Mudra-The seldom taught aspect of asana practice (or)
Achieving higher states of mind in asana practice
Different schools of yoga lay emphasis on different aspects of asana practice. I, for several years, studied in the Iyengar system of yoga, under senior teachers who directly learned from BKS Iyengar for many years. After I had a hip surgery, I studied in the Ashtanga system. Today, even though I practice the Ashtanga system, I have modified the practice to suit my body limitations like having a prosthetic hip.
The Iyengar system is focused on alignment and therapeutic benefits. There are workshops conducted by senior Iyengar teachers for various conditions including spondylosis, hip pain etc. The Ashtanga Vinyasa system, on the other hand, is focussed on the synchronization of the breath and the movement. Emphasis is on the Ujjayi breath and the bandhas.
There is yet another aspect of yoga that is rarely taught but nevertheless experienced by long-time advanced asana practitioners. This is the system of Mudras which are used to direct prana to directly affect the consciousness. This is the focus of the rest of the article.
The Iyengar and Ashtanga systems focus on different aspects of asanas
In the commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda (Gabrielle Grace), from Australia, on the famous Hatha Yogic text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a Mudra is defined as follows.
"A Mudra is a specific body position which channels the energy produced by asana and pranayama into various centers and arouses particular states of mind. Some mudras are done after asana and pranayama practice and others are done with them to awaken the chakras and arouse the kundalini shakthi. They can also arouse specific emotions. "
The classic book on Hatha Yoga called, "Asana Pranayama Mudra and Bandha" by Swami Satyananda Saraswati goes on to say that a mudra may involve the whole body in a combination of asana, pranayama, bandha and dhrishti or it can be a simple hand gesture.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika 3.5 says:
"Therefore the goddess (Kundalini) sleeping at the entrance of Brahma's door should be constantly aroused with all effort by performing mudra thoroughly"
3) How I stumbled upon Mudras
Two years after I started doing the Ashtanga Yoga practice, which started a few months after my hip joint replacement surgery, I got a basic feel for the Bandhas. In certain poses, when I would touch (using my head, feet, hands etc.) or press into certain parts of the body, I would experience intense bliss, joy and a feeling of love which for a left-brained engineer is very uncharacteristic to describe to others. So I did not ask anyone about why this was occurring for a while. Some Ashtanga yoga teachers would complain that I was not doing the practice correctly because I was spending way too long in those poses, beyond the five-breath guideline that is followed for most poses in the Ashtanga system. They probably thought I had lost focus and was going into a reverie.
The author in a modified version of Dwipada Shirashasana (Two feet behind the head pose)
Nevertheless, I followed my intuition and continued to explore these intense sensations because I felt there was healing involved. On the occasional day, when I would feel more than usual intense feelings, I would carry with me a sense of well being throughout the day. This feeling, for my highly Vata system, was a blessing.
It was only during a visit to India, when I practiced under a very experienced teacher of hatha yoga, himself a long term student of Pattabhi Jois and B.N.S. Iyengar, that I understood that some of the poses where I experienced these feelings were actual Mudras used in Hatha Yoga and that the parts of the body where I pressed during these times, were indeed energy centers (Marma points) that are used in hatha yoga to clear energy blocks and facilitate the movement of prana.
I also learned that Mudras were numerous though a few like the Viparita Karani Mudra, which looks like the shoulder stand, are popular and easier to do than some of the more complicated ones. I was also told that when any asana is modified to the effect of raising one's energies (I do not wish to use the word Kundalini here because it will sound too grand), it becomes a Mudra.
4) Other Mudras - an asana practitioner's playground
As said previously, an asana can be modified as a mudra by pressing on certain parts of the body with a certain emphasis or by focusing on drawing the energy up by using the bandhas. It is a rich playground for the asana practitioner to experiment to see what is revealed.
Dwipada Shirashasana (shown in the picture above) is also taught as a mudra (especially in the variant where one balances on the hands) where one experiences upward flow of prana and hence a feeling of lightness. The Hatha Yoga pradipika calls this feeling of lightness Angha Laghavam (lightness of the limbs).
A few other asanas where an upsurge of energy or a deeply relaxing meditative state have manifested for me are shown below.
Vatayanasana can invoke a powerful upsurge of energy
Bakasana can induce a state of calm alertness by pushing the knees into the armpits. The armpits are also the seat of marma points which are used in pranayama to clear the sinuses
The area between the eyebrows (the location of the Ajna chakra) touching the shin can induce deeply peaceful states
There are two energy points on either side of the abdomen above the hip bone as shown in the figure above
By pressing the heel on either or both of the points above the hip bone, shown in the picture to the left, I was able to get into a relaxing but at the same time, alert and energetic state. That is why Supta Vajrasana, in spite of the intense back bend, feels both relaxing and energizing, instead of wearing me down as is the case with some of the deeper backbends like kapotasana. Ardha baddha padma paschimattanasana is another asana which is made easier by pressing the heel on the marma points in the abdomen.
Asana practice can be a rich playground where one can experiment with a pose to see the states of mind experienced. In this article I have touched upon the system of mudras and given examples as to how they achieve states of mind and energy that are far more deeper than experienced in normal asana practice.