansion of extra-sensorial awareness.
Neutral cerebral flow
Instrumental observations have been able to confirm that increased activity during visual stimulation causes striking changes in local cortical brain blood-flow and metabolism.13 Having such a premise, we can reasonably expect an increased flow of prana in the activated cortical areas.
The beauty of shambhavi mudra in particular is that no actual sensorial stimulus is sent to the brain. Gazing at an internal point, no carrier of symbology comes in-between. Having no sensorial significance to be understood by the brain, the subtle pranic energy itself is first analyzed, with its 'shapes' arranged by midbrain structures. After that, due to the directed stimulation, a type of neutral signal is sent to the cortex. The naked process of thought itself is immediately pinpointed, and this is the first step towards thoughtlessness, the prerequisite of expanding psychic awareness. The result can be the recognition by the practitioner of new dimensions of thought – the awareness having been expanded.
STUDY 2 – PRANAM MUDRA
(The meaning of pranam here is 'offerings of salutation'.)
Pranam mudra (also known as namaskara mudra) is performed by joining the two hands together, and having the palms and the five fingers fully touching each other. Hands are organs of action, and the motor nerves (which end in the motor cortex) control their movement. At the same time, hands are sensory organs. On the palms and fingertips, skin tactile sensibilities are provided by different nerves whose impulses are transmitted to the sensory cortex and also to the adjacent association areas where it is assumed the sensory stimulations have the final elaboration of sensation.14
Fingers are also shown to have 'extra-sensorial' ability, cutaneous optical and sound sensitivity. Experiments show that subliminally the skin of the hands perceives light stimuli, comprehensive of colour differentiation.15 In this case, as with shambhavi, both afferent and efferent nerves are at work at the same time, generating a peculiar neuronal configuration.
When the fingers touch another part of the body, a circuit is produced which allows energy that would have been otherwise dissipated to travel back into the body along the nadis. Hand mudras, where fingers are joined, engage the motor cortex at very subtle levels. Once pingala nadi is engaged then a signal goes back through ida nadi to the brain. By holding these extremely sensitive areas in a certain fixed position, a loop of energy moves from the motor cortex down to the hand and then back to the brain. Thoughts and experiences are generated, and our detached observation of these can give useful insights into discovering our more subtle dimensions.
Furthermore, the right hand is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and the left hand by the right hemisphere. When we join the hands we create a closed criss-cross circuit, a situation of equally distributed brain stimulation which generates mental balance. This leads to a greater possibility of relaxed concentration. The circuits stimulated are then brought into the sphere of conscious awareness. Repetition over a period of time makes this subtle action more conscious; we become increasingly aware of the effect. Then the mudra gains power in its expression and brings knowledge to the practitioner.
A mudra can work successfully by itself, but when it is associated with the proper mental and emotional attitude, the efficacy is multiplied. From the cognitive psychological point of view, pranam mudra involves a mental state of humility, regard for something other than oneself, a submission and appreciation of differences in status. The practitioner recognizes the existence of a superior entity. Here the term 'superior' is employed in its philosophical sense – the practitioner recognizes something existing sine principium, in fact timeless. This implies the abandonment of one's identity, individuality and the egoistic attitude of possession. This transaction can be established only between caring partners, and a feeling of joy derives from the recognition of this common sharing. The feeling of love has also to be present. It is important because it facilitates the sense of partaking of the nature and qualities of the mental object.16
Further steps on the expansion of awareness are related to the inner control of the mind by a total disintegration of the ego. This state consists of facing and confronting the shadow self, the unconscious forces, facing the perception of the polarity principles manifesting as one creative/destructive continuum. At this stage, one either advances towards total liberation or returns to material conditions.17
What we call life is within the body; what we call eternity, too, is within this body. The body is not 'that', but 'that' is in the body.
Thus, the body has been the field for profuse scrutiny by researchers of different disciplines, who found it necessary to chart and map it at different levels in order to start the voyage to the shore of the ultimate reality. Yogis have divided and subdivided the body-prana-mind system to such an extent that they can confidently direct a complete mastery over the discipline of concentration through specific processes. Concentration is essential for fine-tuning the awareness to become an organism with an in-built receiving and transmitting set to communicate with the ultimate reality. Man's awareness is capable of being attuned to the highest level only when the prescribed discipline is undergone. Behind the science of the mudra, ages of practices alone stand as a proof.
Our existence in this world is always plunged in a dimension of life that is psycho-physiological in itself – we are body, mind and psyche (soul) – one together. This understanding is reflected in the practice of mudras, which are psycho-physiological attitudes.
Mere gesticulation or physical movement which is not prompted by an inner attitude and does not have symbolic content could not be called mudra. At the same time, no matter how much our awareness has expanded, while we are embodied we still need to eat and answer all the other physiological bodily calls. So even in spiritual practice we cannot live without the body. In mudra the split between body and soul is absent; there exists a mutual dependence and influence of one upon the other. Then the logic behind the description of mudra as a psycho-physiological attitude is clear when we look at the transitory stage of our evolution. We were 'inert' matter, then we became animal with a predominantly sensorial awareness. Now we are human beings possessing a psychic awareness intermingled with the sensorial, and we are gradually moving towards cosmic awareness. From human to divine.
1 Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, unpublished satsang, 5 April 1999, BSY Audio Cassette Library.
2 Kularnava Tantra in: Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, Bihar Yoga Bharati, Munger, 1996.
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11 Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Dharana Darshan, 1st edition, Sri Panchdashnam Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, Deoghar, 1993.
12 Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Nidra, 6th edition, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, 1998.
13 M.E. Raichle, 'Images of the Brain in Action', The Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.
14 Guyton & Hall, Textbook of Medical Physiology, Prisma, Bangalore, 1996.
15 G. Lozanov, Suggestology and Outline of Suggestopedy, Gordon & Breach, New York, 1978.
16 S.K. Ramachandra Rao, Bharatiya-Pranama-Paddhati, Kalpatharu Research Academy, Bangalore, 1997.
17 A. Mookerjee, M. Khanna, The Tantric Way, Thames & Hudson, London, 1977.
*From dissertation on 'Mudras and States of Awareness' submitted by Luigi Fumagalli (Swami Suryapremananda Saraswati) for MA in Yoga Psychology, Bihar Yoga Bharati, Munger, 1999.