• Baxter Bell, MD

A Conversation on Mudras and More


I recently sat down with my talented wife, Melina Meza, for a conversation with her Seasonal Wellness group to talk about mudras and more. And even though I have an earlier blog on this topic, this conversation revealed some new ideas and insights:


Melina: Please share a bit about the history of mudra, and where you use mudras.


Baxter: The Carrols, in their book Mudras of India, note that the Sanskrit word “mudra” translates as “gesture”, “attitude”, and “seal”, all interesting when thinking about how they are used today. Joseph & Lillian LePage in their wonderful book on mudras point out that any time gestures of the hands (as well as face and body, FYI), are used to elicit spiritual or psychological attitudes, they can be considered mudra. The use of mudra probably began several thousand years ago in India with the Rishis, the ancient sages that transmitted the spiritual knowledge by entering into deep meditation where mudras may have naturally arisen as part of that process. The LePages point out that mudra is not isolated to the Indian tradition, but is found in many older shamanic and religious traditions from other cultures as well, including the Judeo-Christian ones. Evidence of the use of mudras up to 2000 years ago is found in the statues of Indian deities and the Buddha with hands in various mudras.


There are 2 Important historical periods for mudras. The first is the Tantric period, from 5th-15th centuries, CE, when the body is now seen as the sacred sanctuary of the spirit, a microcosm of the Divine. Mudras developed into the system we know today during this period. At that time, they were used for meditations that would often also include the use of mantras, the repetition of sacred sounds, as well as gazing at yantras, or geometric forms also felt to be sacred.


The second historical period is the Hatha Yoga period, which grew out of the Tantra tradition and it’s body positive philosophy, starting in 11th century, CE, in which the body is used as the vehicle for spiritual development and liberation, and mudras were part of the practices described, as in the book the Gheranda Samhita.


As for how I use them, I personally tend to use mudras as an anchor for my sitting meditation practice, and at the beginning centering meditation for an asana practice as a way of setting an intention or establishing a theme for the day’s practice. The mudra can act as a tangible focus for the mind in meditation to improve my concentration.


Melina: Thanks! Can you also share your perspective on the promise of mudras and any correlation to subtle body work as an acupuncturist?


Baxter: A few thoughts come to mind with this question. First of all, there is a Korean system of acupuncture that is sometimes referred to as “hand acupuncture” where all the needles are placed on the hands. This speaks to the concept that the entire body is represented on the hands (there are similar representations on the ear and the sole of foot (reflexology). In acupuncture, by needling or using pressure on specific points, the acupuncturist is interacting with the Qi, or energy of the body. With mudra, the placement of the fingers, the pressure points on the finger nails, side of the finger, tips of the fingers, or back of the fingers may all be ways of accessing subtle energy, Prana, too. In both cases, the practitioner is attempting to access and influence energy in some way. Having said this, this is a theoretical concept, and we could use a lot more research to support some of the observed benefits seen on an individual basis.


Regarding the promise of mudra, when you start reading and studying about the mudras, the authors of modern books on the topic often list all the health conditions and other non-health related outcomes that the yogis claim will result from the practice of mudras. It spans from addressing heart disease, asthma, prostate or uterine issues, to weight management, arthritis, MS, balancing the ayurvedic doshas that you teach about, Melina, and even the granting of wishes! For me, my skeptical side takes this with a hearty grain of salt. But what I feel choosing and doing a mudra for, say, immune health, such as Bhramara mudra, the gesture of the Bee, does is inclines my mind towards doing everything I can to support better immune health, whether the mudra itself actually does anything at all. It sets an intention in my mind that I can act on in large and small ways that day.


Melina: What can you share regarding how to pick your mudra?


Baxter: This is a big question to answer briefly, but a few guiding thoughts are:

  • Do you have an underlying goal you are working towards- for example, when I am needing to access more creativity, say I have an upcoming workshop on a new topic that I am in the process of generating, I may use a mudra such as Jala Mudra, the gesture of Water, to tap into the creative energy that water represents. I would use the mudra in my meditation or possibly even when holding certain yoga poses.

  • Do you have a health issue where your system is out of balance, or do you have an injury, or you have found out you have a certain illness that you want to address? For example, if you start experiencing joint stiffness and pain in the mornings and you have a family history, as I do, of osteoarthritis, you could start doing Matsya mudra, the Gesture of the Fish, also associated with the Water element, and said to be helpful for joint health.

  • If you are wanting to support or advance your spiritual practice, there are many mudras that address different aspects of that journey, such as supporting concentration (dharana) with Abhisheka mudra or meditation (dhyana) with Dharmadhatu mudra.

  • There are also mudras to help life transitions, dealing with stress, cultivating joy. The possible applications are really quite extensive.


Melina: Shifting our focus a bit, how does your mind change with meditation?


Baxter: What we now know from research on the brains of meditators is that regular, ongoing meditation has distinct impacts on the structure and function of the brain. It has been demonstrated that certain parts of the brain, associated with memory and cognitive control functions (such as attention, impulse inhibition, prospective memory, and cognitive flexibility), instead of shrinking with age, actually thicken from meditating. There is also research showing that meditators have lower levels of inflammatory molecules in their brains, and that certain motor neurons fire more efficiently. This means these brains will tend to work more efficiently and stay healthy longer. Meditators also tend to be better at regulating their autonomic nervous system, resulting in being able to re-center and ground themselves when confronted with unexpected or unwanted changes in life.


Melina: Can you also talk about the health benefits of concentration, slowing down, focusing the mind… circulating prana?


Baxter: Since you are essentially describing the process of meditation, Melina, everything I mentioned just now applies. In addition, the Mayo Clinic notes that “Meditation can also reduce the areas of anxiety, chronic pain, depression, heart disease and high blood pressure,” and can help manage symptoms of a wide range of health challenges, including cancer, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and more. It is also a great stress management tool! Melina: Finally, any yoga sutra that you see fitting for the AUTUMN season? What grounds you?


Baxter: Let me start with your first question, what grounds me: the following things are particularly helpful in grounding for me personally: having a certain amount of ritual or a consistent schedule in my day, getting a good night’s sleep, eating the healthiest meals I can, exercising hard a few times a week, practicing yoga most days of the week, sitting meditation in the mornings, with you!, doing something joyful each day- for me, that is usually playing my violin.


As for a sutra that is fitting for the Fall season, I’d say that I am more aware of the ayurvedic idea that Fall and Spring are transitional seasons, thanks to your teachings, dominated by Vatta dosha, and therefore ungrounding to some extent. I feel it can be helpful to acknowledge the ever-changing nature of things that the yoga sutra identify with the word “Parinama”- things are always changing. As Nicoli Bachman says in his commentary on Sutra 4.14 regarding this concept, “Everything in nature is always changing from moment to moment.” This is oddly reassuring to me during the seasons where I may experience the most obvious external changes.


Melina: Thanks, Baxter! Your thoughts on all of this are so helpful, and I hope all my program participants can put some if this into practice.


Resources:

• Mudras: for Healing and Transformation, by Joseph and Lillian LePage

• Mudras of India, by Cain and Revital Carroll

• Mudra: the Sacred Secret, by Indu Arora


Learn more about Melina Meza at www.melinameza.com

Photo: Hakini Mudra: A Mudra for Integration