Mudras and Gestures

by Patrick Marsolek (10/2010)

For Centuries yogis, martial artists and spiritual seekers have used ritual hand gestures as part of their spiritual practice. Their belief is that these positions help them attain the mental and physical  discipline or spiritual transformation they seek. We all use common gestures to reinforce certain ways of feeling and thinking. What do you feel if you cross your arms across your chest when you are in conversation with someone? What happens if you open your arms and hold your hands out in front of you with your palms facing up? The first posture may show psychological closing-off, suspicion and even possibly defensiveness. The second posture is more open, accepting and vulnerable. In India, the palms pressed flat together in front of the chest is used with the greeting “Namaste.” One translation of Namaste is “the divine within me salutes the divine within you.” It is thought that if you practice this palms gesture you will see the divine more readily. Are there such connections between our physical bodies and our inner mental or spiritual terrain?

These gestures or to use the Sanskrit word, mudras, are an important part of many different spiritual disciplines. (image) Yogis claim that mudras possess healing and transformational powers and can even activate paranormal abilities. They are gestures of delight, meaning a ‘mark’ or a ‘seal’ of an inner transformation. If you were sitting and you had your palms open on your knees, then closed your thumbs to touch your forefingers, you’d be doing a form of the Jnana Mudra. This posture has been used for thousands of years by meditators to heighten concentration. The use of mudras such as this one has evolved into a complex form of language that transmits esoteric concepts and embodies spiritual ideals. The tradition of using gestures as a way of sacred expression is not limited to Indian traditions. Egyptian priests used mudras to communicate with their gods. The Greeks, Indians, and Chinese used them as part of the elaborate choreographies of their religious plays.

If you look at sacred art from all over the world, you can see figures expressing specific gestures. Jesus is often depicted with his right hand in Prithvi Mudra, with his palm facing outward and the tips of the thumb and ring finger joined. Prithvi mudra is said to provide stability and cure weaknesses of the body and mind. Mary is often depicted in the orans prayer posture, a female standing with the hands outstretched sideways with the palms up. Many think this posture was used to signify the departing feminine soul. The Buddha is also pictured in works of art expressing a variety of different mudras in his hands.

Some scholars believe that mudras may have originated from primitive Shamanistic expressions or dances, in which a Shaman was in contact with and expressing the spirit of an animal or a spirit. In this trance, the Shaman would spontaneously adopt a certain hand position or even an entire body posture as an expression of the energy of that spirit. The assumed posture would help the Shaman channel the powers of that spirit for healing or divination. Other scholars think that the first mudras evolved spontaneously as meditators chanted the earliest recorded vedas, the early Hindu scriptures. The mudras are thought to have spontaneously began with the realization of the states described in the scriptures.  Some researchers go further to suggest that the all of the physical postures or asanas in yoga also evolved from simple hand gestures into the complex system of full body practices that we know today.

Some indigenous Shamanistic practices today still involve a kind of spirit possession. In an African trance dance for example, a person or even a whole group of people will start expressing different postures and movements. The specific spirit can be identified by the postures and movements the person makes. The elders watching over the trance dance will know from their cultural experience how to properly engage with each spirit.

The modern day practices of Tai Chi and Chi Kung are still connected to their Shamanistic animal origins. They embody specific animal totems such as the forms of Soaring Crane or Turtle Longevity. The early practitioners learned that adopting the posture or gesture would help them connect with the state of consciousness or the spirit with which it was associated. Probably in each different form of these martial arts, an individual had an initial spontaneous expression of that spirit. That individual and their followers continued to access that spirit or energy by recreating the discovered form. Each form has its own characters and qualities. In a Shamanistic sense, the spirit dance can imbue the individual with superhuman strength, healing abilities, or spiritual clarity. In the case of the group trance dance, those that embody the spirit might bring back some vision or wisdom for the tribe.

There is some interesting research which explores some of the mechanisms of gesture and posture. Certain nerve cells in the lower temporal lobe of our brains are dedicated exclusively to responding to hand positions and shapes. This area of the brain is very active in infants. The site of these cells, deep in a relatively primitive part of the brain, suggests that the gesture may predate words in evolutionary history as a means of human expression. Evolutionary linguist Sherman Wilcox speculates that “Language emerged through bodily action before becoming codified in speech.” Other researchers have shown that when people perform actions, they remember those actions better if they gesture while they are talking about the actions they did.

The neurological cluster becomes less important as our ability to talk increases in early childhood, but it remains connected to the expressive movement of our bodies. Gestures precede our speech, even before we are conscious of our own thoughts or what we’re going to be saying. Hand movements, and for that matter all matter of body movements, occur first, as thoughts in the brain emerge as images and feelings.  Because gestures don’t pass through the left-brain language filters, they can be connected to deeper, unconscious expressions, perceptions and capacities which would explain their use in spiritual practices.

We often use gestures to bring thoughts, feelings, and memories more to the surface of our awareness, just as a meditator might use them to invoke a state of awareness. Have you ever held the palm of your hand open when trying to express something verbally, or squeezed your hand or your finger tips together trying to formulate a thought? You might also pull your head back with a jerk, saying “No” physically with the body before being able to say “No” verbally.

Researchers have noted how gestures help speakers formulate coherent speech by aiding in the retrieval of elusive words from their memory. The linguist David McNeill refers to gestures as an actual form of thought, not just an expression of thought, but as a cognitive process whereby we can realize meaning without ever expressing it verbally. The experience of the physical might be critical to rounding out the fullness of what is being learned.

The embodiment is what is being actualized by the Shaman, the Chi Kung master or the Yogi. There is an intention in these practices to embody and communicate certain ineffable spiritual ideals that cannot be understood just from verbal language. Can you feel a change in your being when you shift from arms crossed on your chest to the palms together Namaste gesture? In that felt sensation you may be tapping into something that can’t be grasped cognitively. If you notice how it calms your mind and puts you into a state where you are more connected with ‘the divine within’, then you may choose to use this gesture when you are in conflict with someone.

Another way you can experience the mystery of this body/mind connection is when you awaken from sleep in the morning after dreaming. Often when we wake, we lose the memory of our dreams. This can be frustrating when you are trying to recall your dreams. You can notice though, if you change your body position when you wake. You may be lying on your side when sleeping, then roll to your back when you awaken. If you want to remember the dream you can simply turn your body back to the position you were in when sleeping and let the felt sense of that posture come back. Often, dream images and memories will return with this shift.

The intention of the mudras and some of the asanas in yoga is to place the body in a configuration that induces and reinforces a specific state of consciousness. The shape of the pose or posture acts as a doorway into the expression of that awareness. (olmec sculpture image) This is something many people do unconsciously. You might you cross your arms over your chest to feel more safe and secure, or you might hold your palm to your heart when you want to feel more compassion. These seemingly spontaneous gestures shift your consciousness. This is one reason teachers suggest you sit with your spine straight when you meditate. The collective wisdom of meditators from many countries suggests that posture helps to calm and clear the mind.

A kind of morphic resonance may also be present in sacred mudras and postures. Rupert Sheldrake proposed the idea of morphic fields of information. These are fields of information that are created any time organisms do a specific kind of behavior. With these fields, the experience becomes accessible by the same kinds of organisms at a later date. If enough people have sat straight in meditation or held a particular mudra in their hands while having a spiritual experience, then it may be that others tap into this powerful field of information when they assume the same posture. This collective memory might partially explain why specific postures and mudras evoke certain experiences. There may also be an activation of the nervous and energetic systems in our bodies when we take specific postures. Although we have the higher intellect and self-reflective consciousness of humans, we are still housed in animal bodies with concrete physical systems.

Gestures and mudras can also express themselves spontaneously. In India, individuals have been known to suddenly drop from walking into the seated pose and lapse into a unified state. Some say that it is the awakening of the Kundilini energy at the base of the spine that causes a meditator to suddenly assume an erect posture or even visibly shake. An interesting correlate to this expression of kundilini occurs in some people who are experiencing Grof’s Holotropic breathwork. In this process, which induces a transformative altered state, it is common to have a regressive experience where a person can physically revisit early birth experiences. When this happens, their hands and feet constrict in ways that babies do at that phase of their development.

Thus these mudras and postures work both from the inside out and the outside in. We may find ourselves experiencing an archetypal energy and feel moved to take on a certain posture because of a shift in our consciousness. We may also consciously choose to assume a posture or mudra to invite the genius of that state to return. In hypnosis this is called anchoring. A therapist might notice how someone spontaneously touches her heart when she feel safe and loved. He may comment on it and help her repeat the gesture, so that she can learn to use that touch to return to that safe, loving feeling again at a later date.

In a more overt way, we communicate through our gestures much more of what we are thinking and feeling than we are consciously aware. Recently some researchers have studied the speech of politicians and noted how they gesture with their dominant side more frequently when they’re speaking about something they judge as ‘good’ or ‘positive’. It seems the dominant side is used more to say “Yes”. Psychologically, this may be related to the Jungian concept of shadow, where our unexpressed or negative parts are expressed in less dominant ways. People who are good at reading others have learned to watch these subtle subconscious cues to determine if someone is lying or telling the truth. Body workers refer to this connection when they say, “the body never lies.”

Researchers have also found that simply observing a gesture can stimulate the same patterns of neural firing as when actually performing it. We have mirror neurons in our brains. These neurons stimulate your body in the same way as if you were actually doing what you are seeing. These mirror neurons might explain why just seeing a particular mudra or posture can trigger the observer to activate some of the same spiritual awareness, especially if the gesture was originally connected to a powerful, transformative state of consciousness. The artists who portrayed saints, teachers and spiritual seekers through history in specific postures and mudras may have transmitted more than just a beautiful image. These images may serve as a tangible way to activate us today, helping us touch the ineffable in ourselves.

Seeing the posture is a beginning, physically doing it allows further embodiment. The different yogas, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, other martial arts, and even meditation and prayer are all technologies to attain some kind of spiritual awakening. They all have physical embodied components that can’t be cognitively comprehended.  Seen in this light, these practices are not intended to subvert the physical body in service of spirit or consciousness. Rather the interconnection of posture and awareness highlight how the mind and body may be equal partners in the realization of higher levels of consciousness. The ecstatic experience of the realized state is in part possible because of full physical embodiment. Many of the sacred texts of the world have hand gestures that accompany them. For example, Stan Tenan of the Meru Foundation has proposed that the meaning of the Hebrew texts may be secondary to a set of hand gestures and mental movements that accompany them. Like the Sanskrit Vedas, these hand gestures are thought to be integral to the the transmission of the meaning of the Hebrew texts.

Another interesting corollary here are what have been termed “Ecstatic Trance Postures.” The Cuyamungue Institute, which was founded by the late Felicitas Goodman, has been researching how certain whole body postures, when held in trance states, produce very predictable and specific experiences. Looking through historical and prehistorical archaeological artifacts and artwork, Goodman catalogued over 80 postures that were portrayed in art dating back to the early Neolithic period. Goodman proposed that it is the physiology of the human body, which has remain unchanged for the last 30,000 years. A modern person may have an experience in trance that would be very similar to a Neolithic medicine woman’s experience.

These different postures are often described as being connected to specific animals and their energies. The Bear Posture for example, is a standing posture, with hands held precisely across the stomach area, head tilted back and mouth slightly open. Goodman refers to this as a 'birthing' rather than a ‘healing’ posture due to the experiences of many subjects who held the posture. The inclined Shaman posture which is portrayed in the famous Paleolithic cave at Lascaux in Southern France shows a figure reclined backwards at a 37 degree angle. This posture elicits perceptions of journeying and flying.

Even in our day to day lives though, awareness of posture and gesture can be helpful. As I mentioned above, you can reactivate a state of being by taking on the posture of that state. If you want to feel safe, you can close your arms over your chest and literally “pull back.” You could also put your hand to your heart if you want to feel more loving or compassionate. If there is a dominant figure or saint in your faith, you can adopt the posture in which they are portrayed and perhaps align yourself more with their teachings. If you do this as a part of your regular meditation or spiritual practice, the effects may be more profound. As you welcome the interpaly between your consciousness and your body, you may discover more valuable expressions of your own becoming.

Patrick Marsolek is the director of Inner Workings Resources. He leads groups and teaches classes in consciousness exploration, personal development, healing and  compassionate communication. He offers his services to businesses, individuals and families, and in self-empowerment seminars throughout the Northwest. He is also a clinical hypnotherapist and the author of A Joyful Intuition. See for more information.




Christ is often painted with His right hand in prithvi mudra.


This Olmec Statue depicts a Shaman in what is very similar to the Scorpion Asana of classical yoga.


Marble figurine from Akrotiri. 3rd millennium B.C.


Mary in the Orans Prayer Posture