From yesterday to today: Mudras, the universe of gestures

- through Sophie Solere

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Mudras are gestures, codified and sacred, performed with the fingers by a deity or a person during certain rituals or yoga exercises. Associated with the positions of the hands of the Awakened, they have participated in Buddhist rituals since the dawn of time. In recent years, they have also been credited with a relaxing power, many books have been devoted to them and workshops teach how to use them. Journey into the universe of gestures… and their meaning.

In Sanskrit, “mudra” means “seal”. This means that a precise positioning of the fingers can determine and seal an action and give it its effectiveness. Gestures can be executed by one or two hands, in an infinity of expressions.

Their origin is very old. We find their first traces in the Vedas, the sacred texts of India. However, mudras are not the prerogative of Hindus alone. “All the great religions use the hands as an instrument of symbolic language. Their movements and the position of the fingers allow the communication of a message that is universally accepted and understood”, explains Véronique Crombé, lecturer at the National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet in Paris. “It is the example of the gesture of prayer. It is found just as much among Christians (clasped hands and intertwined fingers which symbolize meditation) as among Buddhists (with the gesture of the Anjali mudra which designates adoration). »

Sign language

Over time, the practice of mudras spread everywhere, from Central Asia to the Far East. The Guimet Museum is a faithful showcase. Each room is dedicated to a country which exhibits its own representation of the Buddha. While walking, Véronique Crombé continues her explanation: “Gestures do not necessarily have the same meaning from one civilization to another. The outstretched right hand, palm forward and fingers together, described the power of Roman emperors. For Buddhism, this mudra recalls the episode where the Awakened was charged by a furious elephant which he succeeded in calming with this single gesture…”

The meaning of gestures

In this universe of the sacred, our guide Véronique is insatiable. A Buddhist herself of the Theravada tradition, she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the life of Siddhartha. She specifies: “The mudras symbolize strong moments in the life of Buddha or key moments in his teaching. Appearing with the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, they are for the faithful, inexhaustible sources of inspiration. »

To fully understand Véronique Crombé, half a dozen sacred gestures dominate Buddhist symbolism. This ranges from the gesture of “the absence of fear” (Abhayamudrâ, which advocates peace and is practiced with the hand raised in front of you, fingers outstretched and palm outward), to that of “taking the Earth as a witness” ( Bhumispashamudra, hand pointing towards the ground, it corresponds to an episode in the life of the Buddha during which the goddess of the Earth testified in his favor), passing through that of "The starting of the Wheel of the Law" (Dharmachakra mudra, which corresponds to the first historical sermon of the Buddha at Sarnath, and which is performed thumb and index finger together, right hand and left hand together).

The visit to the Museum comes to an end. In the Thai pavilion, Véronique Crombé takes us to the bronze of a walking Buddha. Suddenly, a curtain of Japanese tourists comes between her and us. His explanations become distant… But no matter! Just like the mudras she made us discover, this woman speaks with her hands.

To this handful of sacred gestures have been added, over time, many other postures. A real phenomenon… From now on the practice of this gesture is accessible to all. It can be performed anywhere, whether sitting or lying down, alone at home or in the subway. In a few years, mudras have become fashionable and a large number of books deliver their secrets.

finger yoga

The use of mudras becoming more democratic, learning to use them becomes more and more frequent. Juliette Dumas uses it, for her part, in many circumstances. On a plane returning to Paris one evening, Juliette Dumas finds herself seated next to a young woman terrified by the turbulence. Juliette tries to reassure her, in vain. She then suggests that he interlace his fingers, turn his thumbs towards his chest and breathe slowly. Vajrapradama. The gesture of self-confidence, the mudra that makes fear disappear. And it works: in a few minutes, the stress of his travel companion disappears! On the power of sacred gestures.

This passion for mudras, Juliette Dumas owes it to the thunderbolt she felt two years earlier in front of a portrait of Felix Fénéon and one of the hands of the famous art collector. Long and slender, it drew in space an unfinished gesture full of grace and energy. A mudra… Juliette saw a sign there.

A woman of communication with an assertive temperament, Juliette Dumas left a secure job overnight to embrace a career as a lecturer and create the "Shine Academy", dedicated to well-being. To train in mudras, she joins forces with a specialist in the matter, Locana Sansregret, a Canadian who has practiced yoga for 35 years and initiated into the path of Raja Yoga by Swami Shraddhananda. Their collaboration resulted in a book that presents nearly 150 mudras, finger yoga. Juliette explains: “Our hands act like a keyboard connected to the brain. You have to be aware of this in order to apply a kind of “mudra therapy” to all of life's little ailments. All that remains is for the reader to draw up his list according to his needs: the mudra for sleeping, the one that calms anger, the one that gives self-confidence…”

“Our hands act like a keyboard connected to the brain. You have to be aware of this in order to apply a kind of “mudra therapy” to all of life's little ailments. All that remains is for the reader to draw up his list according to his needs: the mudra for sleeping, the one that calms anger, the one that gives self-confidence. » Juliet Dumas

Could this ancestral world of gestures be transformed into an art of well-being? The answer lies with the adherents of the yogic tradition. For her, the human body is the seat of the circulation of vital energy, prana. On his site, Locana Sansregret unfolds his explanation: "By putting the hands in connection with each other, the mudras form a dam which prevents the prana from escaping through the fingertips..." The movements of our hands therefore induce an action that allows us to act on ourselves by directing this effect on this or that part of the body. The conclusion of the authors is simple: “Our hands speak (to us)…”

In the heart of the hands

Continuing my journey to discover the mystery of the hands, I meet, at the CCAS in Vincennes, Marie-Dominique Bleuler, a Qi Gong teacher. She associates mudras with breathing. "The basis of life", she saysWith a photographer friend, Bruno Houdayer, she gives conferences and runs introductory workshops: “The Art of Breathing and Mudras” for all ages.

A beautiful late afternoon. About twenty women are gathered around a large table. The youngest is 74 years old. Her name is Edith. It's my neighbor. At the appointed time, Marie-Dominique Bleuler begins her studio. Loose kimono jacket, soft pants and ponytail, she walks with flexibility and gives the impression of touching the ground. Her face is lit up with a smile. In the middle of the tables, she installs an electronic gong and lays down the rule: as soon as a note sounds, we stop talking and practice three breaths in a row. General nod.

The workshop begins. First rub your hands. To warm the joints and to mobilize the energies. Then join the palms. The mudra of the lotus bud, the gesture of reverence par excellence. The best known, but not the easiest to make, especially when you suffer from rheumatism. And around the table, like Edith, they all have a little… Gong. Three breaths. We start again. The voice of Marie-Dominique, full of benevolence, fills the space with gentleness. In the workshops, some of those who start are skeptical. They begin by finding that the practice hardly brings results, but over time they feel the effects that the movements of their hands have on them, a real relaxation of body and mind.

To help themselves, Edith and her friends can take inspiration from Bruno's magnificent photos. In black and white, drawn in large format, they are displayed on kakemonos in the room. Photos which are not limited to representing perfect mudras, but which pay homage to the universality of these gestures which have crossed religions, spiritualities, philosophies and time.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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