The other day, after an emotionally challenging and difficult conversation, I went for a walk in the woods behind my house. At first, I was completely absorbed in my own thoughts. Around and around I went in my head, replaying the unpleasant exchange, thinking about what I should've/could've said, and basically feeling miserable. Suddenly, I was stopped in my tracks by the overwhelmingly delicious sent of lilacs blooming.
I stood still and let it in.
I let the unproductive thoughts go.
I heard birds singing around me; I felt the sunshine on my skin. I felt my whole body soften and receive the healing medicine that had been there the whole time.
In Sanskrit, the word mudra (which, in yoga we usually use to refer to a hand gesture which seals or focuses energy) means a seal or a stamp. When one presses a seal into soft wax, it holds the impression of the seal. If the wax is too soft, it oozes off the paper and cannot hold the impression. If it is too hard, it cannot yield to receive the imprint of the seal. Mudra, as Douglas Brooks says, is about "active receptivity:" an energy that is both strong and soft, that is open to transformation, yet has integrity and the ability to hold a boundary.
During my woods walk, I was, at first, not receptive. I was not open to the calming and restorative energy all around me because I was choosing instead to dwell in my stagnent thought patterns and stay closed off to the other possibilities available to me. Luckily, the lilacs awakened me and in that moment I chose to soften and allow myself to be touched by the beauty and sweetness that was just as real as the unproductive thoughts I was engaging.
Mudra is an invitation. It reminds us that we always have a choice. We are not passive victims of life. What happens, happens; we choose our reaction. This is a deeply radical notion and not an easy one to take in. It implies total self-empowerment. It means that no one can ever "make you feel" a certain way ever again! It invites taking full responsibility for your experience, including emotions, thoughts, and actions.
It is possible to show up on our yoga mat and choose not be open. We could even go through the motions of the poses, but be unreceptive to the energy available to us. We could choose to think about what's for dinner; we could watch other people in the room and compare ourselves to them; we could even text someone! This is neither good, nor bad. The point is that we get to choose. This recognition of our inherent, unbounded freedom is, from a Tantric pespective, truly the purpose of yoga.
In our asana practice, opening and softening is not always the most healthy choice for our bodies. For someone with a very open, flexible body, sometimes choosing firmness and steadiness through muscular energy is more balancing and strengthening than adding more organic energy and opening even further. It could even prevent an injury. Likewise, in relationships or life situations, sometimes choosing a firm boundary is more appropriate than opening and yielding.
In every yoga pose, we are offered the possibility of receiving a mudra, an impression. Whether or not we open to it, is up to us. If we choose to receive the imprint, we can carry it with us and offer it to others. For example, in savasana, if we allow ourselves to be deeply imprinted by the peaceful and restorative energy offered by the pose, we can carry it with us when we leave class and even then share it with others.
We also make each pose we practice a mudra, offering out our own unique impression of the asana as only we can do. In fact, we offer mudra with everything we say and do, and even think! Then, in turn, we are offered impressions back. It is a constant dance, an exchange. Everything is connected, but we get to choose what we carry around with us and what we release for transformation.
Mudra is about possibility, freedom, and choice. What stamp, what sacred mark do you wish to offer out to the world? Nobody else can make the same one as you! Just like the lilacs, the birds, even the challenging converstations, your mudra is needed as part of this great design that is the Tantra, the web of life.