The Power and Science of Mudra
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In September of 2014 my wife and I toured the Asian Hall at the British Museum in London. The presence of nearly every statue exhibiting at least one mudra confirmed my suspicion:
We in the West have overlooked a powerful technology of yoga.
It was no accident that the hall was filled with silent demonstrations of what I predict will become part of the next wave in smart, safe yoga.
Mudras are purposeful body positions, most often involving the hands, but not exclusively. The positions are said to offer the practitioner insight, powerful healing, and other mind-stuff stabilizing capacities. The current modern postural yoga has largely skipped over these techniques in favor of the more culturally familiar “exercises” of asana with their exterior, visible emphasis. The subtlety and interior perspective of mudra has been relegated to that of an occasional meditation prop at best in most brands of yoga.
Two recent books have been published that I hope will further the exploration and adoption of the science of mudra. The books are Mudras for Healing and Transformation by Lilian and Joseph LePage, and Mudras: The Sacred Secret by Indu Arora. The knowledge that will be produced by such investigation invites further scrutiny from the yoga and health care communities through the lens of the scientific method in search for theoretical explanations of how mudras “work.” This post is intended to ignite a conversation, while suggesting both explanations and directions for the further incorporation of mudra as smart, safe yoga.
What is Published About Mudras?
A review of the literature in April 2014 found no published peer-reviewed studies that looked specifically at mudra as a phenomena or a treatment variable. There are a few Kundalini studies that utilized movements, mantra and mudra in combination but the practice was not isolated to mudra and no specific discussion of the theoretical explanation of mudra was published. A review of the few available books on mudra found that beyond the relaxation response and elemental model descriptions of possible explanations, there was no discussion reflecting emerging neuroscience and the complexities of human movement and behavior.
How Might Mudras Work?
The latest science findings reveal a level of complexity and integration of function and form that leaves behind old perspectives such as:
- The parts models of right/left brain,
- brain as mind, and
- Isolated anatomical function and location.
The revelations of epigenetics, neuroplasticity and interpersonal mind that were mere speculation at the turn of this century are now accepted facts. The reductionist process of science has revealed an integrative reality suggesting many possible explanations for the role of mudra. The scope of this post is constrained to a laundry list of ideas intended to spur further questions.
Consider the following findings for future inquiry:
- Both the motor and sensory cortices (exteroceptive system) allot nearly one third their surface to hands vs. less than a third to the trunk and extremities…attention and function here affect large percentages of this area of the brain. Additionally, the discovery of an interoceptive system in the right anterior insula proximate to a more primitive exteroceptive representation suggests that the introspective practice of attention of mudra to subtle experience (pain, temperature, itch, buzz, visceral sensation, vasomotor activity and more) will influence the subjective image of the material self as emotional awareness. See Dr. Bud Craig’s extended explanation here.
- Touching fingers and hands together promotes cross-lateralization and sensorimotor integration in human development. Correlated with objective movement, function and quality of life scales investigations might include inexpensive scale reporting through high-tech movement analysis and imaging studies.
- Rhythmic movement and sound is known to inhibit a sense of separation and isolation. Differentiation from traditional mudra and sham movements or other control activities might illuminate whether any such activity yields benefit or if these classic patterns generate specific responses.
- Cognitive reframing and new narrative generation create both intra and interpersonal behavioral changes. The meaning of accompanied mantras and symbolism of the mudras alters narratives that affect prefrontal and limbic activity. Altering novice orientation groups from traditional explanation, neuroscience explanation, mixed explanations and sham explanations could be examined to isolate the effect of subjective narrative and its role in mudra response generation.
- Altered position and function of the upper extremities affects postural control, respiration patterns and subsequently autonomic nervous system biasing. Simple measures of respiratory recruitment, surface muscle activity, chest and abdominal volumetric changes within and between mudras might suggest interregional relationships between observable biomechanical measurements and subjective experiences of mudras such as the chakra series where regional variation is often reported.
- Visual and guided imagery accompanying mudras are known to change motor performance and exteroceptive and interoceptive body images. Constructing imageries focused on anatomical attention, qualitative attention, and variations of neutral/detached observation vs healing outcome stories are rich with possibilities for measurement.
- Regular novel motor practices generate synaptogenesis in the brain increasing integration and establishing new associative relationships not limited to particular regional activity. Attention to emotional responses without reaction has been shown to lead to enhanced resilience and increased empathy. Mapping these changes of “hard-wiring” has been done with meditation with well-documented changes in anatomy, recruitment patterns to stimuli and subjective behavioral changes.
- Distraction eases the experience of pain and isolation. Case reports to diagnostically related groups (e.g., headache, back pain, GERD, etc.) with controls are possibilities for observation and reporting.
- Attention to breathing and somatic and emotional experience alters genetic expression and produces the relaxation response. Mudra practice may generate similar epigenetic responses in isolation or in combination with known practices.
- Introspective capacity enhances creativity and generates increased inclusiveness, compassion, patience and empathy. Matching these responses with classic mudra is a field of possible study, as is measuring our new cultural “mudras” of keyboard, steering wheel, remote or dataphone postures for texting, gaming and browsing would be fascinating areas to explore.
The Potential at Our Fingertips
This is just a small list of possibilities to invite the reader to a deeper consideration of “How mudras work.” When matched with advancing technologies of measurement (fMRI, PET scans, body image scaling, surface emg’s, etc.), more robust research methodologies (quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods), data management and statistics through software, transcription and thematic extraction, as well as new electronic publishing capacity to allow for cost-effective publication of these findings the possibilities for study are breathtaking. From simple case reports to complex high-tech investigations, mudras invite us to explore the beauty of their design within the complex fabric of the human experience.
Readers are invited to contact me for more information or discussion.
Not sure mudras really “do” anything? That’s ok. Try this simple experiment on yourself:
Put your hands on your lap in hakini mudra as shown here. Close your eyes, sense the size, location and movement of your normal resting breath. After a half dozen, then separate your thumbs, keeping all of the other digits in contact with their opposite digit. Sense and observe any change in size, location or movement of sensation related with breathing for 6 breaths. Then reconnect thumbs and repeat with separating the index fingers for six breaths, then middle finger, etc. Finish after the small fingers by re-sensing with all the fingers in contact. Then try playing with one breath at various levels noting any changes you experience.