Mudras – from dance to yoga

A few days ago, as part of my YTT course, I learnt about the significance of mudras (“seal” or “closure” in Sanskrit) in yoga practice. Mudras are grouped into 5 categories based on the body part involved, i.e.: hasta (hand mudras), mana (head mudras), kaya (postural mudras), bandha (lock mudras), and adhara (perineal mudras). Hastas are formed by specific positioning of the fingers and thumb, which creates neuronal connections designed to impact energy flow and create balance through the activation of nerve receptors in the fingertips. Hastas should be practiced for 5-20 minutes at a time and are often accompanied by pranayama (breathing) exercises for maximum results. While this information was new to me, the mudra concept wasn’t.

 

My first encounter with mudras occurred back in my university days, when I had the privilege to attend a superb Bharatanatyam performance by a respected Indian classical dancer in my home-country. I was absolutely enthralled by the artistic performance and set out to actively seek opportunities to learn this exquisite dance form. Unfortunately, it was only when I moved to Kuala Lumpur 10 years later that my dream finally came true and I managed to take classes for a total of 3 years with breaks in between to manage my knee pain (I have tilted patellas and Bharatanatyam is notoriously demanding on the knees, particularly the rhythmic foot stamping in the classical position known as aramandi, a half sitting posture where the knees are bent outwards). Eventually I stopped completely at my doctor’s advice, however, my fascination with Indian classical dance is still very much alive and I attend public performances whenever I have the opportunity. This interest in dance has prompted me to research similarities and differences between mudras in a yoga vs a dance context.

 

First, for those who are not familiar with Bharatanatyam, it is a form of devotional dance originally performed in temples by devadasis (temple dancers) on special religious occasions, which later evolved into a classical art form, although the themes continue to be primarily devotional. The dancer moves to the beat of Carnatic music, one of the two subgenres of the Indian classical music (the other being Hindustani music, popular in the north and often paired with Kathak dance). The oldest written records about Bharatanatyam are found in the Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit text attributed to Sage Bharata Muni and dated roughly 200 BCE- 200 CE. This dance form comprises complex techniques divided into three main categories: nritta (pure rhythmic dance), natya (dance with a dramatic aspect) and nritya (interpretive dance).

 

Which brings us back to mudras. Hand mudras (hastas) are an essential component of a Bharatanatyam dancer’s “vocabulary” and are used to visually convey inner feelings as well as external events. They act as a codified language which requires knowledge by both the performer and the audience. In other words, they are used to communicate externally, unlike in yoga, where they serve to communicate internally. The repertoire comprises 28 asamyuta (single hand) and 24 samyuta (double hand) mudras. Based on the position of the fingers, they are divided into 12 categories:

  1. Prakarana Hastha – fingers stretched
  2. Kunchita Hastha – fingers folded
  3. Rechita Hastha – fingers are given movement
  4. Punchita Hastha – fingers folded or moved or stretched
  5. Apaveshtita Hastha – fingers bent down
  6. Prerita Hastha – fingers bent back or moved or stretched
  7. Udveshtita Hastha – hands are held up
  8. Vyavrutta Hastha – hands held up laterally
  9. Parivrutta Hastha – hands are brought together from sides
  10. Sanketa Hastha – hands are used to convey implied meanings
  11. Chinha Hastha – hands are used to convey a physical appearance, weapons, parts of the body, mannerisms etc.
  12. Padarthateeke – hands are used to confirm the meanings of certain words

 

Some of the dance and yoga mudras are fairly similar in appearance. Examples include the hamsasya hasta (swan) in dance vs the gyan mudra in yoga (increases memory power); the trishula hasta (trident) in dance vs the Varun mudra in yoga (balances water content in the body); the mayura hasta (peacock) in dance vs the prithvi mudra in yoga (improves skin complexion and stimulates weight gain); the simhamukha hasta (lion head) in dance vs the apana mudra in yoga (regulates diabetes); and the kartarimukha hasta (scissors) in dance vs the prana mudra in yoga (balances vitamin deficiency and increases immunity).

 

This process of learning and connecting yoga concepts with prior knowledge has been a very enriching experience and I’m definitely glad I signed up for the YTT.