ORDER AND CATEGORIES OF MUDRAS
Mudras are usually listed in no particular order, which makes the understanding of the whole category of mudra difficult. There have been attempts to define groups of mudras through their location applied, such as hands, head, postural, pelvic, etc. I worked with this method for a while and found it unsatisfying because the location does not say much about the function. I then looked into ordering mudras according to function. This would lead us to the groups of bandhas (energetic locks), mudras that are combinations of posture, bandhas and kumbhaka, mudras engendering longevity, those associated with increasing strength, mudras designed to raise Kundalini, and mudras designed to trigger samadhi. The order would then look like this:
Mula Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha, Jalandhara Bandha, Jihva Bandha, Maha Bandha
2. Mudras that are combinations of posture, bandha and kumbhaka:
Yoga Mudra, Tadagi Mudra, Maha Mudra, Maha Bandha Mudra, Maha Vedha Mudra, Kaki Mudra, Vajroni Mudra, Shanmukhi Mudra, Shakti Chalana Mudra, Matsyendra Mudra
- Mudras promoting longevity:
Tadaga Mudra, Viparita Karani Mudra, Ashvini Mudra, Manduka Mudra, Bhujangi Mudra, Vajroli Mudra, Matanga Mudra, Maha Mudra, Kaki Mudra
4. Mudras for raising Kundalini
Khechari Mudra, Pashini Mudra, Ashvini Mudra, Bhujangi Mudra, Vajroni Mudra, Vajroli Mudra, Shakti Chalana Mudra
- Mudras creating strength:
Matangi Mudra, Pashini Mudra, Vajroni Mudra
6. Meditation and samadhi mudras
Shambhavi Mudra, Shanmukhi Mudra, Jyoti Mudra, Bhramari Mudra, Khechari Mudra
The problem with this approach is that it makes mudras in one group lacking connection with each other. The categories of strength, longevity, meditation, bandhas, combination of…, etc. are from different levels of structural hierarchy. Many mudras need to appear in several categories, which makes the above table clumsy. To find a solution to systematize mudras, we need to hark back to the Yoga Sutra. Patanjali, the author of the Sutras, ordered limbs according to function and outcome. And that is exactly why he didn’t treat mudras as a separate limb. The function and outcome of the mudras are already explained through their association with the limbs. There are mudras primarily related to asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and samadhi. Primarily here means they can have aspects related to several other limbs, but usually, the mudra‘s primary function is easily discernible. That easily discernible primary function determined the order in which I have presented the mudras here. The view that mudras are allocated to certain limbs is corroborated by Hatha Yoga Samhita which states that mudras are techniques that support practices like pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi . These are the categories in which I have ordered the mudras, with omitting dhyana because I could find only one mudra primarily relating to dhyana, even then not clearly.
Here then are the categories and their allocated mudras:
1. Asana Mudras
These mudras are primarily pranic (this anglicized term means energetic or related to life-force) modifications of asanas and are inserted into one’s existing asana practice. Mudras in this group include Tadaga-, Viparita Karani-, Vajroni-, and Yoga Mudras. Alternatively, they are techniques whose purpose, similar to asana, is primarily to strengthen the body and increase health and longevity, such as Nabho-, Matsyendra-, Bhujangi-, Manduka-, and Matangi Mudras. The purpose of this group is the sthirata (fortitude) of the Gheranda Samhita, which was also T. Krishnamacharya’s focus. Authorities who believed this group of mudras to be the quintessential one concluded that mudras should be practised before pranayama.
2. Pranayama Mudras
In this group, you will find mudras primarily associated with the limb of pranayama or they are ancillaries to pranayama. These are Mula-, Uddiyana-, and Jalandhara Bandhas, as well as Shanka-, and Kaki Mudras.
3. Pratyahara Mudras
Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, is often translated as sense-withdrawal, but it is better understood as independence from external (sensory) stimulus. The mudras in this group are primarily designed to project sensory prana (prana that powers the various senses, such as audio, visual, etc.) back into the body, therefore making us independent from sensory stimulus. These include Jihva Bandha, Shambhavi-, Akasha-, Jnana-, Agochari-, and Dhyana Mudras. Two special cases here are Shambhavi-, and Dhyana Mudras. Shambhavi Mudra would also deserve to be listed under samadhi mudras, but it is so important as a pratyahara mudra I have included it in this earlier category. Dhyana Mudra could have deserved a separate category of meditation mudras, but because this mudra is something of an anticlimax and has been treated like an orphan by shastra, I have refrained from this step and included it in this present section. Please also note that the English term meditation is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to translate the Sanskrit dhyana, but in yoga, it is the combined process of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana (yogic limbs five through seven).
4. Dharana Mudras
This is by far the most important section of mudras. They are all mudras designed to raise Kundalini. In his 1905 seminal textbook The Serpent Power, Sir John Woodroffe states that mudras are keys for opening the door to Kundalini. The connection between the term dharana (the 6th limb of yoga, often translated as concentration) and Kundalini is: With Kundalini raised, success in dharana is guaranteed. With Kundalini dormant, success in dharana is hard to come by. The mudras in this section are Maha-, Maha Bandha-, Mahav Vedha-, Ashvini-, Vajroli-, Pashini-, and Shakti Chalana Mudras. These mudras represent the main focus of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, i.e. raising Kundalini. Authorities who believed this group of mudras to be the quintessential one necessarily concluded that mudras should be practised after pranayama.
5. Samadhi Mudras
These are mudras designed to trigger samadhi (revelatory ecstasy, the 8th limb of yoga). They cannot cause samadhi alone by themselves but only trigger it in a mind that already gravitates towards samadhi. Such gravitation is brought about through the long-term practice of asana, pranayama and yogic meditation. This category of mudras includes Bhramari-, Shanmukhi-, Jyoti-, and Khechari Mudras. As earlier stated, Shambhavi Mudra could have been included in this category, too, but its presence in the pratyahara category is too important and I didn’t want to list mudras twice.
HOW TO PRACTICE MUDRAS
Sir John Woodroffe in The Serpent Power explains that not all mudras need to be exercised by each person, but only as many as required in that particular case . With the order of categories created in the previous section, we can now easily analyse to which category Woodroffe’s statement applies. It applies to the categories 1 asana mudras, 4 dharana mudras, and 5 samadhi mudras. Of these three groups, we would select and add on only as many mudras as we need to achieve our respective goal. We would not learn them simultaneously but would focus on each one typically for 14 to 28 days before adding on the next . If we learn too many of the mudras in these groups simultaneously, we will create confusion. A typical example would be Maha Mudra, Maha Bandha Mudra and Maha Vedha Mudra. During the learning period, we would focus on each mudra individually and only eventually, once integrated, would we execute them all in sequence. Similarly is the situation with the asana mudras.
Different to that are the mudras in the classes 2 pranayama, and 3 pratyahara. Of these, most are practiced simultaneously as ancillaries to pranayama and meditation (the term meditation here again used in a general way for the compound of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana). This means these mudras are to be integrated as ancillaries into our pranayama and meditation practice without allocating extra timeslots to them. A case in point here is the group of the bandhas. The bandhas are all executed as a compound during our kumbhaka practice; application of all bandhas during kumbhaka is part of the definition of kumbhaka. Besides some initial experimental and tuition sessions, there will be no dedicated bandha time slot in our practice.
 Dr. M.L. , Yogic Techniques, Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, 2006, p. 91
 Sage Vyasa argues in his Yoga Bhashya, commentary on the Yoga Sutra, that the mind settles on what the senses settle. Freedom of mind therefore is dependent on sensory freedom.
 From a birdeye view this could be seen as a tendentious statement as it reveals the present author to be more intersted in Kundalini-raising than in sthirata (fortitude).
 Sir John Woodroffe, The Serpent Power, Ganesh & CO, Madras, 1995, p. 206
 Sir John Woodroffe, The Serpent Power, Ganesh & CO, Madras, 1995, p. 206
 As taught by B.N.S. Iyengar, the 28-day period is refered to as a full mandala, because it reflects a complete moon cycle.
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Mudras Seals of Yoga. We will begin uploading to publishing platforms next week, i.e. from 10th February 2022 onwards.
I’m not sure if this counts as a mudra or not, but what is your opinion of trataka with a candle? I’ve read it is possible to use the afterimage from a candle to stabilize the mind and go into deep concentration states. It might be a pratyahara practice possibly. Not sure.
Trataka is, strangely enough, counted as a kriya. In the four-chapter edition of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is described in stanzas II.31-32, that is between asana and pranayama. The Pradipika suggests that steady gazing at a small dot until the eyes are watering, removes eye diseases and tamas. However, the powerful mental dimension of Trataka is here not mentioned. I have nevertheless described it in several of my books, including Pranayama and Meditation.
It would make more sense to list Trataka under pratyahara or dharana. While candle-gazing is the standard exercise mentioned in the Shivananda/ Satyananda tradition, I don’t consider it very potent. Trataka on a divine image or divine symbol of your choice is much more powerful.
Hope this finds you well
Ok thanks. I will check out your books. I read the stanzas you referenced re: steady gazing at a small dot. Do you focus on a small dot when looking at a divine image? I tried it, and it’s hard to look at the entire image of the deity in one glance, so I ended up focusing on a specific spot such as the feet until my eyes watered. So I’m guessing you take many many glances across the divine image over your meditation time (e.g. for one hour length)?
Yes, exactly, you focus on a small dot. And as you suggested, it’s good to start with the feet of the divine image. In fact, T. Krishnamacharya suggested that one needs to focus on the feet until one receives a command to look up. On should never start by looking into the eyes or the third eye of the divine image. An in between stage would be to focus on the navel centre or the heart centre of the image.
Thanks for the clarification. Based on your comment, I went through the trataka instructions in Swami Satyananda’s book: A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya.
He writes that: “You can choose anything as your object, but once you decide, try not to change, for this will decrease the effectiveness of trataka. In other words, if you spend time developing your awareness of one particular object and then suddenly change, then you must in fact start from the beginning again to allow your mind to assimilate the new object. The mind has to mould itself around a particular object so that it is almost automatically attracted and drawn towards it. This takes time in general and it is really a waste of effort to suddenly start moulding the mind around another object. Choose carefully and then try to stick to your decision. If you feel that you want to change after a period of time, and this is a common temptation, seek expert advice before you actually do so.”
Have you noticed that to be your experience? I have a number of divine images that I’m attracted to (Krishna, Shiva, Jesus, etc…). I don’t want to be to partial to one if that makes sense. Is this an issue or is it not that big of a deal and I should just choose one and start with that and switch later?
I consider that nonsense what Satyananda says.
“try not to change, for this will decrease the effectiveness of trataka.” How so and why? “if you spend time developing your awareness of one particular object and then suddenly change, then you must in fact start from the beginning again to allow your mind to assimilate the new object”. Why? Awareness is a quality independent of object!
“The mind has to mould itself around a particular object so that it is almost automatically attracted and drawn towards it.” It’s the function of the mind to mould itself around objects. That’s what it does. No trataka whatsoever has to be done to develop that capacity.
“Choose carefully and then try to stick to your decision. If you feel that you want to change after a period of time, and this is a common temptation, seek expert advice before you actually do so.” Seek expert advise? Somebody is trying to create a job here.
I’m not wanting to be cynical but Satyananda is trying to see and create problems where there are none. I almost wonder how much trataka he has really done himself. On the contrary I would say that unless an object is extremely sattvic, i.e. contains an enourmous amount of intelligence and information (such as an image of the Divine) I would be more concerned that doing trataka on it for too long could stifle the development and unfolding of your intelligence and sattvic intellect. So, feel free to do trataka on as many images as you like.