In this section I will describe the manifold purposes of mudras. They are much more diverse than the purposes of the yogic limbs of asana, pranayama or meditation, which lend themselves to be sorted into descriptive categories. Why that is the case will be covered in the next section. The Hathatatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva states that if the yogi practices mudras, fear of death is overcome[1]. This is the case because mudras support realizing oneself as the immortal and eternal, i.e. the consciousness (purusha) as it is called in yoga, or the self (atman) as the Upanishads would have it. But the Kaumudi also says that without mudras, prana (life force) does not enter Sushumna[2] (the central energy channel)[3]. This is confirmed by the Yuktabhavadeva of Bhavadeva Mishra, which states that for raising Kundalini mudras need to be practised[4]. The ten-chapter edition of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika holds[5] that Kundalini forms the very foundation of the entire science of yoga and that the yogi needs to put all effort into practising the mudras to raise Kundalini[6].

            While the Pradipika sees the focus of mudras on Kundalini raising, the Gheranda Samhita sees their aim as sthirata, i.e. fortitude[7]. T. Krishnamacharya, being a Vaishnavite[8], was primarily interested in this aspect of mudra, while he relied on pranayama as the main means for Kundalini raising. Dr M.L. Gharote, translator and editor of many yoga texts, explains that in mudra one tries to control semi-voluntary muscles (such as the anal sphincter, thoracic diaphragm, ocular muscles etc.) with the aim of  integrating the central and autonomous nervous system[9]. Ultimately I see mudras, particularly those in the dharana mudra section, as an alternative for those who shy away from extensive pranayama and chakra-meditation. Please note the term extensive in the previous sentence. Mudras can reduce the time necessary spent on those practices but cannot replace them entirely. Long term commitment to chakra-meditation seems to be easy for those with a more visual and auditory orientation, but it can be challenging for those more kinaesthetically inclined. With the mudra approach we have an avenue that fulfils to a greater extent the needs of the kinaesthetically inclined, i.e. the need to feel body sensations as a confirmation that something is happening spiritually.


We are now turning to the question when in relation to other yogic practices are mudras to be practiced. This means that we are discussing whether they should they be learned and integrated into one’s practice before or after pranayama. It seems an early point to turn to such a detailed question but as we will see, there are far-reaching repercussions to the answer that need to be addressed this early in our study. T. Krishnamacharya stated that mudras prepare for pranayama, hence mudras should be practised first [10].  We find this view also supported in the Yoga Rahasya, handed down through Krishnamacharya’s family lineage. The Yoga Rahasya allocates both asana and mudra to the first ashrama (Vedic stage of life), called brahmachary, whereas it alocates pranayama to the second stage of life, called grhasta. This order of techniques is also corroborated by Acharya Bhagwan Dev who opined that pranayama should follow mudras [11]. However, shastra author Jayatarama argues that pranayama facilitate mudras, hence pranayama should be practised first [12]. This is also the order espoused by the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which says that the sequence of yogic practices is asanas, kumbhakas (Hatha texts generally refer to pranayama by the term kumbhakas – breath retentions), mudras and nadanusandhana (hearing inner sound, Hatha’s main avenue towards samadhi)[13]. On the other hand the Goraksha Shataka, the mother of all Hatha texts, describes mudras first, and then only pranayama[14]. Summarizing we have to say that although authorities feel compelled to make a statement about the order of these techniques, reaching agreement they cannot.

            Let’s look into some of the rationales to see whether a conclusive view is nevertheless possible. Mudra is often defined as a combination of asana, bandha and breath. In this view of mudra, it is a way of slowly introducing kumbhaka (breath retention). Most mudras do contain breath retentions. The reason why these breath retentions do not constitute pranayama proper is because count is missing, i.e. the length of each retention is not precisely measured. The breath retentions during mudra are always held “to capacity”, rather than to a previously determined count. Additionally there are not many repetitions and rounds either, whereas once one has entered into formal pranayama practice count, ratio (the relation of the length of inhalation, exhalation and kumbhaka relative to each other) and the number of repetitions become paramount. Mudras are usually done either once or repeated several times, but one will not usually engage in the practise of one and the same mudra for a whole practice session, as this is the case with pranayama. Another important aspect of pranayama is bandha. Once breath retentions are commenced, a high level of bandha proficiency is necessary. This proficiency is learned through mudra, that is through combining asana, bandha and kumbhaka in the absence of count. The absence of count enables us to focus in the intricacies of the bandhas, which prepares for practising pranayama proper (i.e. kumbhakas with count) later down the track. The type of mudras addressed so far should be performed during or right after our asana practise. Some of them, as we will see, are taking place within relatively advanced asanas and therefore it is necessary to be prepared and warmed up. If not warmed up properly one could easily get hurt in mudras such as Vajroni-, Pashini-, Maha-, or Viparita Karani Mudras.

            On the other side, however, as this text will reveal, there are clearly many mudras, which constitute advanced elements of meditation or even samadhi, such as Khechari Mudra or Shakti Chalana Mudra. It would be nonsensical and even counterproductive to practice mudras such as these before attaining proficiency in pranayama. When looking at the above statements from shastras and authorities regarding as to when practice mudras, the problem is that any answer will necessarily treat mudras as if they were one uniform category, such as is the case with asanas or pranayamas. However, mudras are not that at all. We will analyse this more closely in the next section.

[1] M.L. Gharote et al (eds. & transl.), Hathatatvakaumudi, The Lonavla Yoga Institite, Lonavla, 2007, p.18

[2] One of the main goals of physical yoga is to induce life force into the central energy channel where it powers spiritual revelation and peak experiences, instead of scattering prana in extravert pursuits.

[3] M.L. Gharote et al (eds. & transl.), Hathatatvakaumudi, The Lonavla Yoga Institite, Lonavla, 2007, p. 141

[4] Yuktabhavadeva of Bhavadeva Misra, Lxxiv

[5] M.L. Gharote et al (eds. & transl.), Hathapradipika of Svatmarama (10 chapters), Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, 2006,  p. 98

[6] M.L. Gharote et al (eds. & transl.), Hathapradipika of Svatmarama (10 chapters), Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, 2006, p. 101

[7] The different outlook of these two important texts is based on differences in their underlying theology. While both texts belong in a wider sense to the category of tantras, the underlying theology of the Gheranda Samhita is Vaishnavism, with its attached tendency to piety and puritanism. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika on the other hand is built onto a more radical Shaivite tantrism, with its own attached possible sets of problems, such as debauchery and ocultism. This does not mean that one text is inferior to the other. Both texts need to be taken serious by modern yogis by taking into account their cultural settings and problems. One needs to navigate these with caution without falling for extremes. The reader will see this principle at work when studying the current text.

[8] Vaishnavism is a religious movement within Hinduism that puts Vishnu centreplace. It’s characteristics are very different from Shaivism, which revolves around Shiva. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a Shaivite text.

[9] M.L. Gharote et al (eds. & transl.), Hathapradipika of Svatmarama (10 chapters), Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, 2006, p. xxi

[10] T. Krishnamacharya,  Yoga Makaranda, Media Garuda, Chennai, 2011, p. 111

[11] Acharya Bhagwan Dev,  Pranayama, Kundalini & Hatha Yoga, Diamond Books, New Delhi, 2008, p. 34

[12] Swami Maheshananda, et al. (eds & transl.), Jogapradipyaka of Jayatarama, Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla, 2006, p. 98

[13] Dr M.L Gharote, Yogic Techniques, Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, 2006, p. 92

[14] Swami Kuvalayananda, (ed.), Goraksasatakam, Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla, 2006, p. 40