Our hands help us say a lot. We use them to explore our environment, and they help has translate a sensory experience from the outside, and as well as interpret what is happening on the inside. Mudras, or hand gestures, connect our hand movements to our brain, energy, and deeper sense of self. Mudras are all about awareness, and connect various concepts of yoga philosophy, including the five vayus, the five koshas, and the chakras. As with all things that require practice, you will sense and develop this awareness as you develop your mudra practice.
Mudras help you understand the subtle energy of your body, and are fairly straightforward to practice. You can easily insert them into you postural or meditative yoga practices, or simply enter one whilst sitting in the desk at work, waiting in line, or on your daily commute. Despite their simplicity, little is known about the mudras in Western science. Understanding why they are effective, however can be still be explored.
Why are our Hands so Important?
To start exploring why mudras are influential from a Western perspective, we need to start at square one. All humans are primates, a Linnaean order of mammals that encompass humans and our closest relatives, like the great apes and monkeys. All primates share similar features, including forward facing eyes with stereoscopic vision, several kinds of teeth, collarbones, and specialized hands. So why are hands so important? Primates have nails instead of claws to allow for manipulation of objects or giving your friend a groom. We also have thumb mobility, which allows us to, you, guessed, explore and manipulate our environment. Primates also have grasping feet, allowing them to climb. Humans have lost this ability, as we use are feet for walking upright. Based on this evidence, hands are important to explore, sense and manipulate our environment, and are based in our evolutionary roots that we share with our primate relatives.
Humans house a distinct feature: a large brain, the largest of all of the primates. The brain is the control center to how we see and interact with the world. Our hands, the ultimate sensors, connect to the brain. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that mudras have some influence on our sensory input, as well as on the brain. The primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, located in the brain, receive sensory information throughout the body. Approximately 1/3 of the sensory cortices are in the hands. What does this mean? When you engage in the hands, you are engaging a decent sized part of the brain.
Neurobiologist Bud Craig studies the insular cortex, a part of the brain that houses the interoceptive system, which that processes how we feel pain, sensation such as itching, vibration and temperature. This area is also linked to how we perceive and experience emotions. Craig found that the perception created in this area creates the subjective impression of the material self. This area neurologically shapes our sense of self. By bring attention to the subtle self-comprised of subjective sensation like temperature, itching, etc, we can tune into the sense of self. This goes hand and hand with mudras, as they allow us to focus on a shape of the body (usually the hands) that we can use to focus and develop this awareness.
Begin to develop awareness of how mudras affect you. What hand movements do you naturally default to when you are feeling nervous? How about when you are speaking with someone and trying to make a point? Observing these simple movements is a great place to start to understand mudras and how they affect the body. Hopefully, in the future, more science will be done to shed even more light on the benefits of mudras in yoga practice and our daily lives.