‘Gesture of the Backbone’
Our general encounters with mudras are typically low just from attending open public yoga classes. Few of us, and that extends even to the teachers, would even realise that there’s a mudra for just about every common condition.
One of the most widespread complaint of our time, a physical ailment that troubles many of modern society is back pain, especially the lower back. Our spinal health has deteriorated over the decades from poor posture and bad sitting habits, and as a result we find ourselves suffering from discomfort in the area. Unfortunately, it isn’t a condition that can be cured, however its pain can certainly can be reduced and managed so it isn’t quite as debilitating.
In Yoga Therapy, we explore ways to help the symptoms of pain by looking at the available yogic tools in our repertoire and mudras are one of options that we can use on its own or in combination with other tools.
‘Anudandi’ translates as ‘spine’ in Sanskrit and its core quality is to offer back pain relief. When executing this gesture, breath and awareness are directed to the entire back – a calm, rhythmic, wavelike motion is felt across the spine, flowing up and down, energetically, to encourage tension release in the muscles and bring a greater sense of comfort.
1. Sitting cross-legged is a possible option, however if there’s discomfort in the back, it’s best to lie down instead, with knees bent and feet on the ground so that the spine is place neutral across the mat.
2. Wrap fingers around the thumb to create a fist. Extend the little fingers and touch the tips of them together.
3. Rest heel of palms on the lower ribs with little fingers running across the top of the belly, allowing elbows to sit spaciously by the side of the body.
4. With eyes closed, bring attention inwards and begin to shift your focus to the breath. Try to breath from the nose and activate ‘Ujjayi breath’ if it’s in your practice. Otherwise, just breathing naturally and regardless of which breath you go for, you want it to be deep and steady with a soft quality, nothing forced or exerted.
5. Inhale to feel a nourishing sensation rise from base to top of your spine. Exhale to feel a sensation of letting go from top to base of the spine. Allowing your back to soften into the ground with each breath out.
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It’s just what our brain does habitually – we compartmentalise things to help us understand them quicker and more easily. Male or female, teacher or student, client or therapist, like or dislikes… our brain is like an automatically filing system that instantly allocates a set of terms on objects or situations we come across in order for us to comprehend it.
Many of us learn to practice yoga or were introduced to them, during teacher training, as families of asanas (poses). We group them by their type – standing, seated, lying down, inverted – and then by their functions – forward folds, backbends, arm balances, twists and inversions, and through categorising, it has made it easier to understand these postures, what they do and where best to put them within a Vinyasa sequence.
Compartmentalising is a quick way to help us come to conclusions and decisions so it’s undoubtedly a useful tool, however when our brain gets stuck with these compartmentalised concepts, it ends up becoming counterproductive, discouraging a creative form of thinking and restricting a more adaptable and versatile approach towards applying these tools, which are meant to assist us in the first place.
I talked about Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold) in one of my recent posts. In the story, I presented 2 different ways of performing the pose that are commonly seen in the yoga studio and asked if anyone felt that one alignment was more correct than the other. The moral of the story however, were that both alignments are equally correct. It just depended on the results you were hoping to achieve out of the pose.
So for this post, I thought I’d return to Paschimottanasana again to make my point. It’s a pose that many people struggle with, typically because of tight hamstrings or a stiff lower back. The toes become a sort of a goal and you see practitioners trying so hard to reach it, heaving and edging themselves forward with quite limited results. The tightness in the hamstrings or lower back become so much more apparent in these moments.
In several of my classes recently, I’ve got students to do Uttanasana instead. With a bit of cueing and instructions, you instantly notice an increased range – they fold deeper, the fingers dangle closer to the toes and many report a sensation of release across the spine and at the back of their thighs. However, most fail to notice that they are essentially performing Paschimottanasana, except their on the feet. They compartmentalised the situation – the goal is to touch their toes in a seated forward fold – when in fact, they are closer to their goal (of reaching the toes) than they realise.
How is it that their range increases so easily with just a switch of position? It stems from the concept of kinematic constraints. A body with no restriction is free to move in any direction, but when we restrict motion from any of the movement planes – top or bottom and front, back or sides for example – it leads to a limitation of movement in other planes. In Paschimottanasana, the entire lower body is fixed to the ground, which instantly makes it more difficult to fold forwards. When we switch a person to standing, only the bottom is fixed to the ground while the rest of the body is free to move, hence why he/she’s able to reach further towards the feet in Uttanasana.
In the end, none of the above matters so much, what’s more important is to have that freedom of mind and thinking. If you see a student struggling so hard to reach for the toes in a Seated Forward Fold, maybe it’ll help more to offer him to stand and fold instead? Our minds are alive and we can start to look at the poses in a more dynamic manner to help us achieve the results we hope to bring to the person.
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I was eager to know so I turned to the three key classical hatha yoga texts – Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita – for answers. All of them claim the existence of 84 asanas though none reveals what these 84 poses are. What binds them are that their all dedicated to the practice of meditation, which meant that the techniques highlighted from asanas, breath-work (pranayama) to cleansing (kriyas), are all directed towards this goal.
One of the most challenging part of tracing yoga’s history is the lack of documentation. Instructions were passed down through word-of-mouth, from teacher to student, so there’s distinct lack of historical information and teachings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but even as I brought my search to Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar, a 1966 publication with over 200 poses documented, that’s considered the bible of modern yoga, the handstand was still missing.
So… has a handstand really existed for centuries? After-all, there are 84 asanas, could it be within the selection, just undocumented? As I delved deeper, I finally came across a verse that implicates a handstand in Hathaabhyasapaddhati, an 18th century Hatha yoga manual in Sanskrit attributed to Kapala Kurantaka, the only known work prior to modern yoga to describe elaborate asana sequences. The translation instructs that “having supported [himself] with the palms of both hands on the ground and lifting the toes up [into the air, the yogi] should dance on the palms of the hands. [This] is the ‘inverted dancing’ [pose]” – reads like a handstand to me! In fact, some of the sequences documented are so out-of-this-world, it almost sound fantastical.
Indeed, the manuscript proves that these physically advanced poses have existed in history, but faced with the question of their relevance to a student and class today, I genuinely feel that it becomes the conviction of the teacher. As a disciple of yoga, I had practised for a decade without feeling the urge to achieve a handstand, yet when I resolved to train as a teacher, I began to feel a need to.
All around me, I started noticing - in the class, on social media - the acclaimed teachers were all showcasing these highly challenging poses. So the months leading up to my training followed by the months after, I practised relentlessly, desperate to get it. Somehow I’ve convinced myself that achieving some of these inversions and arm balances were part of becoming a good teacher.
As teachers, it’s easy to get caught up with teaching asanas - the movement, alignment, form - it’s visual and tangible, which makes it accessible, even though we all appreciate and acknowledge that yoga goes beyond the pose, so there’s much more that we can draw a class's attention to, like the subtle energy or mind, body and breath awareness.
During my 20 years of practice, there was a long period where I plateaued. My body had gotten so used to the asanas that it no longer requires much effort to execute or hold them. I was moving from style to style, trying different types of yoga, hoping to find that ‘yogic feeling’ again. It became this cycle where I’d get used to a practice and have to move on to the next.
I can't remember when it finally fell into place, but the sensations generated from the poses, started to amplify through my consciousness - the internalised sound of my breath, the energetic shifts from my movements, a sensitivity to proprioception and spatial awareness - really noticing and feeling what’s going on inside the body, a heightened sense of interoception. This realisation that poses were just shapes and their relatively fixed but embodied by us, they come alive! We are what makes them dynamic.
Perhaps it’s all part of a journey of learning to teach, but over time, my priorities of what makes a good teacher have shifted significantly... the art of watching and listening, the ability to sense the needs of who stands before you... Teaching people, not poses.
*Top 4 images from BIRCH & SINGELTON - The Yoga of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati
** Bottom 2 illustrations from Joga Pradipika
‘Gesture of the Goddess Hakini’
Hakini is the Hindu goddess who presides over ‘Ajna’, our 3rd eye, the chakra of inner wisdom and clarity that encourages a greater awareness for mind and body. The mudra helps with the integration of all areas of the body and its key function is to support Dirgha Pranayama, ‘Full Yogic Breathing’.
Some of you may remember that I presented Purna Svara Mudra recently, which shares a similar intent and purpose, but can be a difficult gesture to hold; Hakini makes a perfect substitute in this instance.
Hakini Mudra brings balance and harmony to all levels of our being, from the physical to the energetic; enhancing circulation to support the functioning of our systems, cultivating equilibrium within the subtle body (our vayus and first 6 chakras)… on a spiritual level, the gesture directs our awareness to the 3rd eye, nurturing a sense of wholeness and greater connection with the subconscious mind.
1. Place arms by the sides of the lower ribs with palms facing one another in a seated position.
2. Touch the tips of all fingers and thumbs together gently, creating a spherical shape with the hands.
3. Shoulders are relaxed, elbows slightly away from body and spine is naturally aligned, keeping a lightness all throughout the arms and palms.
4. With mouth close, lightly press tongue to roof of the mouth, just behind the top set of teeth and breathe through the nose.
5. Observe the movement of your breath –
Inhale > breath rises from navel to sternum, so belly, ribs and chest expands
Exhale > breath descends from sternum to navel so belly, ribs and chest contracts
Gradually as you breath, begin to feel the entire body expanding/contracting with your inhale/exhale, giving you a sense of calm and wholeness.
Note: Mudra can also be used when lying down on the back.
*A shorter version of this post appears on my IG.
my website is live... at last!
Dear friends, I’ve spent last month attempting to build a website for my yoga work, spurred by a determination to not hire help... The finished site is simple but it's been a slog and a huge learning curve. Do excuse the branding dotted around the site, it's published with basic functionality as a test to see if I could get even the site live; the fact that it now exists digitally brings a mixture of pride and modesty, like a kid who's completed his first jigsaw puzzle... 😁
I debated hard over the the name of my site too as the word ‘yogi’, I realise, may cause a reaction. I acknowledge that this word may hold purer connotations for some racial groups, but it too has grown to adopt a modernised description for someone pursuing the discipline.
It’s hard to imagine but yoga wasn’t a widespread practice & was followed only by select groups of people. When the grandmasters of yoga shared it with the West, their intent was to popularise it; they clearly succeeded though along the way, some traditions were diluted & changes occurred with desired/undesirable effects.
I remember my first yoga class vividly, in complete silence, we stood around a circle with the only sound being the teacher's voice. In those early years, it was the only environment I knew of to practice yoga, so to walk into a vinyasa class with electronic music blasting felt quite revolutionary!!! Playing music feels so trivial now but it was inconceivable then, so it’s acceptance was mind-blowing. Music has become an important element of my classes, used with consideration, she has therapeutic qualities and the ability to centre or settle a class quicker and more effectively.
Yoga is dynamic and evolving intrinsically because it deals with humans. Our bodies and minds, and our knowledge of it, are always changing. I may not be a ‘yogi’ in the tradition sense but I've studied and practised it for the past 20 years and continue to; it's an indication of my commitment to the discipline and hopefully makes me acceptable as a ‘yogi’ in contemporary context.
*Testing this website for a month so feel free to offer your feedback...🙂
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Hongyi the yogi
Full-time yoga teacher & trainee yoga therapist in London. Eager to share, eager to learn!