I am not a mudra expert. First, and lastly, I had to ask, “what do mudras mean to me?” The first sincere answer that came to me was simple: mudras are hand and finger gestures.
As a child, I learned early on that there were endless ways to express myself using mere hand gestures, both good and bad. I learned that waving my little hand was a friendly way to say hello. Waving it frantically to my friends across the street got their attention. I learned that hands together, while bowing my head, showed gratitude, while pointing was rude. The back wave of my hand was a gesture of dismissal, or a great way to get stung by that relentless bee (j/k).
Hands, as an extension of our bodies, equals a language that is universal and passed on from generation to generation. My life journey has been very “hands on,” with enriching to religious experiences with hands.
I grew up Catholic. It is customary in the Catholic faith that before one takes a seat in church he or she acknowledge the Holy Trinity through the expression of the “The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit” hand symbol over the body. Since I didn’t quite understand it, I would often ignore it, which did not bode well with Granny, who would deliver a lovingly quick slap on my hand until I got it right.
When I got a little older and my connection to the Catholic faith began to wane, my cousins took me to a Baptist Church, which came with a different set of ritual and symbolism. I saw Christians use their hands as a sign of intercession for healing. There was praising coupled with the waving of hands and the stomping of feet, hollering and endless clapping, and, afterward, bottomless buffets of home cooking (which is what everyone looked forward to)!
I’ve opened my heart to many spiritual practices over the years. From Reiki to Kundalini, where I was introduced to prayers and hand gestures in a way I had never been before. It was exciting and incited my Yoga practice.
When I look back on my spiritual education and ask what mudras mean to me, the answer is simple: connection. When I need to access connectivity with mudras, I am reminded of my personal power and all the energy that lies at the depth of how my being connects with others.
While symbolic in their reference to ancient cultures and rituals, they are certainly not dismissive of modern, everyday, spiritual and energetic truths – quite the opposite, in fact! I find meaning and connection, through my hand gestures, to the world around me even, and especially, when my body or voice cannot find the right language.
Mudras are another way I am reminded of the magic that comes together when we focus, meditate, dream, pray and manifest. It is divinity in our hands.
August is mudras month at Laughing Lotus, so come deepen your relationship with these spiritual hand shapes in all our Laughing Lotus classes, including Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:30pm with Essence (see class schedule here)
Last weekend I was Long Island-bound on the LIRR with a friend – not to the Hamptons as many were, but to a yoga workshop nowhere near any fancy beach. On our journey it was a river rush of catching up, checking in and giving or getting advice.
At some point we decided to check in with our hands and noticed that we had our “summertime nails,” both freshly manicured in pastel shades – so silly and sweet. We took this photo of our light pink and blue nails. The beauty of this picture, for some reason, made my heart expand. Why, I wondered, did this photo release such a feeling in me? One immediate realization is that it looks like Vajrapradama Mudra, the gesture of unshakable trust.
When one practices this Vajrapradama mudra (palms towards the heart, interlaced fingers with a little tug), it can help to establish faith and trust in oneself and build confidence in ourselves. According to Gertrude Hirschi, in her book Mudras: Yoga in Your Hands, it can also help to forge a trust in the divine… in what the Universe has to offer.
This picture brought me to the breathtaking view of my relationships and how TRUST is such a fundamental aspect of what makes a bond. What are the most important qualities to have in your relationships? This is a question Alison Cramer and I asked in a workshop we just taught for one of our 50-hour trainings at LL. For both Ali and me, trust is in the top three. Without the foundation of TRUST in any relationship, the road will be rocky, indeed.
Over the years, my practices of dance and yoga have asked me strengthen this aspect of trust within myself repeatedly. Trust my body to stand on my hands? Trust myself to hold someone up in a fast moving dance piece? Trust myself to assist someone in a handstand? Trust my heart to fall in love again when every fiber of my being is screaming run for the hills? I find that over years many of us become protective of our hearts, our accomplishments and our material things, possibly because we have trusted and been hurt. Or, we were trusted and hurt another.
There is something so incredibly powerful in becoming trustworthy, to be the support for someone else. Such power may also lie in being vulnerable and allowing someone else to carry the weight… to ask for help. We see this so much through partner work in yoga and dance (what a prep for real life)! In trust, we become fearless and begin to move away from what is only comfortable and familiar and start to really LIVE and CONNECT. Through the process of learning to trust again, in ourselves and in our relationships, we begin to take flight into a realm of possibilities we couldn’t even imagine were previously available.
That pastel nails day rolled right into a week of FLY, a 50-hour program that I direct at Lotus. There was an incredible amount of LOVE and TRUST infused into each day, and for this I am grateful. The time for growth is always now!
I look forward to continuing the process with the Lotus Temple Dancer 50 hour training the last week of August. Move, Support, Trust, Feel, DANCE!
Sheri is the Director of the Lotus Temple Dancers and leads the first LTD 50-hour advanced training (register here). As always, you can catch Sheri throughout the week in class (see class schedule here).
I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little taken back during my first yoga class when asked to take my hands into prayer. Having no understanding of mudras or how they can be used, I immediately withdrew. Why are we praying and to whom? My observation was a closed one. Instead of trying to understand, I reverted back to judgment and old habits – judging the process before letting it in.
Over time, I wrestled with this common theme of judgment and old habits before peeling back the layers in my practice. Today, I find new ways to relate the ancient mudras to my practice. While they have meaning behind them, they also possess a strong set of qualities that can be used for daily rituals (dinacharya) to promote a variety of benefits.
Anchoring is a technique used for a variety of social and business situations. It is simply the process of associating an internal response or experience with some external cue or internal trigger so that the “response” may be quickly reassessed.
Let’s use hands to prayer – Anjali mudra – as an example. Knowing that Anjali mudra stands for devotion, honor and the like (internal response/experience), you bring these thoughts to the mind when the mudra (external cue/response) is performed. Repetition will enforce and make the anchor heavier and easier to access.
Techniques like this are being used on us all day in the marketing and sales world around us. Who knows, maybe they were derived from some “ancient” practice somewhere.
I love teaching people about the hands and how to properly distribute weight when using them in yoga. It is unlikely that you have had training how to do this unless you have been an acrobat, gymnast, a circus performer or something similar, so this can be a huge hurdle for many people. It’s almost like learning to walk again. The mudras provide an active awareness in the hands that teaches us to use the muscles more independently and with intention. These various shapes work the hands in ways that may be unfamiliar in our daily lives, creating muscle confusion (adaptation), which leads to strengthening.
How do the mudras balance us out? On a mental and spiritual level they leave us open to giving, receiving and healing. I feel this helps us connect the pranamaya kosha (spiritual body) to the annamaya kosha (physical body) acting as a doorway or “anchor.”
On a physical level, it helps create various movements in the hands to learn awareness and isolation of the muscles. As technology increases, the labor most of us perform with our hands each day has likely decreased. The mudras can bring that balance back, especially when performed during Kundalini!
Using these concepts together creates an amazing connection between the mind and physical body, with a concentration on the hands. A targeted meditation of purpose and strength brings together a true balance of awareness and understanding. Bearing weight and balancing on the hands can be intimidating in a yoga practice. Creating a greater awareness and understanding slowly wears away at that intimidation.
Get on your hands and throw your feet up in the air! Join Jeffrey to anchor, strengthen balance and discover the formula for a freestanding handstand in a special workshop: #Hashtag Handstands, Sunday, August 24th (register here). You can also FLY more with Jeffrey during NITE FLIGHT, our summer evening FLY classes at 9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays (sign up for class here).
One of my earliest memories was my grandpa teaching me how to wash my hands. Like most three year-olds, I would just quickly run my hands under water (if that) and get back to important play time. I had no time to waste on washing my hands. I was at my grandparents’ house one day, and he noticed this shameful act. He told me promptly that we needed to go back to the bathroom and learn how to wash our hands. His big, wrinkly hands showed me how to lather and use a circular motion to incorporate that foamy lather into every crevice. His deep voice would occasionally break out into operatic song, and I was mesmerized.
He then took my hands and helped me mimic this graceful dance. He told me how important it was to wash your hands and wash them well. Every time I wash my hands, I think of him. A small, simple ritual to start again, clean and renew.
How we use our hands is so important, and we often take them for granted. In classes lately, I have been talking about how the way we use our fingers and hands are very different than how we used them five, ten, even 15 years ago. When was the last time you wrote a letter with a pen? Now, we write
emails, text, and tap our fingers to post in social media like crazy. Our relationship to our hands has shifted. We are overworking and under-working certain muscles in the hands and fingers. This creates a domino effect that works up the arms into our back and neck. Even as I am typing up this blog, I keep adjusting my seat so my shoulders don’t collapse into my chest!
One of the most primal ways we use our hands is with cooking food. We have been doing that forever! It is in our lineage to prepare our food; it connects us with the divine force that sustains our well-being. You can give the same exact recipe to two people and the food will taste different. Why? Because our uniqueness will translate into anything we touch.
How we use our hands, work with our hands and touch others is all a reflection of our hearts. We have a choice how to use them to serve or harm. That is why the mudra practice is so powerful, to restore and deepen our connection with our heart space. By creating different shapes with our hands – essentially hand asanas – we nourish them and heal this vital conduit between our inner and outer worlds.
Think about when you meet someone for the first time. Usually a handshake is involved, and other times a hug. These are exchanges of energy, and you can tell when you receive a firm handshake or a loose one. Intention through touch is extremely powerful, and our intuitive minds recognize this information. Our hands connect us to everything.
Hands in a prayer position are a common sighting in yoga classes. We say namaste and usually bring our hands in front of our heart. This gesture has a universal meaning. In many cultures it’s how people acknowledge each other. And essentially, at the end of a yoga class, it is how the teacher/students acknowledge each other: I see you and you see me.
I look forward to mudra month at Laughing Lotus because it makes me more aware of how I use my hands. For example, I had this really bad habit of waking up and my hands would be clenched tight, really tight. What I had to look at more closely: what was I holding onto so tightly in my heart?
Next time you are feeling overwhelmed or stuck, go wash your hands. Even take a couple of seconds to bring your hands together in a prayer. You can always start again.
Big bow to you all,
Explore mudras and more with Veronica in class on Mondays at 7pm and Wednesdays at 6:45pm (see schedule here). Sometimes mudras can help calm and pacify during the hot summer months; explore a few with Ali Cramer during Sacred Seasons: Pitta Pacifying, on Saturday, August 9th (register here).
“There are as many yogas as there are people,” (TKS Desikachar, the father of Vinyasa yoga). The meaning of this sinks deeper with age, and it’s refreshing to teach and practice from a perspective that one size does not fit all. Yoga is as diversified as we are, a vehicle of transformation that anyone can travel in. Where we go and need to go changes too, so there are also many yogas for one person.
Yoga can take us from A to B. It’s a path, or a journey. For many, B is a spiritual or physical destination, and for others, it is both. Some practice to relax, some to engage or energize, and others to let go. Maybe all of those apply in the same year, or even the same day.
When I was a kid, I took yoga to chill out. I could not wait for the guided 20-minute savasana where the teacher reminded you to relax every single body part from head to toe. I was blessed, blissed and often asleep by the end.
Later in life, my yoga destination was often advanced asana and my practice included a LOT of shortcuts. When I was going through a break-up, I got on my yoga mat to move through that special pain. Many times yoga has brought me to breakthroughs, and those were the times when I got on my mat and let the practice do the steering.
It’s not always easy to roll out like that, especially when we are bombarded with expectations both from ourselves, and our surroundings. It’s easy to get our minds stuck in images of what “it” should look like, both in practice and in life. Many people come to me frustrated with their progress on the mat and with the limits of their bodies. So many who move beautifully think they are not good enough to do a yoga training or take a certain class. Others are annoyed that there is such a spotlight on advanced postures, and I understand that. In the wise words of one of my teachers, “ You can still be an asshole and put your foot behind your head.”
I have felt similar frustration, too, with my body and my practice. Injuries have given me the pink slip from my mat, and during those times meditation and binge watching TV shows were my practice. Absence does make the heart grow fonder though, and the long road back gave me the tools to love where my body was – even when it couldn’t do a damn thing.
The appreciation of our limitations can open our eyes to process, and it takes the focus off the destination or the “products.” It gives us a starting point at the middle, over and over again, with the breathing room to trade our frustration for curiosity.
I still love balancing on my hands in funky shapes, but I just stopped caring what I look like, or what “it” looks like. I still love teaching these poses too, and it’s more fun. There are infinite shapes between two asanas – between A and B. Stopping to wonder at these steps between give more people access to the same road – and me, more tools to teach with.
You can still have plans, make maps and have goals. Lately, I am starting to perform again, and I know if I get caught up in the performance, the authenticity will be lost. It’s tricky that way. I am also trying to do handstand from crow, which might not ever happen, and that’s all good because even screwing up and falling on my face means I’ve gotten somewhere. And, I am always interested in learning how to get back up. It’s more fun to let the road veer into new directions, even if we have to get a little lost.
One more thing: We are lucky to have our mats and ponder the wonder of life, yoga and the obstacles to practice. How wonderful it to see life as an adventure that can change and brighten at any moment. But, for so many, living in the present moment is a horror show and part of accepting the wonder is also accepting the suffering of our fellow human beings and doing something about it.
Much like the focus on the destination can blind side us to our own process, it can also give us blinders to the what’s going on around us. Sometimes yoga can be an escape; it is a vehicle, after all. Sometimes other things are our way out – and better the mat than the Jack Daniels.
We can take anything too far, even with the best tools and intentions. Make sure, too, to embrace it all, even the tough stuff, and always travel with open eyes.
Flow and FLY with Mary Dana in class each week on MTuWTh and let her famous playlists give you a spiritual high in Lotus Rocks on Saturdays (see class schedule here). Teachers: learn how to lift your sequencing into new places with Super Sequencing, a 50-hour advanced teacher training starting August 4th (register here).
When I was a child, I loved to draw butterflies. Their wings had different shapes: large and pointed, small and round. They were always very colorful.
When I was about nine years old, I got to become the butterfly. My dance teacher choreographed a piece called “chrysalides et papillons.” My costume was beautiful! I had large, gorgeous wings! And, it was black, with neon colors shining in the dark!!!
Then, when I grew older, I remember going with my Dad to those bird exhibitions where the falcons were set free. They would spread their wings and fly over a castle with their sharp little eyes, landing on their trainer’s hand glove and devouring a piece of raw meat. I was fascinated.
Today, I am in love with my morning friends: two little birds who show up every day in my backyard and sing, sing, sing until they get dizzy. One has a vibrant blue color, and the other one is bright red. I never see them fly, but I am stunned – endlessly – by their beauty, and as I listen to their gorgeous voices, I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s words:
« … But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing. … »
Have you ever had the feeling that your wings are majestic? Have you ever had the feeling that your wings are clipped? It comes and goes, doesn’t it? I know…
I have flown so many times – so high, so far, and so free! And, I have fallen so many times – so brutal, so painful and so low. I have broken my wings, lost my feathers and smashed my little bones. I’ve picked them up, patched them all together and thrown myself over the edge again, willing to try this again, willing to feel free again, willing to fly again. And, I would fall, again and again.
The beauty of a journey that looks like a trip with many stops, rather than a direct trip to constant bliss, is that we get glimpses of bliss every time. Every time we go up, we rediscover how it feels to be free, deep in our guts and hearts. Then, we dissolve into the sweetness of this divine dizziness, forgetting we were hurt and that our wings were broken at one time. We are reminded of our intrinsic power of greatness, with no thinking, no judging… no holding back. We feel no ego, no control, no inner fight – just breath, love, happiness, oneness, bliss and eternity.
I have felt like a caged bird with clipped wings more often than I have felt like a free bird, but I believe we all want to feel our hearts wide open, without fear or discomfort. Don’t we all want to live by the rules of unconditional love more than by the rules of our society and break free from the shell we put on to please others? That’s why we keep trying to fly.
One thing I am starting to learn is that freedom, like everything else, is a choice.
As I was trying to unclip my wings recently, I caught myself taking all the steps to weigh them down even more, instead of making the choices that would patiently and carefully, untie them. Every day we do the best we can to choose to step into our power or let it control us.
Can we all promise each other to keep doing the best we can and keep taking the steps that bring us closer to our happiness and not further away? Can we do our best to spread our wings and fly, again and again? Pinky swear… okay?!!
Some days, we’ll feel like my little morning birds, not flying, but just singing. Other days, we’ll find ourselves focused, powerful and strong like the sturdy falcons. And then, delicate and full of light, we’ll become butterflies, full of colors and free!
Never forget the beauty of your own wings. They are strong, magnificent and uniquely gorgeous – just like we are. Most importantly, they are ours. Choose to fly, Butterflies!
Spread your unique and gorgeous wings with Stephanie Mondays and Wednesdays at 8:30pm for her Lotus Hour classes (see schedule).
Up until I was 12 years old, I loved to sing – there was nothing that made my body hum and my spirit soar like singing. I sang throughout my childhood, composing dramatic spontaneous soundtracks to my toy soldiers’ battles, Hot Wheels car races, and Lego construction projects. Intensely shy, it was so difficult to even talk and buy a donut from a cashier, but for some reason I could stand in front of a packed theatre audience and belt out songs. I felt so free singing, and it lifted my mood, coloring a duller world with each turning note of song.
When I was 12, the school chorus teacher recruited me for a special Christmas concert. She heard that I was in the New Orleans Symphony Children’s Chorus and wanted me to sing the lead solo part, the summit of the evening. I practiced at home, rehearsed with my peers at school and everything seemed on course. Posters were plastered all over the school that announced: “Christmas concert featuring Sean Johnson of The New Orleans Symphony Children’s Chorus.” That evening, hundreds of kids and their parents gathered in the auditorium. I was introduced with a big round of applause. I walked up on stage and smiled. The chorus teacher raised her baton, and I began to sing.
Suddenly, I couldn’t control my voice. Shrill, high-pitched sounds, totally out of tune, leapt randomly, like wild, frightened fish from my throat. I sounded like a cartoon character, crowing “HAH-LEY-LOOOOOO-YAHHHHH!” My voice quivered and broke, unrecognizable. Shocked, I looked out at the chorus teacher as I sang the last verse. She was horrified. She shook her head and buried her face in her hands. I cried myself to sleep that night. My spirit sank.
The kids teased and taunted me for days. I was so embarrassed that I quit the Symphony Children’s Chorus. Soon after, I realized that an unexpected guest had arrived at that ripe moment on stage. It was puberty, and my voice was shifting with all the other alien physical changes. But, in my adolescent mind, the damage was already done. I was filled with shame. I stopped singing. I put my voice in a cage and threw away the key.
A decade passed and none of my friends during that period knew that I once called myself a singer, that there was a time when I loved singing more than anything. As a young adult thinking back on this incident from childhood, it seemed ridiculous that it would still hold power over me, nevertheless it did. I longed to sing, to feel my body buzz again with that freedom. But, I had buried my singing voice under the rubble of fear.
One day, in college, I enrolled in an Irish Studies course. My professor, Seán Williams, offered to teach a few of the students these beautiful, highly ornamented, sean-nos (old-style) Irish songs, sung in free time, acapella, that she had learned from Joe Heaney, one of the greatest Irish singers in this song form. I learned that these songs were significant in Irish history, cherished during an era of oppression when the British rulers commonly burnt all the musical instruments in the villages in an effort to extinguish Irish culture and identity. But, the people still had the most primary musical instrument — their voices. They would gather, often in secret at night, around the hearth, and sing these songs, many of them laments.
In the sean-nos singing tradition the singer typically closes his or her eyes, or even turns their back to their audience. The song transports the singer and the listeners, stirring their hearts to a great depth of feeling. Each song, no matter the roughness or quality of the singer’s voice, is regarded as a treasured gift to the community.
When I heard these beautiful songs, they awakened a hunger in my heart to sing again. After the first lesson, I went home, locked the door to my room and dimmed the lights. I reached into the cobwebs for my voice, which like a wounded bird had been held hostage for a decade by my own childhood shame. I closed my eyes in that moment, and sang into the scars. My body disappeared. My ancestors were waiting for me inside these songs. It was rough at first, but gradually, with practice, patience, time, and guidance, my voice rose from the ashes, and I was soaring, once again.
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Birds make great sky circles of their freedom. How do they learn it? They fall. And falling they’re given wings.”
Not long after, I was introduced to Sufi chanting, yoga mantra chanting, and kirtan. I relished new forms of prayerfully joining with others to sing from the inner space of the heart. That was nearly 20 years ago, and to this day, I feel most alive and most awake when I’m singing.
I share this story with you to give you the courage to free your voice from the cage of fear, and to find your own unique way to express the depths of your heart. Life is too short and too precious to hold back. Sing your song!
Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band are getting ready to lift you up in song and spirit. Back by popular demand, their mantric tunes are set to vibrate the Dance Hall Friday, July 25th (register here). FYI, their new album, Unity, drops August 19th (find out more here), so come get a preview and let your spirit soar. It’ll be a family affair you won’t want to miss!