Maha mudra challenges us to master our vital energy, which is the real key to deepening the practice of yoga. Here is a sequence that will prepare you for the physical mechanics of the pose…and its subtler dimensions.
Yoga has changed. Have you noticed? During my three decades of teaching I have watched the yoga that we practice in the West become physically harder and harder. On one hand, that’s positive. It means that while many of us are seizing the opportunity to challenge ourselves, we are also enjoying the benefits of one of the most complete and effective forms of exercise ever developed. On the other hand, it causes us to make assumptions about yoga that are simply inaccurate.
We assume that the more we advance in our practice, the more vigorous and complicated it should be. Accomplished practitioners are expected to relish physical intensity, but according to yogic adepts, just the opposite is true. As practice evolves it becomes less, not more, physical. True adepts require less and less effort to attain the higher states of yoga. From their perspective, the most profound practices are ones that provide access to the subtlest dimensions of the self. Compared to asana, these methods link us more directly to yoga’s ultimate goal—self-realization. What are these techniques, and how are they organized?
Classic texts describe four practices—asana, bandha, pranayama, and mudra—that are arranged in a hierarchy; each builds on the ones before it. Asanas (postures) steady the body and mind, preparing them for deeper practices; bandhas (locks) help us retain vital energy; pranayama techniques (breathing practices) build and regulate energy; and mudras (subtle techniques of internal control) allow us to direct and channel it. Together, these techniques create an internal alchemy—a transformation affecting every level of the self.
Among the most revered of these methods is maha mudra. Like other mudras, it is a practice that arranges the body so that its outward form (its “gesture or attitude”—literal meanings of the word mudra) contributes to the awakening of a new spiritual perspective. Inwardly, maha mudra combines asana, bandha, and pranayama to create a kind of seal (yet another meaning), preventing internal energies from being dissipated. By both activating the body’s subtle forces and teaching us how to contain them, maha mudra quietly deepens concentration and creates a powerful bridge between body, mind, and spirit.
At first glance, maha mudra (literally, the “great seal”) looks much like any other pose. But a closer inspection reveals why it is so profound: it integrates many levels of the self. Physically, it challenges us to bend forward from the hip joints, not the lower back. This means keeping the spine aligned and the torso elongated through the crown of the head.
As you practice, draw the upper body back and do not allow the upper spine, neck, or shoulders to round. Counter your effort in the upper body by lengthening the back of the extended leg. This will challenge the lower back, so work slowly and do not let your back collapse. Flex the foot and reach through the heel to deepen the stretch. The combination of leg and upper body work in this mudra generates a tremendous amount of energy.
Next, apply two locks: mula bandha (the root lock) and jalandhara bandha (the chin lock). To apply the root lock, contract and draw the center of the pelvic floor upward. To apply the chin lock, lengthen the back of the neck and tip the chin toward the notch below the throat. These locks act as seals, containing energy along the spinal column.
Then, become aware of the flow of your breathing. Maintain the root lock while deepening and relaxing your breath. This will quiet your nervous system and provide a natural focus for your mind. In more advanced stages of practice, breath retention is practiced, along with a third lock, uddiyana bandha (the abdominal lift). It is essential to work with a teacher at this stage of practice. Over time, the combination of all these techniques will slowly awaken dormant energies at the base of the spine. As a result, your meditation posture improves, your concentration deepens, and you bring more spontaneity to daily life.
As with any posture, you can access maha mudra more effectively with proper preparation. Create a practice sequence that prepares you both for the physical mechanics of the pose and its subtler dimensions. The techniques pictured here are ones I consistently include when I lead a class that features maha mudra. In addition to these poses, you will also want to include sun salutations and a variety of other standing, preparatory, and counter poses that elongate and stabilize the spine.
I hope this will give you a glimpse of the more subtle dimensions of yoga—dimensions that you can begin to explore yourself. As the sages tell us, the body is a vessel, sustained by living energy. Learning to master that vital energy is the key to deepening our practice—and to living a more joyful life.
Yoga + Joyful Living
Art of Asana
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