by Carson Becker
I have a confession. When I first learned of Mudras, I thought them superfluous at best, superficial at worst. Superficial, as in “I have my thumb and finger together, this makes me look totally very spiritual.” Superfluous like a little paper parasol in my Pina Colada. “I need a parasol for me, not for my cocktail.” Similarly, when Mudras were brought up, I would think: “My hands don’t need yoga. My body needs yoga. Can we please skip to the part where we get into pigeon and I can barely breathe?”
That’s what I used to think. Until I discovered a secret. I’ll share it with you. Are you ready? You might want to sit on your hands for this, so they don’t hear. Shhhh… Here we go:
Hands have brains. Really. Little teeny tiny brains. Each hand has at least one. I’d bet there is a tiny brain in every finger, maybe even in every joint or nerve ending. Don’t believe it? I didn’t either. But I have proof!
Just watch your hands. They’re doing mudras all the time, all by themselves.
Start by watching your hands at a party. Do you stand with your arms down by your side, palms open as in, “here I am?” I never do. If you’re like me, your hands are crossed over your chest (Mudra of Don’t Touch My Heart), around your waist (Mudra of Don’t Touch My Belly), or around your hips (Mudra of Don’t Touch Anything). In my past, at parties, my hands have independently curled around a drink (Mudra of I am Seeking Courage), or patted the chair next to me (Mudra of Come Tell Me a Story). Maybe these aren’t the sacred gestures of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, but they are nonetheless expressions of our lives.
Next, take a mudra tour of the world. Look at all the hands acting independently. There are talking hands in Italy, haggling hands in open markets, angry hands in Parisian roundabouts (I admit I may have used that single fingered Mudra). When you get to the Karen regions of Burma, say hello using the Mudra of Holding Your Belly. In India, use only Right Hand Mudras to eat and greet. At the auction house, be especially careful: the tiniest mudra can raise the stakes by thousands of dollars. Don’t miss the greatest mudra show of all: an argument in sign language, watch hands clapping in anger, flying into explanation, settling into reconciliation and embrace.
Or just stay right here and consider the lexicon of hands: “Give me a hand,” “unhand me,” “hands up this is a hold up,” “if you have to live hand to mouth you’d better be ambidextrous,” “raise your hands in the ai-yar and wave them like you just don’t ca-yar,” “put your hand on your heart and your heart on your sleeve,” “hand in hand”…. You have to hand it to hands. They are hand in glove with all that matters.
There is even music for hands: Ben Harper’s With My Own Two Hands, Bill Withers’ Grandma’s Hands, Arrested Development singing in United Front: “Put your hands up, people put your hands up/ Put your soul up, people put your soul up,” Sarah Kay’s beautiful slam poem, Hands.
Look at the murals of San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. They are filled with hands: giant orange hands, open hands, seeds-sowing hands. Have you noticed that these hands are often portrayed alone? Hands know what they are doing. They don’t need us. Your hands were doing their own thing before you were even born.
I only recently learned about the secret lives of hands. I was in massage school. It was my first day. I suddenly realized that I was terrified of using my hands on others. What if my hands were cold? Clammy? Creepy? Rough? What if my fingers slipped somewhere they weren’t supposed to? What if I hurt someone? This is why, when it came time to choose a massage partner to practice on, I settled on the biggest and hairiest person I could find, a huge man the size and shape and texture of a bison (a bison standing upright in shorts and teevas). I picked him because I hoped his size and pelt would protect him from my clumsy hands.
When he took his shirt off on the massage table, I found myself gaping at a dense growth of back hair the likes of which I had never seen. Far and wide, there it was, as thick and black as the Schwartzwald of Grimms’ fairy tales. Underneath, here and there, I made out tattoos, overgrown with tendrils like the great jungle temples of Cambodia.
I did not know what to do. Legs shaking, I put my hands together (Mudra of Here Goes Nothing). Then I closed my eyes and let my hands fall down, down, into his hair, touching down through the jungle like the helicopter in Apocalypse Now. I closed my eyes. I waited for my hands to get lost. But they never did. When I opened my eyes, I found my hands going off all by themselves, unknotting muscles, softening joints, dancing, sending a message back to my brain that sounded like “Wheeeee!!! This is what we were meant to do! What took you so long?” This wasn’t because my hands are special – they’re definitely not. It happened because hands know, and have always known, the Mudras of Healing.
All hands have this knowledge. Watch your hands pat a shaking shoulder, reach across the table to a person you love, scratch a cat right in the itchy spot, touch a cheek, hold a peach from the farmer’s market just so – never squeezing, only asking: are you ripe yet? Hands, more than any other part of our bodies, hold the intelligence of caring and healing. It is an intelligence so subtle that it requires five fingers, 26 bones, 40 tendons and twenty muscles on each hand, not counting twenty more muscles in the wrist.
To honor our wise and wayward hands, I have therefore decided to think about Mudras differently. I now approach them not as yoga for my hands, but as yoga originating from my hands. In other words, I see my mudra-ing hands as tiny teachers for the rest of me. I hope that the clever little wits in my digits can teach the plodding sludge in my skull a thing or two. I trust that if I bring my thumb and index together, I can create a meeting of finger-minds in wisdom. I’ll try to follow this – that care, that precision, that potential for healing – with my wrist. Then with my forearms. Then my elbows. We’ll see how far I get before the whole thing falls apart. After that, if only for this month, I will try again. Hands first. Hands on.