Prayer Hands (Namaste & Anjali Mudra): Bringing Mindfulness into Peace and Devotion
Jul 11, 2017 03:51AM
By Karen Pierce
Mark Whitwell, who has taught yoga for over 20 years in the U.S. and internationally, held his hands in prayer much differently than most American yogis. He and Srivatsa Ramaswami learned this from their teacher, Sri Krishnamacharya. Yoga is far greater than asana alone. In fact, Anjali mudra, or the “salutation seal” hand posture, was a point of study for them.
Yoga is quite well-known but it is barely understood; it has spread so wide that it is losing its depth. This sacred hand position is a familiar gesture in yoga classes and is often accompanied by the word, “namaste”, and a bowed head. As Westerners, we think of bowing our heads as a gesture of defeat. However, bowing the head slightly symbolizes surrendering the brain to the body and breath, honoring the heart center, and allowing the truth to flow. By removing the mind, or ego, we are free.
For Anjali mudra, the arms should be close to the body but not touching, and relaxed enough to allow the ribs to expand and the lungs to fill with air and oxygen. The folded hands are held about 30 degrees just in front of the heart or base of the sternum, the palms slightly cupped while keeping the hands together. The palms are not flat against each other; there should be a hollow between the palms as if to hold an imaginary lotus. The energetic or spiritual heart is visualized as a lotus at the center of the chest. The palms are drawn together at the heart symbolizing the return to one’s heart and source of our existence, the breath. Just like we create space in our bodies during asana practice, focus on the space between our inhale and exhale in pranayama, and rest in the space between our thoughts during meditation; we create space in our hands to mimic the openness in our heart.
Unfortunately, this posture of prayer is often done without conscious thought or mindfulness. In fact, it is unlikely we will see the traditional hand position described above in an American yoga class. Instead, we will most likely see elbows and wrists parallel to the ground, fingers pointed upward with the thumbs stabbing inward like a knife and the palms pressed tightly together, figuratively strangling any life force that may exist at the heart center. This version has a stiffness, rigidity and forcefulness to it, which is unlike the softer, more receptive version that lives, breathes and feels the heartbeat of every moment in life.
As we bring our hands together at our center, not only are we joining our physical and energetic heart—we also connect the right and left hemispheres of our brain, as well as unite the inhale and exhale. Hridaya Yoga Sutra, or the Heart Yoga Sutra, is based upon classical yoga principles and is a “thread” that weaves together these messages of the heart. The heart is the energetic “mixer” and place where all opposites merge. It represents the journey within to the divine that resides in the heart.
The difference is Anjali mudra honors the Sat Guru, the inner teacher, that lights our divine within. Namaste honors the light, goodness or divine of the other person. Within and without. Internal and external. Feminine and masculine. Always honor ourselves first.
Upanishadic thought teaches that the entire universe is no bigger and no smaller than the universe that evolves in our heart. Each one of us contains the whole. “If you remove one atom from the universe, the entire universe will collapse,” said Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist and author. The spiritual heart is the essence of everything that is, and we are all connected if we live from the heart.
Whether we use the image of a lotus or of holding our own glorious heart, it is a gesture of loving offering to the nurturing source that is around us, within us and is us. The divine source is already in us; we only need to allow the mind to realize it. That is the picture of peace and devotion.
Karen Pierce is a registered yoga teacher, certified yoga therapist, shamanic practitioner and professional organizer. She is also the author of YogaBear, Yoga for Youngsters, a contributor to Yoga in America and one of the co-founders of Newtown Yoga Festival. Connect at InnerSpacesByKaren.com.