NAMASTE VERSUS ANJALI MUDRA
My teacher, Mark Whitwell, held his hands in Prayer Pose 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 was a point of study for them.
Yoga is extremely well known but it is barely understood. It is spread so wide that it is losing its depth. This sacred hand position is a familiar gesture in yoga classes andis 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 (mind/ego) to the body and breath, honoring the heart center and allowing the truth to flow. By removing the mind, we are free.
The arms should be close to the body, but not touching the body, relaxed enough to allow the ribs to expand and the lungs to fill with air and oxygen. The folded hands held about 30 degrees just in front of the heart or base of the sternum. The palms slightly cupped while keeping the hands together. 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 body during asana practice, focus on the space between our inhale and exhale in pranayama, 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 mind-full-ness. In fact, it is unlikely you will see the traditional Anjali hand position described above in any American yoga class. Instead, you will see Prayer Pose with 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 unlike the softer, more receptive version that lives, breathes and feels the heartbeat of every moment in life.
The difference is Anjali mudra honors the Sat Guru - the inner teacher - that light or divine within. Whereas Namaste or Prayer Pose honors the light, goodness, or divine of the other person.
As you bring your hands together at your center, not only are you joining your physical and energetic heart, you also connect the right and left hemispheres of your brain as well as unite the inhale and exhale. Hridaya Yoga Sutra, The Heart Yoga Sutra, is based upon classical yoga principles and is a 'thread' that weaves together these messages of the Heart. My teacher describes the hrid as the place “where left merges with right, above with below, front with back, inhale with exhale, outer with inner, female with male, strength with receptivity, where heaven meets earth and spirit takes form.” The heart is the energetic “mixer” and place where all opposites merge. (More on this in my “Yoga is Union” blog.)
Upanishadic thought teaches that the entire universe is no bigger and no smaller than the universe that evolves in your heart. Each one of us contains the whole. Carl Sagan said, “If you remove one atom from the universe, the entire universe will collapse.” The spiritual heart is the essence of everything that is and we are all connected if we live from the heart.
Whether you use the image of a lotus or of holding your own glorious heart, it is a gesture of loving offering to the nurturing source that is around you, within you and IS you. The divine source is already in you, you only need to allow the mind to realize it. Now that is the picture of peace and devotion.