by Steven Mih
There are many definitions of the term mudra. They are called gestures, seals, symbols, or closure. One transliteration of the sanskrit term is “moving toward delight.” As with many forms of yoga, mudras are better experienced versus understood conceptually. To me, mudras are intentions to harness and direct energy. They can be used as another set of tools to maintain, change, or direct our inner energies (aka prana). Mudras are typically a gesture with one or both hands called hasta mudras.
There’s a whole world of hasta mudras to explore and get to know how they work with your body. I would guess that there are as many mudras as there are asanas or postures. As asanas originate from the mechanics of the living form, mudras are expressions of the subtle body within. As such, it follows that many mudras are already commonplace and understood nearly universally. For example, you can probably easily picture the hand gestures for “stop”, “A-OK”, or “give me (something)”. I would suggest that those gestures are natural because they feel like the meaning. Putting your hand up as if pushing an imaginary wall… that certainly feels like “stop” to me. Just like we are taught to feel asanas, it is important to feel the mudras in order to explore their purpose and effect. I would like to share a couple of mudras with you.
One mudra you have likely seen or practiced is Jnana Mudra. It is the “A-OK” gesture with the thumb and index finger connected while the palm facing up. Try making a complete circle with your thumb pad on the nail bed of your index finger, and try to extend out your last three fingers so you feel your palm expanding. The circle represents yoga itself, making a connection between the individual soul, as depicted by your thumb, and the rest of the world, in the form of your index finger. When I first started practicing this mudra, I noticed that my index finger was quite inflexible and would cramp after a few minutes. Other than the newness of this mudra, I believe this had to do with the egocentric state of mind I was in at the time. Over time, I found my hands to become softer and Jnana Mudra is truly a delight to this day.
Not all mudras are formed with hands. There are mudras of the eyes, breathing techniques called mudras, and mudras involving the whole body. One of the whole body expressions is called Maha Mudra. Maha means great. Like its name, this mudra tends to increase your energies by sealing your prana in the sushumna, your main subtle body channel along the spine. It is physically very similar to Head to Knee Pose (Janu-sirsasana), except that your spine is extended instead of rounding the spine. With your hands on your foot or leg, use your foot or leg to counter balance the pressure created from leaning back. Find a long spine with the chin tilted back and down. In addition, Maha Mudra is initially practiced with the root lock and breathing steadily through the nose. In the more advanced versions, the navel lock, chin lock and retentions are added. While this mudra might look like an asana, set your intention on directing prana into your spinal channel and feel the effect on your subtle energies as you practice. Mudras are typically held longer so try 25 breathings before switching to the other leg. The grandfather of modern yoga Sri Krishnamacharya was known to favor practicing the advanced form of Maha Mudra well in to the late stages of his life of 101 years. I have found the Maha Mudra to be a prana packed combination of asana, bandha, and pranayama to help me live a happy and productive life.
Mudras are tools to increase, conserve, and direct your life force. They are all around us in everyday life. Most are very convenient; you can even create them while waiting in line at the store, instead of checking email on your smartphone! I encourage you to pick a few and take them with you to enjoy. Perhaps start with the hasta mudras – yoga of the hands!
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin
If you’re like me, you can put something off forever. You rationalize that you’re not ready yet, you just need x to be in place and then you’ll get started, if only y were different, you’ll do it next time around, you don’t want to try it unless you can do it right, etc, etc. (This is me whenever I think about taking a trip, for example.)
When we don’t even know where to begin, we’re even more likely to procrastinate. Even if we wanted to start, how would we? Imagine walking into an Advanced Calculus class when you barely know how to do addition and subtraction. Life can often feel that way and we may become despondent at times as a result.
It can be the same way with our asana practice. You’ve been doing yoga for a while, you know the difference between Downward Dog and Warrior 1, but after a certain point, you look around and people are doing pushups, handstands, balancing on their pinkies (well, not really but you get the idea) and the whole thing can begin to feel overwhelming. But here’s the thing: every one of those yogis was in the same place you are now at one point. It’s true. Then they attempted one thing, maybe a caturanga dandasana (four legged staff pose, resembles a pushup), maybe struggled with it for a while, and then one day it came together. And then maybe they tried bakasana (crow pose) next, and it eluded them for a while until one day it didn’t. And on and on.
Many of us become emboldened when the path, however intimidating it may seem, is at least clear. If we know what’s involved in getting from point A to point B, the situation becomes manageable and we can actually see ourselves advancing. And then we do.
The reality is that that few things in life really require perfection in order for an attempt to be made. Good enough is good enough. What are we really waiting for anyway? The time is now.
“Now the exposition of Yoga is being made”
The very first sutra in the first chapter/pada of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras sort of sums up all of these ideas very simply. Essentially it’s (lovingly) saying: “Enough dilly dallying, we’re gonna start now. Nobody feels ready; it’s called being human. Don’t worry, I’ll lay out what needs to be done and give you some pointers.”
So we don’t have to figure out wildly complex things all on our own. There is a game plan that can be followed. And the more we slow down and look at things calmly, we’ll see that they’re not as complex as we’d imagined. And then as we practice them with devotion, we begin to master them. The impossible becomes possible. Talk about empowering!
Yoga philosophy teaches us that we already have everything we need; we just need to awaken to that power, to harness it, to place our efforts in certain ways. If we can keep that in mind when we approach our physical practice, we can really begin to fly. We’re probably already strong enough to do most poses, we just need to a) move through the associated fear, b) become acquainted with the pose, and c) learn where to place our weight so we can balance properly. It’s usually as simple as that. Who knew?
So go for it! Learn as you go. Try one thing you’ve been curious about but a little afraid of everyday – both on and off the mat!
What Yoga Teacher Training Meant to Me
by Valerie Mate
Like many people, my yoga practice began with a physical focus. I had an idea that there were other yogic layers that might come into play because I had been practicing at Laughing Lotus for nearly two years. After regularly hearing students talk about their incredible Yoga School experiences (while putting on their shoes or having tea) I realized that I’d been making excuses as to why I hadn’t enrolled in the Laughing Lotus Teacher Training program. Some of my excuses sounded like this:
I don’t have the time!
I am not ready for it!
I haven’t been practicing yoga long enough!
More importantly, I was scared as to what I might uncover within myself through the process. Because of my experience practicing with the Laughing Lotus Teacher Training instructors and observing their depth of knowledge I had the hunch that the experience of Yoga School would be enlightening. As it turns out, I was right. Laughing Lotus Yoga School is an expansive experience that goes deep into all aspects of yoga.
It can be scary to embark on new endeavors, especially in the beginning when you feel like you’re all alone. In my experience, one of the greatest benefits of Laughing Lotus Yoga School was the relationships with other students. I had the feeling of being supported and celebrated throughout the program. Having a mentor to talk to and relate to, and possibly even have a meltdown to, proved to be immensely helpful in the process of growing and learning. There were some points when I would email my mentor, wondering how in the world the breakthroughs I was having in my personal life could be connected with what was happening in Yoga School! My mentor’s guidance was priceless to me.
If I were to describe my Yoga School experience in three words, they would be: Valuable, Applicable, and Expansive. There are many threads of experience that weave these words together, such as knowledge of the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, Sanskrit, and Asana sequencing. There are also things that happen internally as a result of the process, that you might not expect, such as increased confidence, finding your voice, and greater self-knowledge.
As Patanjali’s commentary on Yoga Sutra 2:5 says: Yoga does not bother much about changing the outside world. Mana eva manushyanam karanam bandha mokshayoho. “As the mind, so the man; bondage or liberation are in your own mind.” If you feel bound you are bound. If you feel liberated, you are liberated. Things outside neither bind nor liberate you; only your attitude towards them does that.
Whether you are considering Yoga School because you want to teach yoga or for your own personal growth, you will change, you will be challenged and you will not regret the experience. I went into Laughing Lotus Yoga School with procrastinating habits and a desire to have a more complete yogic experience and came out with a new perspective, abundantly satisfied that I now have the tools I need to not only find balance within myself, but to help others find it within as well.
Valerie Mate is a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance and certified yoga therapist with IAYT and a graduate from Laughing Lotus Yoga School and Purusha Yoga School. She is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Educator and Counselor who is passionate about health, yoga and wellness. Learn more about Valerie at: padmehealth.com or follow her on Facebook.
For more info on Laughing Lotus Teacher Training & Student Immersion programs, visit: www.sf.laughinglotus.com or email: email@example.com.
by Roche Janken
Are you ready for this?
Are you sure?
Okay… here it is:
Have fun. Yes, that’s it. How can that be? The truth is that you’re ready. If you have a regular yoga practice and you’re studying with an alignment-aware teacher, all the pieces are already in place. Every time you do downward dog, you’re preparing your body to fly upside down.
So the last piece is to flip your thinking! In the yoga sutras, Patanjali calls it “pratipaksha bhavanam,” loosely translated as “take another view.”
Heavy thoughts keep us down. Think about that moment when a person that you care about says, “We need to talk.” Suddenly, your limbs and heart weigh a ton. Now, think about when that same person sends you a “just thinking of you” text message. Now you’re flying! That’s how this mind-body-spirit thing works, right?
This union that is the keystone of yoga has been studied from many sides. Pick up Bone, Breath and Gesture, edited by Don Hanlon Johnson, and read some incredible essays from folks such as Moshe Feldenkrais, F.M. Alexander and Elsa Gindler. “In sitting we must be upright. As long as we slouch, we disturb all the internal functions. When one straightens up, one can feel how one’s life immediately becomes quieter and more satisfying.” Sounds like Iyengar, but in fact it’s Gindler writing from early 20th century Germany. We rediscover this union every time we come to the mat.
Practicing yoga reminds us that we can choose how our minds engage with our world, that we can influence our minds by how we interact with our bodies and visa versa. When life gets tough, we can get stuck feeling miserable OR we can rise to the challenge. (I do believe that clinical depression and deep sadness are real and that not everyone can choose all the time. I also believe that many of the petty frustrations and disappointments that make us suffer can instead pass over our hearts like clouds over the sun, never dimming its bright essence.)
Of course, doing anything for the first time is challenging, whether it’s having fun in a handstand or having fun in a job interview. Reframe it as an exciting journey into the unknown and see where you end up! My guess is that you’ll end up looking at the world upside down.
by Jasmine Tarkeshi
“Like a caring mother holding and guarding the life of her only child, so with a boundless heart hold yourself and all beings.” ~The Buddha
When I first started practicing yoga in my 20’s, it was with the passion and fury of a young soldier heading into battle with the promise of Moksha, liberation and the longing to free myself from suffering. The texts I read and my practice were ways of going beyond the body and the material world, claiming it to all be an illusion. You are not the body, you are not the mind was the mantra that I thought would free and detach myself from the triviality of the physical world. I thought that the divine was separate from the world of matter. And boy, was I happy about that!
You see the world was where all my pain was: my relationships, my body and material possessions. My spiritual practice became another way of escaping, to not feel, and to disconnect mostly from myself, who I had been running from. Asceticism and extreme self denial were self punishing attitudes that I was familiar and comfortable with and although I am eternally grateful for every step I have taken on this divine adventure, I am so blessed to have found the path that was to lead me to true happiness, peace and freedom and to my life’s work: Yoga as the Path of the Divine Mother which calls on cultivating connection rather than liberation from the material world.
It was through meeting the spiritual teacher and living saint, Matta Amritananda Mayi Ma or simply Amma or Mother, with one of her life changing hugs in New York City in 1998 that I began to experience what was to become the dawning of my awakening to living a spiritual life. Her intense love for all beings as her children, and her devotion to removing their suffering through love, compassion and action instead of denial brought me to my knees in tears and changed the way I would live and practice forever, including opening up a Yoga Center called Laughing Lotus with a beautiful Amma devotee, Dana Flynn and creating a practice together that was devotional and joyful as well as disciplined, called Lotus Flow.
In eastern philosophy, the earth is feminine and heaven is masculine. It is through the union of the two, bringing heaven to earth that we experience the body as a temple for the divine and live in a way where everything and everyone is holy. Even our suffering and the most painful human experiences and natural disasters are part of the divine and the Mother’s deep love to awaken us.
Yoga and it’s simplest meaning, “to yoke” is a means to bridge the huge divide between our minds and bodies, our thoughts and actions, ourselves and others to experience oneness and heal all duality. What we are actually freeing ourselves from is the illusion of separateness; true freedom is internal and eternal.
“Our task must be to free ourselves from this self imposed prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.” ~Albert Einstein
This path asks us to be completely present and aware of our intensely intimate relationship to the earth, as our Mother, and live in a way in which every act in sacred. The very word for action in Sanskrit is Shakti, which is the feminine creative power within us all. Cultivating attitudes of caring and compassion and taking action to heal, nurture, nourish, serve and transform are all ways to awaken the power of the divine Mother within us. To come into our own body is to reclaim this power.
This month at Laughing Lotus we celebrate yoga and the path of the divine Mother or path of Love in action to heal ourselves and the world. We explore the infinite ways in which our daily practice of yoga, and seeing ourselves and the world as sacred can awaken the power to take loving action in stopping destructive patterns and creating positive change. Through exploring the hundreds of archetypes of the goddess through the world’s great traditions in her beautiful and horrifying forms, we will learn to recognize and bow to how she comes alive in our daily lives.
Here are the 3 main Hindu aspects of the Divine Mother from which thousands more unfold. JAI MA! (Praise or Victory to the Mother).
•Laxmi – The goddess of beauty, wealth and abundance. We can become aware of the boundless ways we are blessed by nature’s abundance and become more grateful and generous in return.
•Kali or Durga – The terrifying destructive forms of the Goddess. We can see how our difficulties can be viewed as the tough love of the Mother that wake us up and ask us to make necessary changes in order to grow.
•Saraswati – The Goddess of Arts, Wisdom and Speech. By immersing ourselves in creativity, we can realize our own creative power to create the life that is in tune with our truest nature.
Join us at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center SF, as we celebrate and explore the theme of the Divine Mother for the month of July.
Jasmine Tarkeshi is the Founder & Director of Laughing Lotus Yoga Center – San Francisco.