Many years ago, my little brother and I created the epic shadow puppet saga of Eagle and Monkey. I would hold my hands in front of the flashlight, hook my thumbs together and spread my fingers apart. In this moment Eagle came to life, his grand shadow wings extending into the night sky of the illuminated bed sheet. As Monkey bumbled around on jungle floor, I flapped my hands and imagined Eagle soaring up beyond the stars to cruise around the Milky Way.
Now, I use my hands to brace myself, press into the ground, and reach up to the sky. But hands—nimble, delicate, and flexible—are capable of making many more shapes. Some of these gestures, or mudras, are said to be quite powerful.
During meditation and pranayama, we can create jnana mudra by forming a circle with the thumb and index finger and pressing the nail of the index finger into the pad of the thumb. In this mudra, the ego, represented by the index finger, bows to the divine, represented by the thumb. The other fingers are extended and the palm rests face-up in a gesture of receptivity.
Can my life can reflect the meaning inherent in this shape? What is my role as an individual in a divine world? What do I need to receive? This is tricky. Many times, I don’t find answers and let my mind wander.
In other postures, especially when our hands directly touch the earth, I think of bhumi-sparsha mudra, or earth witness mudra This is one of the iconic images of Buddhism and represents the moment when Buddha, from his seated position, reached for and touched the earth with his hand, after which the earth bore witness to his enlightenment. Perhaps when we press our hands into the ground, like in downward facing dog—or even when we collect seashells and repot our plants—we’re asking the earth to bear witness to our lives, to our efforts to awaken and connect with all that’s around us.
Recently, in my studies of mudras, I came across verse 130 from chapter three of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: “The yogi who practices mudras with a serene mind, according to the instructions of the guru, acquires supernatural powers and transcends time.”
This threads it all together. If we cast light on our hands, we can learn more about ourselves and the many special powers we have, including time travel. When I hook my thumbs, my hands become wings and take me right back into the shadow puppet saga. I can feel Eagle uplifting my body, mind and imagination. When my mind wanders, my hands also pull me back into the present moment. When we’re upset, our hands tremble; when comforting a friend, we reach for their hands and hold them, creating a conduit for care and love to flow between two people. In yoga we also talk a lot about letting go in order to move forward, an idea I associate with releasing a grip and relaxing our hands. In doing so, we might let go something we’ve been holding on to for a long time: a painful memory, an old habit, or even someone else’s hand.
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to take better care of my hands. Whatever shapes they take—in the air and on the earth, both on and off the mat—I’m eager to watch what powers arise within and around me. Hopefully, with practice, my hands—shape-shifting and searching—will guide me toward that which is greater than myself.