Our hands play a special role in our lives. We use them to eat, greet others, do our daily work, communicate, create, and show affection. In yoga, martial arts, and South Indian dance traditions, the hands are considered important energetic centers; in ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, the different fingers are associated with specific organs, thus helping to regulate our health.
As organs of action and sites of sensory reception, the hands also have an intimate connection with the brain, both through neural activity and on more subtle levels. This means that the way we hold our hands can influence the way we hold our mind. And this is precisely why yogis have practiced hand mudras, or gestures, over the centuries.
A mudra can be an instrument to prepare the mind for meditation.
“The mind follows the habits of the breath and the body,” explains Eric Shaw, yoga teacher and scholar in Berkeley, California. “And the hands have a stronger relationship to the mind than much of the rest of the body.” If we place our hands in a position of calm or stillness, the mind can mirror the same qualities. Thus, a mudra can be an instrument to prepare the mind for meditation.
One of the most well-known hand mudras is chin mudra, in which we hold the forefinger to the thumb, and extend the other three fingers out. According to Chris Tompkins, a Bay Area–based Sanskrit scholar specializing in tantric yoga, chin translates as “consciousness.” The circular shape of chin mudra (also known as jnana mudra) creates a non-linear attitude in the mind, says Tompkins, “which helps us break patterns of thinking that tangle us up in the past and the future, so that we can better connect to the present moment.”
The forefinger represents the ego or the self, and the thumb is seen as consciousness or God; when we place them together, there is a sense that the small self connects to the universe. Creating this attitude of connection in our hands influences our mind to create the same attitude.
Chin mudra can be practiced with the palms facing up to encourage receptivity and help us gain insight; or it can be practiced with the palms facing down, which encourages a sense of grounding.
To perform chin mudra in meditation, take a comfortable seated position either on the floor or in a chair. Keeping the jaw relaxed and the spine upright, rest your hands upon your knees or thighs and bring the fingers into chin mudra. Start to focus the mind by bringing attention to the points where your fingertips touch. Then move your attention to the breath and begin to move deeper into meditation.
If the practice works for you, you can experiment with other mudras, such as dhyana mudra, where the hands form a bowl shape in the lap or at the level of the navel center, with the right palm on top of the left and the thumbs touching. Often practiced in Buddhist meditation, dhyana mudra engenders a sense of calm and concentration.
Utilizing mudras throughout your meditation practice will help you cultivate stillness of mind, while refining and expanding your awareness. “When the mind is quiet and focused, it opens and allows universal consciousness to flow through,” says Shaw. “That’s our yogic goal.”