Everything you do with your hands is an expression of your heart. Think about it: blowing a kiss, a high five in triumph, or cuddling a pet are all ways you express the feelings that are beating in your chest. Conversely, are you flipping the bird? Shaking a clenched fist? Gripping the steering wheel?
Yoga’s hand expressions are called mudras, which are said to shift energies from what we might be experiencing to how we want to feel. With the frenetic, stressful, often toxic pace of modern life, the ability to change your state of mind by making different shapes with your hands is nothing short of a personal superpower. And, while the physical effort is minimal, the energetic impact can be huge.
“When a mudra is done with full concentration, and a state of serenity is maintained, cerebral activity is calmed and regenerated,” wrote Gertrud Hirschi, author of Yoga in Your Hands. Each of your fingers corresponds to elements and concepts, for example: earth, sky, fire, the individual, or the divine. When mudras are practiced with presence, positivity, and sincere intention, Hirschi says you can become more “content, serene, courageous, and cheerful.”
When I’m feeling rather low, Garuda (the mystical bird) mudra lifts me up. I can’t count the number of times I have collected my fingers into Mukula (beak hand) mudras and placed them where I needed healing.
Pain and me, we have a deep relationship. More than 15 years ago, a combination of repetitive motion, chronic stress, and a car accident left me in unbearable neck and back pain and numbed my right leg and arm simultaneously. There were moments the simple act of sitting up was too much. Back then, when it hurt to move my body, I moved my hands, which kept me positive and on the path to wellness.
Recently, I came across some new research about the relationship between pain and crossing your fingers. How many times have you said, “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” because you really wished for something with all your heart? Crossing fingers is a mudra, too!
The experiment revealed a relationship between manipulating body parts to alleviate pain—stimulating one part of the finger to feel less pain somewhere else. For chronic pain sufferers, “it raises the interesting possibility that pain levels could be manipulated by applying additional stimuli, and by moving one part of the body relative to others,” the senior author of the study explained.
Pain research is critical, as chronic pain is considered a crisis in America, estimated at $300 billion in lost productivity in recent years by the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Harvard-reported research shows a weekly yoga class helps mobility more than standard medical care for the condition, and Paul Christo, M.D., an associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for Pain Management recommends yoga as a supplemental treatment for many of his patients. He shared with me that “pain can take over your life and make you feel like you’re a prisoner,” then added, “the practice allows patients to better cope with the biological, psychological, and social dimensions of having persistent pain.”
Perhaps today’s world is ready to acknowledge what yogis have believed for many years: Yoga, which includes shape shifting within our own hands, can help heal, because it changes the way we feel. Mudras may be 5,000 years old, but if modern life’s painful stresses and/or actual physical pain can make you a prisoner, mudras most certainly matter more than ever.
In some cases, a sequence of mudras can be therapy when a condition has to do with hand dexterity. Also, combining them can create an even more powerful shift: my combo of Mushti (fist) and Pushpaputa (handful of flowers) mudras releases pent up energies in favor of a more ease and acceptance. I call it “Forgive the Frenemy.”
Most mudras can be done by anyone, regardless of physical mobility, which is what makes them some of our most accessible healing powers within. Look into the mudras and experience comfort, goodness, or hopeful change. Here are five mudras I use all the time, including three with names you can remember from my book Happy-Go-Yoga: Simple Poses to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Add Joy.
The Mystical Bird (Garuda)
Garuda mudra activates blood flow and circulation, balancing energy on both sides of the body as it invigorates you. This mudra can also bring powerful perspective as you give yourself keen insight and space to breathe.
Beak Hand (Mukula)
With this mudra, gather your most positive energies into your hands to make a pointer, which you’ll use to direct healing support to the places in or on you that need it. Mukula mudra also relaxes you as you match it with complete, yogic breath.
Love Multiplier (Inspired by Anahata Chakra Mudra)
Use “Love Multiplier” anytime to increase love: to invite more love into your life, to send love and compassion, to heal a broken heart, or to give yourself courage to love and embrace the future.
Total Brain Power (Inspired by Hakini Mudra)
When you’re feeling scatter-brained, here’s how you can bring disparate parts of your mental state together for “Total Brain Power,” focusing them at your third eye, the yogic and energetic space of wisdom, intuition, imagination, dreams, and clarity.
The Snag (Inspired by Ganesha Mudra)
If you acknowledge that life has its snags, you can see them as moments to pause and regroup, helping you cope better when you’re feeling blocked. By meditating on the actual obstacle, instead of feeling stuck, you might be curious enough to head in a different direction for discovery and adventure.