Did you know that the human hand contains 2, 500 nerve receptors per square centimeter? The tips of our fingers contain more nerve endings than most other parts of the body. The Yogis understood that hand gestures called mudras guide energy flow and send messages to the brain. After centuries of study, they understood that each finger, the pressure applied, and the direction it faces, correspond to different areas of the body, the brain, and the emotions. They discovered that certain mudras lift the mood, while others calm the mind; some help us fall asleep, while others wake us up. One mudra can help with sinus problems, while another will affect digestion. According to Joseph and Lillian Le Page in their book, Mudras for Healing and Transformation, veteran Yoga practitioners and founders of Integrative Yoga Therapy, “Mudras are a hidden treasure that open us to our own innate resources for healing at all levels of our being (Le Page & Le Page, 2012). In broad general terms, Western science agrees. “The hands’ direct route to our motivation, positive emotions, and cognitive abilities confirms their importance in our mental as well as our physical lives,” wrote neuroscientist Kelly Lambert. But there are no randomized controlled trials of mudras.
If you think that the use of mudras to manage mood is an unproven, unscientific mystical theory, you’re partly right. There’s no research to date on the power of mudras alone to affect mood. However, in separate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, and one that is ongoing, Kirtan Kriya, as taught by the Kundalini master Yogi Bhajan, which includes mudras and mantras, was shown to increase short-term memory and cognitive function and to reduce stress (Khalsa, Amen, Hanks, Money & Newberg, 2009; Newberg et al., 2010). Another protocol that uses both mudra and mantra, the LifeForce Chakra-Clearing Meditation (see Photos), is currently being investigated. In this randomized controlled trial, the researchers are looking at psychotherapy with and without the mudra and mantra practice to examine its effect on depression.
If you are a person who needs to see the results of a randomized controlled trial before you introduce something new into your life or make a recommendation to a client, then skip this chapter. But the fact that it’s not yet proven doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. Try this simple exercise right now and I guarantee you will feel the breath being directed in your body. Simply sit with your hands in your lap and press the tips of your little fingers together. Take a few breaths through your nostrils and notice where you feel the breath in your body. Release the pressure on your little fingers and press your ring fingers together. Again; take a few breaths and notice where you feel the breath expanding in your body. Continue the same exercise with each finger and your thumbs. Then go back to your little finger again. Feel the difference? Try pressing all of your fingers and your thumbs together. Isn’t it interesting? Most of us feel the breath move more deeply into the lungs when we press the little fingers together. We feel the breath move up through the torso as we move, finger by finger, from little finger to thumb. A small number of people feel the breath moving in reverse, but in my experience in leading this with thousands of people over the years, everyone feels the breath shift just by changing from one finger to another.
Still not convinced? Try this. Make a peace sign with both hands by folding the ring and pinky into the palm with your thumb on top and your index and middle fingers extended. Now bring the sides of the index and middle fingers together so that they’re touching. Bend your elbows and bring your arms on either side of your chest so that the fingers of both hands are pointing toward the sky (Figure 1). Sit for a few minutes, gazing from within at your brow point. You can add a mantra or prayer or an affirmation that feels authentic. Most people find that simply sitting with the mudra begins to lift the corners of the mouth and to restore a sense of well-being.
As a way to calm and ground at the beginning of a session, psychologist Deborah Lubetkin uses Dhyana Mudra, with the right hand cradled in the left hand while touching the pads of the thumbs together (Figure 2). Simply doing the mudra yourself will help you sustain your own sense of ease in the face of the chaos that may be present in the treatment room. Even without instruction, your client may mirror your hand gesture. If she doesn’t, you might invite her to try it, as you lead a simple breath, perhaps merely counting the beats of inhalation and exhalation, and then gradually extending the exhalation. In general, when the hands are facing downward, the gesture is more calming.
The Energizing Mudras
Energizing mudras can help when lethargy and depression are present. Simply sitting with Ganesha Mudra (Figure 6) straightens the spine, opens the chest, and invites more breath into the lungs. Gary had been a violin prodigy as a child, but when he was 14, the course of his life changed. Pain in his wrist and his neck made it difficult to play, and after years of devotion, opting out of sports and social activities with his peers in favor of practice, he gave up the instrument. He was grieving this momentous change in his life and felt isolated and alone at school. To add to his woes, his parents were in the midst of a rancorous divorce. Since team sports were not his thing, his therapist thought that a Yoga practice might help him find more balance and carry him through this period of loss. He tried a group class at his mother’s health club, but felt awkward and embarrassed and had trouble with the poses, so his therapist referred him to me.
At our initial meeting, before we moved to the Yoga mat, he sat on my couch, shoulders slumped, a wrist brace on his right fore-arm. He said he didn’t think he could do Yoga because of his wrist, but his therapist had said that I taught Yoga in a different way. I acknowledged that the Sun Salutations the teacher led at the health club must have been awkward and painful, because many of the poses in the sequence put pressure on his wrists. With modifications, he could certainly practice Sun Salutations, and he could do many other poses and Yoga practices. While we continued to talk, I suggested that Gary and I both take Ganesha Mudra. As his fingers pulled against each other at his solar plexus, his spine automatically straightened and his breath deepened. I invited him to count his breath, suggesting that he inhale for four and exhale for four. We stopped talking and practiced the mudra for several minutes. When we released the mudra, Gary’s eyes were brighter and he smiled for the first time in the session. “I think that helped my wrist,” he said. He expressed optimism about what he might be able to accomplish. Six years later, Gary is in college, taking pre-med courses with the hope of becoming a doctor. He maintains a regular Yoga practice and has a dream of using his medical training and Yoga to serve youth in war-torn countries. Figure 7 shows another other stimulating Mudra.
Mudra is rarely practiced alone, but most often in combination with a pranayama breathing exercise, with imagery, or to support meditation. We use a hand gesture (drawing the hands to the heart) with a mantra (soham) and a visualization (an image for calm strength).There are infinite variations of hand gestures and images and mantras and even affirmations that can be practiced together, creating a synergistic effect that may enhance the outcome of any one of the practices alone. “By combining mudras with affirmations the gesture’s essential meaning is communicated directly to our body, mind, and spirit” (J. and I. LePage, Mudras for healing and transformation, 2012). Several excellent resources for expanding your knowledge of mudras and their therapeutic value are covered in Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapists. Here, we will stick with the basic chakra tones pairing mudras with each tone to increase either the grounding and lightly stimulating effect or the calming effect.
Amy Weintraub E-RYT 500, MFA, directs the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, which trains Yoga and health professionals internationally. She is the author of Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapists. The LifeForce Yoga protocol is used by health care providers worldwide. She is involved in ongoing research on the effects of Yoga on mood. www.yogafordepression.com.
(Excerpted from Yoga Skills for Therapists, ©2012 by Amy Weintraub. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted in the IYTA Newsletter, February, 2014)