Writing about asana, pranayama, meditation or samadhi is relative straightforward. They are sequential limbs of yoga with clear demarcations. Even within those demarcations there are reasonably clear rules in which order for example pranayama techniques or samadhis are practised. They are usually performed in ascending order of difficulty. Writing about mudras is a more complex challenge. Mudra is not one of the eight limbs of yoga, which according to Yoga Sutra II.28 are restraints, observances, postures, breath extension, independence from external stimulus, concentration, meditation and revelation. So, what are mudras if it is not a yogic limb? Aren’t they just fancy hand positions?
Hand mudras, so-called hasta mudras are a feature of tantric Buddhism but in yoga really only a small part of the subject of mudra. Although the term mudra is not explicitly mentioned in the Yoga Sutra, the medieval Hatha texts usually devote an entire chapter to them. The term mudra is generally translated as seal in the sense of pranic seal or energetic seal. A mudra often involves a particular posture, application of bandhas and regularly breath retention (kumbhaka) to achieve a particular pranic outcome. The Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati states that the root mud means to delight whereas the root rā means to bestow. This shastra (scripture) therefore defines mudra as that which bestows delight. Delight, however, the Paddhati does not find in sensory or aesthetic stimulus, but in realizing the union of the individual self with the cosmic self. Mudra then is loosely that what leads us to self-realization or to use a more flamboyant term, cosmic consciousness. Stanza VI.30 of the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati then gets even more exulted by saying that mudra is that which causes delight to the multitude of gods and causes terror to the hordes of demons. I’m tending to interpret the shastric terms ‘gods’ and ‘demons’ metaphorically as the luminous and dark aspects of our own psyche. If we apply that reading, then mudra is that which enables us to embrace the loftier aspects of ourselves and to not yield anymore to our dark side. While at first impression this appears to be a very vague definition, as you will keep delving into this book, you will eventually come to perceive this definition as quite accurate.
The late tantric scholar Sir John Woodroffe describes mudra as that what gives fortitude to the body, creates health, protects from injury through the elements and activates Kundalini (in Section 4 of this book the complex term Kundalini is treated extensively). Other effects of mudras include the redirecting of prana back into body that normal would be lost thus enabling pratyahara. Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati confirms that mudras redirect prana and store it by blocking the flow in certain areas. Dattatreya’s Yogashastra in stanzas 31-32 lists the mudras and calls them Hatha practices. Mudras even found entry into the lofty Upanishads. So describes the Mandala Brahmana Upanishad in stanza II.i.9 Shambhavi Mudra and its powers of giving mind and intellect stability.
LISTS OF MUDRAS
While most medieval Hatha texts contain a list of mudras, the most influential ones are those from the Goraksha Shataka, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita. You will be surprised to hear that not a single hand mudra made either of those three lists.
- The Goraksha Shataka, the oldest of the three texts in stanza 32 lists five mudras: Maha Mudra, Nabho Mudra, Uddiyana-, Jalandhara– and Mula Bandhas .
- The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, after the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita probably the most influential yoga text, has one of its four chapters entirely devoted to mudras. In stanza III.6-7 gives us an expanded list of ten mudras: Maha Mudra, Maha Bandha Mudra, Maha Vedha Mudra, Khechari Mudra, Uddiyana Bandha, Mula Bandha, Jalandhara Bandha, Viparita Karani Mudra, Vajroli Mudra, and Shakti Chalana Mudra.
- The Gheranda Samhita, the youngest of the three texts but no less important, expands this in stanzas III.1-3 to 20 mudras: Maha Mudra, Nabho Mudra, the three bandhas, Maha Bandha-, Maha Vedha-, Khechari-, Viparita Karani-, Yoni-, Vajroli-, Shakti Chalana-, Tadaga-, Manduka-, Shambhavi-, Ashvini-, Pashini-, Kaki-, Matangi-, and Bhujangini Mudras.
We can see from this list that none of the mudras have been abandoned but that the list gradually expanded. There are other lists one could consult but they largely constitute copies of these three main lists. The Yoga Tattva Upanishad for example lists in stanzas 26-27 Maha Mudra, Mahabandha-, Khechari-, and Vajroli mudras and Jalandhara-, Uddiyana-, and Mula Bandhas. These are all mudras listed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika but three are missing from the list. We could surmise this list is an in-between stage of the Goraksha Shataka and the Pradipika lists. The Shiva Samhita in stanza IV. 15 also extols a list of 10 mudras, which it claims are the best, but then simply copies the list of the Pradipika, if only in changed order . As a peculiar sidenote, prior to this passage, the Shiva Samhita praises the extraordinary power of Yoni Mudra, but then does not include it in its list. This tendency we find replicated in other texts, too, i.e. the tendency that in odd locations mudras are described as very important, which are nevertheless not reflected in the main list. It appears that shastra authors and scribes sometimes simply chose an elegant number such as 5, 10 or 20, but in the actual text did not feel limited by the mudras contained in that number. Jayatarama’s Jogapradipika finally offers 24 mudras. It is difficult to analyse Jayatarama’s list because one of his past times was to change the names of the mudras and make the descriptions opaque. Nevertheless we see a certain overlap with the list of the Gheranda Samhita.
The foundation of the current volume was laid in 1996, when I took a two-month course with B.N.S. Iyengar (do not mistake with B.K.S. Iyengar) that dealt exclusively with mudras. Iyengar taught from lecture notes he had taken when studying with T. Krishnamacharya during the 1940’s. He showed me the notes on several occasions and as far as I remember these classes took place in Mysuru from 1945-1948. The course was based strictly on the list of the Gheranda Samhita, with exception of the five dharanas also occurring in this list, which according to T. Krishnamacharya were dharanas (concentration exercises) and not mudras (prana diversion techniques). I have added a further 11 common mudras, which brings the total number to 31. The added mudras are Yoga Mudra, a commonly used but misunderstood asana mudra, hasta mudras including Shanka-, Akasha-, and Jnana Mudras, and finally mudras that appear in shastra but have not made the common lists such as Jihva Bandha, Agochari-, Matsyendra-, Jyoti-, Dhyana-, and Bhramari Mudras. Ambiguity is sometimes difficult to avoid but I have explained my reasoning as clearly as possible why a particular mudra appears in the list. Vajroni Mudra is clearly a different technique to Vajroli Mudra but sometimes both are listed as variations of Vajroli Mudra, which makes little sense as both versions have nothing to do with each other. I have listed them therefore as two entirely different methods. Bhramari Mudra I have listed as a mudra although often it is listed as a pranayama method. If it is practised without kumbhaka (breath retention) it is more akin to a mudra. Yoni Mudra and Shanmukhi Mudra, finally, are exactly the same technique that occurs under two different names, hence it is listed here under one name only, Shanmukhi Mudra.
 The term Hatha refers to yoga that is primarily (but not only) physical in nature and mainly comprises of asana and pranayama. Hatha Yoga is not an end in itself but is to prepare for higher or Raja Yoga. So says the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “This Hatha Yoga is a ladder for those who want to climb the heights of Raja Yoga”.
 The term prana primarily refers to a subtle life force which is not perceptible to the senses, and only secondarily it refers to the breath. The breath is the main tool to influence this life force for the better.
 Bandhas are a sub-category within mudras. They are muscular locks from which an outward directed pranic force rebounds back into the body to prevent prana loss.
 Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati VI.29
 Tantra is an extremely complex term but according to Arthur Avalon’s own definition it means the re-interpretation and re-application of Vedic knowledge for an increasingly materialistic and technological society during the last 1000 years.
 Sir John Woodroffe, The Serpent Power, Ganesh & CO, Madras, 1995, p. 206
 Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga. It stands for independence from sensory stimulus.
 Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Prana and Pranayama, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, 2009, p. 325
 Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Yoga Darshan, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, 2009, p. 420
 Dr M.M. Gharote (ed.), Dattatreyayogasastram, Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, 2015, p. 17
 The ancient Upanishads contain the mystical doctrines of the Vedas and in Hinduism are considered divinely revealed scriptures.
 Dr M.M. Gharote (ed.), Mandalabrahmanopanisad and Nadabindupanisad, Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, 2012, p. 92ff
 Swami Kuvalayananda (ed.), Goraksasatakam, Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla, 2006, p. 40
 Pancham Sinh (transl.), The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1991, p. 28-29
 James Mallinson, The Gheranda Samhita, YogaVidya.com, Woodstock, 2004, p. 60
 R.B.S. Chandra Vasu, (transl.), The Shiva Samhita, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 184, p. 44
 The term shastra directly translated means path to truth but as a single word the English ‘scripture’ captures the meaning best. Yoga shastra is the class of writings that includes all historical, authoritative texts on yoga.
 Swami Maheshananda, et al. (eds & transl.), Jogapradipyaka of Jayatarama, Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla, 2006, p.110-133