Hanuman: Myth, Mantra and Asana
Hanuman was born on the wind and a prayer. His father was Kesari, a sort of meditating gladiator monkey-like humanoid, called in Sanskrit, a “vanara”. His mother, Anjana, held the essence of her name: “anj” in Sanskrit means reverence.
Anjana and Kesari really wanted a kid and prayed to Lord Shiva for the blessing of conceiving a son. Shiva, pleased by their devotion and prayers, sent Vayu, the god of wind, to carry Shiva’s essence to fulfill their wishes, perhaps something like a sacred stork.
Turns out that Vayu delivered a pretty gifted kid. Like his gladiator father and like many of our modern-day mixed martial art competitors, Hanuman had a plethora of skills and talents. He wrestled demons, transformed himself to fit the needs of the particular circumstances against which he was fighting, and did so all with unwavering devotion.
Hanuman was devoted to Lord Rama, the god of righteousness and virtue.
Through his devotion, he was characterized as a lifelong Brahmachari (celibate). The belief that Hanuman’s celibacy is the source of his strength became popular among the wrestlers in India.
Hanuman: Behind the Name
Sanskrit texts mention several stories about how Hanuman got his name. Hanuman had a lifelong obsession with the sun, and as a youngster, blazed towards it, mistaking the sun for a mango and mischievously chomping a bite out of it. This really pissed off Indra, the king of the gods, who struck Hanuman’s jaw with lightening, to scold his impetuous nature. A bit harsh, right? Regardless, Hanuman is said to have received his name from the Sanskrit words “hanu” meaning jaw, and “man” meaning prominent or disfigured.
Another lore credits the name as a derivative of the Sanskrit words “han” meaning killed or destroyed, and “mana” meaning pride; indicating that Hanuman is the one whose pride was destroyed.
As Saul David Raye shares in Earth Heart Hanuman, “humility comes when the jaw is broken.” Whether you’re an elite mixed martial artist, or simply a modern-day yogi maneuvering through daily challenges, we discover that when our hearts are full of devotion, our spirit is unbreakable. Saul David Raye says that the stories of Hanuman can teach us, “the balance of incredible opening while still staying balanced.”
It’s Hanuman we can thank for the devotion it takes to practice Sun Salutations, or Surya Namaskars, which are a series of poses linked by the breath. Sun Salutations invite us to bow to and unite with the sun, as a pathway to the divine.
Singing the Song of Hanuman
I never expected one of my fondest memories from my travels to India to be of a Hindi man and his love of a monkey. He was standing beside the 50-foot statue of Hanuman near Karol Bagh, New Delhi. “Do you know of Hanuman?” he asked, his excitement bubbling over like uncorked champagne.
I don’t think he introduced himself by name, as he proclaimed that, because of Hanuman, his elderly mother regained her health and his family was able to overcome losing their home. My neck hurt looking up at Hanuman in wonder. “Bring your troubles to Hanuman,” he said, looking directly at me, “and in return, you will receive blessings beyond belief.”
A while later, after returning home, I decided I wanted to learn to chant the Hanuman Chalisa, a Hindu hymn authored by Tulsidas, a 16th-century poet. Tulsidas wrote Hanuman Chalisa as an act of his devotion, and it’s said to continue to serve by keeping devotees’ minds free from evil.
My desire may have been influenced by the devoted man we met at the Hanuman in India, or the promise to have a free mind, but I thought it was simply because it had my name in it. Come to find out Chalisa actually means forty. So there are 40 verses in a derivative of Sanskrit to learn.
As much as I love a good challenge, this began to feel next to impossible; which apparently is right up Hanuman’s alley. My 40-day plan to practice each of the verses evolved into 108 days. Rising a few hours before dawn (said to be the best time for such spiritual undertakings), here are my favorite verses:
Sankata te hanumnaa chhudavai
Mana karma vachana dhyana jo lavai
“Hanuman will release those from troubles who meditate upon him in their mind, actions and words.”
Durgama kaja jagata ke jete
Sugama anugraha tumhare tete
“All the difficult tasks in the world become easy if there is your grace.”
Legend has it that Hanuman took a courageous leap, doing the splits over the ocean to rescue Sita, the beloved of Rama, to whom Hanuman was entirely devoted. Hanuman took one look at the span across which he had to cross, thinking something along the lines of, “there’s no way I can do that!” Who hasn’t thought that same thing when faced with a monumental challenge du jour?
The pose associated with Hanuman is the splits. Often called ‘the leap of grace’.
I don’t know about you but my first attempts at doing the splits (aside from when I was five) were anything but graceful. Blessed with inflexible hamstrings and hips, practicing the splits has been a lengthy endeavor. It’s vital of course, to properly prepare by warming up the entire body, with particular attention to the backside of the legs, and hips.
Hanumanasana is often taught using one block at various heights to support beneath the forward extended hamstring. I’ve found that using two blocks underneath the hands (with stacked joints so wrists are in one line with elbows and shoulders) is more useful in progressing in depth over time in the asana.
The two-block method also provides additional support to lengthen the spine and extend the heart upwards. Getting out of the pose? Now that’s awkward. I’ve heard it said that on the other side of awkward, it is awesome.
It’s these moments in which we have the greatest opportunity to call upon whatever source of spiritual strength aids us. Hanuman exemplifies faith, trust, and being of service in such moments of doubt.
Immerse yourself in a community of such devotion at the Hanuman Festival, every June, in Boulder, Colorado, a music-filled yoga festival at the foot of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, with world-class yoga instructors. It’s an annual invitation to “immerse yourself in body, mind, and heart as you relax and rejuvenate, dance and devote, connect and expand, have fun and just be.”
Leap with Your Breath
Guiding students through Earth Heart Hanuman, Saul David Raye says, “When Hanuman leaps, he leaps with his breath.” In that way, Hanuman is an eternal entity in teaching us to find where the breath meets the body, where the body meets the bravery within our hearts, and enables our devotion to be a launching pad from which we meet life’s seemingly insurmountable challenges.
How to Use Mudras to Regulate the Five Elements of Your Body
Many cultures from around the world, including those based in China, Japan, India, and elsewhere, believe the Universe is comprised of specific elements. You are likely familiar with the four most common elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Some traditions, including Indian philosophy, Hinduism and Buddhism, add ether or space as the fifth element. According to these groups, humans are tasked with keeping these elements in alignment in the Universe, on earth, and within ourselves.
- Earth, or bhumi in Sanskrit, corresponds to anything solid. For instance, in your body earth elements include skin, bone,hair, teeth and organs.
- Air, or pavan in Sanskrit, is believed to be the highest of all the elements. Within the body, your breath is the air element.
- Fire, or agni in Sanskrit, serves as a source of warmth. The heat from our breath and other parts of our body correspond to this element.
- Water, or jala in Sanskrit, is critical to the survival of all living things and as such is one of the most important elements to keep in balance. All of the liquids in our bodies stem from this element.
- The great unifier of the elements is Ether, known as aakash in Sanskrit. Ether is thought to bring the other four elements together and allow them to prosper.
It is thought by some that the imbalance of these elements on Earth can cause natural disasters from drought to earthquakes to wildfires. Similarly, the belief is that if these elements are misaligned within a human body, this can lead to disease and other ailments. For the treatment of imbalance within oneself, performing specific mudras are often recommended.
Before you begin to diagnose which elements might be weak or imbalanced, try to identify which element is your greatest strength. For example, I am a Leo, which means my element is fire. Knowing this can direct me towards my area of strength and power. What is your element?
What are Mudras?
From the Sanskrit word mudra, mudras are symbolic hand gestures used in Hindu or Buddhist religious ceremonies and in the practice of yoga. Occasionally these gestures are done with the whole body, but more often they are focused on the hand. While I will be focusing on the mudras from the Buddhist and Hindu religions, you can find mudras in almost every culture. They can be found in meditation, yoga, the hand gestures in ethnic dancing – think Indian or Flamenco.
My preference is to practice madras while sitting in a cross-legged position on the floor with plenty of back support. However, they can be practiced while sitting, lying, standing, walking or even talking. Moreover, you only need five minutes to practice your mudras, but for best results upwards of twenty minutes is suggested. Which means you have no excuse not to give one a try!
For me, the practice of mudras is meditation with specific hand movements. For those of you that struggle with meditation, this practice is a good gateway into more formal meditation. You sit relatively still and allow our mind to slow, but you can keep your mind somewhat active as your focus on the hand gestures. This is especially good for mudras that have your alternate between different positions.
If you already have a regular meditation practice, you may already be using a mudra and not realize it. For instance, if you meditate by sitting in a cross legged position with your thumb and index finger connected so they form a zero and your other fingers extended and your hands placed palms-up on your thighs, then you are performing a classic Chin Mudra. This mudra focuses on your breathing. By sitting and holding your hands in this way you are activating your diaphragm and creating a healthy flow of oxygen in and out of your body.
The Basics of Mudras and the Five Elements
- Mudras for the earth element will include your ring finger
- Mudras for the air element will incorporate your index finger
- Mudras for the fire element will include your thumb
- Mudras for the water element will incorporate your pinky or little finger
- Mudras for the ether element will focus on your middle finger
Mudra for Balancing Energy
A good place to start when diving into mudras for element alignment is this mudra for balancing energy. It incorporates each of the five elements by including each finger in the process.
If you are feeling “off” and are looking for a quick fix that you can do from anywhere, this is it. You can even take five minutes at your desk to perform this mudras during the day or take a few minutes before going to bed at night.
It is a set of four mudras or hand gestures. First, on both hands simultaneously, touch the tips of your thumb and index finger together and hold for approximately five seconds. Then, move your thumb to your middle finger and hold that connection. Continue to your ring finger and lastly your pinky. Do several rounds of this until your breathing has slowed and you are ready to return to your day or drift off to sleep.
Mudra for Arthritis or Parkinson’s
Simply called Vayu, this mudra is recommended for those suffering from arthritis or Parkinson’s Disease. This is not a cure, but might help in addition to your other treatments and medications. Press the index finger on the base of thumb and keep the thumb on the index finger. Let the other fingers be straight. Do this for several minutes.
Mudra for Increased Strength
Named the Prithvi Mudra, this simple gesture aims at increasing your physical strength. Join the tip of the thumb and ring finger and hold for several minutes. Your other fingers should be pointing outwards.
Mudras for Balancing Emotions
These mudras are aimed at helping adjust an emotion that is overwhelming you in some way. Notice that each finger corresponds not only to an element, as discussed above, but also to emotions and internal aspects of your body. In order to affect either the emotion or body part, squeeze the corresponding finger on both sides.
- For emotions relating to fear or issues related to the kidneys, activate your little or pinky finger
- For emotions relating to anger or issues connected to the liver, gall bladder, or central nervous system, activate your ring finger
- For dealing with the emotion of impatience or the heart, small intestine, circulatory and respiratory systems, activate your middle finger
- For emotions relating to depression, sadness, and grief or issues with the lungs, activate your index finger
- For dealing with the emotion of worry or anxiety or for reoccurring stomach issues, activate your thumb
For me this guidance triggers a few thoughts. First, the close connection between anxiety and the stomach make complete sense to me. Whenever I am feeling super anxious, my stomach very quickly becomes my enemy. I also find it amusing – albeit in a sophomoric way – that the middle finger corresponds to impatience. Lastly, I think about individuals who imbibe in too much alcohol and how when the liver is in overdrive, so then is their ability to regulate the emotion of anger. Do you see any other connections that you can make either in your life of in the lives of your friends and family?
The Connection Between Mudras and Yoga
A lesser known type of yoga is called Yoga Tatva Mudra Vigyan. It incorporates select mudras into a more sedentary yoga practice, similar to meditation. The yoga texts that describe this branch of practice are the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita.
One example of a mudra that lends itself to yoga is the Brahma Mudra. This mudra is known for relaxing the nervous system, reducing snoring, and increasing lung capacity.
In the exercise, you first must put your hands into the Adi Mudra. In Adi Mudra, the thumb is placed at the base of the small finger and the remaining fingers curl over the thumb, forming a light fist. Now, that you are in Adi Mudra, turn the knuckles of both hands together the hands facing upward are placed at the navel area. It is important when practicing any yoga mudra to take at least twelve deep breaths. The longer you hold this pose and observe your breath, the greater the outcome.
If you haven’t already tried out some of these mudras while reading this article, here are some next steps. First, decide if you would like to work with mudras in your yoga practice, meditation, or if there is a specific mudra that meets your needs.
For a more formal approach to incorporating mudras, here is a quick video that demonstrates a few easy mudras, I think Faith does a great job of walking you through the basics. Once you have progressed through her lesson, the next step is to try this longer video. Think of it as a whole class. You will feel so good afterwards and have a much better understanding of mudras and how they can be applied.
Also, now that you are getting more in touch with your hands, there are specific exercises you can do to take care of them.
While I suggest starting with the videos to learn the poses, after that you are free to explore on your own. I really like mudras, because unlike meditation and yoga, which are best practiced in a quite space, mudras can be practiced at any time. They can be added into your day in a more organic way. You can pick a mudra for stressful meetings and another one for before drifting off to sleep.