The Great Seal of Hatha Yoga
There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding concerning maha-mudra, the signature practice of hatha-yoga and first among the hatha-yoga-mudras. First of all, maha-mudra technically is not a posture (asana) although it is sometimes called maha-mudrasana and is often treated as an asana. However, the mudras of hatha-yoga are more complex and more subtle practices than asanas and are generally considered a separate category of techniques with a somewhat different purpose than asanas although they intersect a lot, sometimes to the point of losing a clear distinction between the two distinct sets of practices. Maha-mudra, like all other mudras, is a very special practice typical and unique of hatha-yoga that is connected with the practice of asanas primary in such a way that the basic characteristics of all the main asana groups (defined and classified by T. Krishnamacharya with regard to the five possible movements of the spine) are contained in maha-mudra:
It is primarily a lateral bending (if the straight leg is positioned at 30-45 degrees in relation to the central line of the body, as it should be), but there are also the elements of twisting (owing to the gentle rotation of the pelvis, lumbar and thoracic spine towards the straight leg while the heel of the bent leg presses the perineum and both legs maintain the angle of at least 120 degrees), forward bending (while moving into the mudra from the starting upward seated position and while holding the posture), upward stretching of the spine (in the final position with the three bandhas in place), and even the elements of backward bending (mostly in the upper back in the final position if the whole back is intensely extended, as it should be) and inverting (when preparing for the posture by first bringing the head to knee). It is always done on both legs with an equal number of repetitions when done dynamically and equal number of breaths or breath suspensions when done statically, and it is usually followed by baddha-konasana (sitting straight with the soles of the feet touching, the thighs open and hands holding the feet) to centre the body after the asymmetric stretching of the torso and possibly by yoga-mudra (bending the trunk deeply forward in a seated cross-legged position) to concentrate life energy into the chest and turn the attention deeply within. And it is best practiced at the end of an asana practice as a preparation for pranayama or as a peak of an asana practice if practiced in the middle of the asana part or even after pranayama as a direct preparation for meditation (dhyana).
Maha-mudra is a mudra because its primary function is the development of the overall (psycho-somatic) stability (sthirata) necessary for the subsequent meditative practices of hatha-yoga. “Maha” means “great” or “comprehensive”, and “mudra” means a “seal” or “symbol” or “something that brings intense joy”. So, maha-mudra is a great symbol of a calm mind that comprehensively seals off all the impediments to the state of Yoga in the form of mental and emotional disturbances. It is a comprehensive energy seal that effectively seals all the positive effects of other Yoga practices done before it is done, channels the life energy into the core of the body and finally brings immense joy to the practitioner in the experience of mental stillness and emotional stability. Maha-mudra is maha-mudra only if the three bandha-mudras (jalandhara, mula and uddiyana-bandha-mudra) are applied in it. It is often confused with the asana called janu-sirshasana or it is practiced without some or all three bandhas. If so, it cannot be fully effective. Traditionally, the practice of maha-mudra is immediately followed by two other mudras: maha-bandha-mudra (which is similar to maha-mudra, but the legs are bent in such a way that the practitioner is sitting on the heel of the lower leg while the foot of the upper leg is put onto the thigh of the lower leg) and maha-vedha-mudra (which is usually done in padmasana and includes first the lifting of the pelvis from the ground and then letting the sitting bones hit the ground with various levels of intensity) So, the three mudras (tri-mudra, or mudra-traya) are practiced in this order to secure the channelling of the united energy of inhalation (prana-vayu) and energy of exhalation (apana-vayu) into the central channel called sushumna-nadi, which is the “energetic” purpose of maha-mudra, while good health of the whole organism is the natural consequence or the “physical” benefit of its regular practice.
In Yoga therapy (yoga-cikitsa) it is primarily used for treating various abdominal and metabolic diseases, especially diabetes, and is very useful for neutralizing various kinds of poisons. According to T. Krishnamacharya, it should be practiced daily once it has been mastered because it is the best prevention (rakshana) against all diseases. Since maha-mudra is a very delicate and subtle practice, it should be learnt only from a competent teacher in a private setting and practiced very cautiously. In modern Yoga, it has virtually disappeared and some sincere efforts must be made to reintroduce the practice of maha-mudra in order to obtain its numerable benefits. T. Krishnamacharya believed that maha-mudra should be persistently practiced for good health, vitality and longevity, especially in middle age when health maintenance and energy management are a priority, and pranayama the most important practice. Maha-mudra is a great preparation for effective pranayama due to the application of the three bandhas (tri-bandha) that are later on applied in pranayama too in order to make it as effective as possible. Maha-mudra is something like the essence of hatha-yoga: all the good stuff compressed into one sacred gesture (mudra) of a whole body devotion to Life giving psycho-somatic stability to the practitioner (sthirata) that is very much needed in meditation.
Maha-mudra is usually practiced at the peak of an asana practice (especially by beginners until it is learnt well) after first moving the spine in all directions, especially forwards and sideways, with adequate counter posing coming right after so that a smooth transition towards the end of the asana practice is safely made, preparing the practitioner adequately for pranayama. Although it is primarily a combination of forward and lateral bending, its essence is an intense extension of the spine supported by the three bandhas accompanied with a slight twist in the upper and lower back. So, the spine must be moved in all five directions to prepare well for maha-mudra. The correct positioning of the legs is: the straight leg is positioned approximately 30-45 degrees to the side in relation to the frontal line of the body, the heel of the bent leg is gently pressing the perineum (men) or is gently pressing the pubic bone (women) with both thighs touching the ground and the sitting bones firmly fixed into the ground. As we have already pointed out, maha-mudra is often taught in its simplified version in which the legs are positioned in the same way as in janu-sirshasana, that is with the straight leg put right in front of the body and the heel of the bent leg touching the groin. This is often confusing to people and many tend to mix the two different techniques, the mudra and the asana. Furthermore, different traditions (even within hatha-yoga) have different versions of maha-mudra and also different people often practice it differently at various stages of their involvement with Yoga and according to their level of competence and the purpose for which they practice it. So, when I say “correct” I actually mean according to Krishnamacharya and, of course, according to the changing needs of every practitioner.
The full maha-mudra comprises all three bandhas and it involves breath suspensions: if the breath is held after exhale, all three bandhas are present in it; if it is held after inhale, then only jalandhara, and sometimes mula-bandha, is applied. The trick with uddiyana-bandha in maha-mudra is that it is naturally there after a full exhale with the other two bandhas in place owing to the rotation of the spine creating the lifting of the upper part of the abdomen (part above the navel) naturally in and up. Jalandhara is applied during or at the end of inhale, mula at the beginning or during exhale and a gentle uddiyana happens automatically after a full exhale with the other two bandhas in place. In this way, there is no excessive pressure in the chest. Uddiyana-bandha, however, is quite tricky and demanding. According to T. K. V. Desikachar, you can slowly introduce it into pranayama only when you can hold the breath after exhale at least for 20 seconds with ease. If it is practiced during the asana practice, it is usually not applied in pranayama. It is first learnt in asana practice, especially in seated twists (to learn how to engage the upper abdominals) and two classical inversions (shoulderstand and headstand, in which it is easy to exhale fully), as well as in some mudras, such as tadagi-mudra and maha-mudra. And the other two bandhas must be in place whenever uddiyana is applied. In traditional hatha-yoga, as we have already pointed out, maha-mudra is often combined with its two sister mudras: maha-bandha and maha-vedha, and this is called tri-mudra (these three mudras practiced in succession as a tripartite unit). Also, maha-mudra is always practiced with a strong focus on developing the power of concentration needed for one-pointedness (dharana); it can be on a point on the body (the perineum, pubic bone, navel, heart, pit of the throat, point between the eyebrows, top of the head or all these points in succession) or on something more subtle/mental that is significant to the practitioner. Ujjayi breathing (with the hissing sound produced in the throat by constricting the vocal cords gently) is a must and eyes should be closed throughout the exercise to reduce the outside distractions. Other modes of breathing in maha-mudra, like sitali, are also possible to achieve special results, but ujjayi is used most often for general purposes, especially in the beginning.
Here are some additional technical pointers:
- Don’t strive to grab the foot, toes or big toe in the beginning stages, but put the hands somewhere higher onto the shin closer to the knee. Grabbing the foot, toes or big toe of the extended leg is very demanding and can be misleading. The idea is to create a lot of space between the thigh and the chest, and not to go into a deep forward bend, which is difficult when you force yourself or when somebody else forces you to grab the foot before the necessary level of flexibility and strength is reached. The foot might never be reached, but all the benefits can be had nevertheless.
- There is a tendency to lift the shoulders, but they should be kept as relaxed as possible. The knee should be straight in the final position, but not locked, and there must be a sense of the spine being soft, with the feeling as if you were breathing directly into and out of the straight hollow tube running through the spine. And maha-mudra should, in the beginning, be done only dynamically by first moving the head towards a bent knee on exhale and then assuming maha-mudra on the next inhale by moving the torso away from the thigh, with both the arms and knee extending simultaneously. When there is proficiency in that, deep ujjayi breathing can be attempted in maha-mudra, only 6 breaths or so.
- It is a good idea to use janu-sirshasana as an immediate preparation for maha-mudra and learn the difference between the two similar, but radically different techniques. Janu-sirshasana is basically a deep forward bend stretching one leg and the back at the same time with the primary purpose of increasing the strength and flexibility of the entire back side of the body by engaging the core muscles on exhalation and with the secondary therapeutic purpose of reducing the excessive fat at the waist and thighs. Maha-mudra is essentially an intense energetic practice with the primary purpose of engaging all three important bandhas for their powerful energizing effect on the whole body and the secondary purpose of securing the good health of the entire organism by the joint effects of the bandhas and the essence of all asana groups in just one sacred gesture that sums up everything that is important in hatha-yoga. Janu-sirshasana can also be used occasionally to ease up while still in maha-mudra and to exit maha-mudra as its first counter pose to slowly reduce intensity.
- Maha-mudra presupposes a very good quality of breathing to be effective and the first phase in doing it statically is just breathing deeply, evenly and audibly with the rubbing sensation at the back of the throat (ujjayi). Only after deep breathing is happening with ease can the suspensions be attempted in maha-mudra.
- Try to experiment with holding your breath first after inhale with jalandhara and possibly with mula-bandha, and only then after exhale with all three bandhas in place and see the difference in the effects and feelings. The breath is usually not held out for longer than 10 seconds, even at the most advanced stage.
- In the final phase, all the focus goes to the mental state of having an empty mind, feeling the free flow of life energy along the extended vertical axis and sealing off all the obstructions that might prevent the practitioner to deepen his or her concentration on the central channel in the body that is visualized as if vacant and straight.
- The idea, eventually, is to hold maha-mudra for a longer period of time, either breathing deeply or suspending the breath – after inhale, after exhale or after both – and so experience a sense of increased strength and stability needed for pranayama, meditation, ritual and life in general. However, due caution must be taken not to over do it. The important role of the teacher is to pace the student and closely supervise the practice until the student is fully competent to continue doing it without supervision.
To be able to breathe deeply in maha-mudra is quite an achievement in itself. It often happens that a person who can do most asanas and can assume the form of maha-mudra with no special difficulty cannot breathe deeply in it. With the right work done in asana practice and with the appropriate application of the three bandhas, breathing deeply in maha-mudra gradually becomes possible, opening a totally new and invigorating venue for the free flow of life in the body, the one leading through the spine towards self-transcendence. The tradition connects maha-mudra with kundalini awakening, and this means having the ability to participate fully and consciously in the union of opposites, especially the one of below with above, of the base of the body with the crown of the head, of sakti with siva. However, the main purpose of maha-mudra, and the whole of hatha-yoga for that matter, is feeling one’s spiritual core at Heart, which is the innermost point of total unity of the whole of our system felt some place deep in the chest, at the very centre of our being. Maha-mudra is an almost forgotten ancient practice that can facilitate that to a great extent and so should be continually researched, carefully practiced and fully evaluated as a supreme tool with a great potential for self-healing, self-empowering and self-transcendence, which it undoubtedly has.