Open Hand: my favorite mudra

Mudras are positions or gestures of the hands. In Yoga and various meditation traditions, mudras are used to settle the mind and calm the emotions. You may have seen statues of the Buddha or Asian deities with hands in very deliberate shapes. To the best of my knowledge, what I am going to share with you here is not a classical, traditional mudra. (If you know it and know a traditional name for it, please tell us in a comment.) I think of it as “Open Hand.”

Try this: Don’t move your hands. Pause for a moment to observe them.

Are your fingers curled or straight? Are the palms of your hands closed or open? Where are your thumbs in relation to your fingers?

Also take a moment to check in with other parts of you: What are tension levels like in your jaw, neck and shoulders? in your arms? What is the tempo and depth of your breathing? (This one is really hard for me — as soon as I pay attention to my breathing, I change it. Try not to. Go for a sense of how you have been breathing for the last few minutes.)

Now try this: Get something flat: a clipboard, a book, a firm pillow. If you don’t have anything handy that you can set on your lap, then sit in front of a table. Place one or both hands palm down on the flat surface so that the fingers and thumbs are easily straight. Allow the heel of your hand to rest on the surface and position yourself so that your wrists are comfortably straight. Just sit like this for several breaths and notice what happens.

Check in with the level of muscular tension in your forearms. Check in with your jaw, neck and shoulders. Check in with the tempo and depth of your breath. Any changes?

This simple opening of the hand has been profound for me. If I sit with my hands resting on a flat surface, I feel my shoulders and forearms soften. My breathing becomes easier and more complete. I feel more restful all over. The amount of change has surprised me. Typically, my hands at rest are softly curled. They are not clenched and I don’t experience them as being especially tense. Yet deliberately opening them has been significant.

If you don’t notice anything, that’s fine.  This particular activity might not be very meaningful for you. It is also possible that you are not in the habit of paying attention or experimenting in this way. In this case, changes might happen more slowly and take more time to percolate into your awareness. There’s no hurry. Sometimes I rest my hands on something flat when I am watching television, when someone else is driving, when I am listening to another person speak. There are plenty of opportunities to play.

In standing, the action is a little different, but the principle is the same: opening the hands without adding tension. Stand up and allow your arms to hang comfortably at your sides. Are your fingers curled? If you are really clenching into fists, we’ve got some work ahead of us.

Try this: Imagine tying puppet strings to the tip of each finger and each thumb. Take your time. I’ll wait. Now, imagine attaching a weight to each puppet string. Allow these weighted puppet strings to gently and effortlessly pull down on your fingertips. I can’t see you so I’ll have to guess. My guess is that one of two things is happening. Most likely, you are deliberately straightening and extending your fingers through the use of muscular tension. If this is true, you will feel contraction in the muscles of your hands and forearms. You will also think this is a dumb idea. It is. This is not what we’re after.

We want the other possibility — in which the muscles in your hands relax as though in response to the gentle pulling action of weights tied to your fingertips. In this scenario, you won’t feel your muscles working. However, you may have to keep re-engaging your imagination on this mission to keep up the sensation. That’s fine.

Stand still for several breaths. Notice what happens to the tempo and depth of your breathing. Notice what happens to the tension level in your arms, shoulders and neck. Notice your spine, hips, legs and feet. Do you feel more centered or grounded?

Go for a walk and notice the difference in your experience when you walk with your fingers curled and when you walk with open hands. How do your arms swing? Where do your eyes tend to look? What’s going on with your mind and emotions?

My students have reported feeling more grounded, more stable, and more fluid when they walk with open hands. They have also reported that walking with open hands calms their minds; reducing any tendency to ruminate.

You can experiment: try wearing wrist weights while standing and/or walking with open hands. What is your balance like when you stand on one foot with fingers curled? Any increase in steadiness when your hands are open and your fingertips are pulled by imaginary weights? Try playing along the diagonal — if you tend to wobble while standing on your right foot, then stand on your right foot while really extending through the open fingers of your left hand.

I love little things like this. Our hands are busy so much of the time. Try using a clipboard, book or lap desk to support your open hands the next time you watch TV or a movie. Try standing with open hands the next time you wait in line at a store. You might even take a break from the rush and deliberately choose a longer, slower line.

You can repeat this now and then throughout the day. Don’t be concerned with changing or correcting yourself, just become acquainted with what you do. Of all the myriad possibilities, what shapes do your hands take most often?

Standing with open hands can be especially nice to do in a beautiful nature spot — a beach, a forest, a mountain view. However, the world is always around us and it is always a benefit to be present. You can stand in front of a window, in front of a beautiful painting. You can stand in open presence in a mall or at an airport and witness the passersby.

Gently check in with your hands throughout your daily activities. Do your hands tend to be clenched? curled? open? Since I have begun to play this way, I have noticed that my hand gestures are becoming more open. Perhaps my autopilot has taken note of the positive effects of open hand and is looking for more opportunities to tap into these benefits.

What about you?

What shapes do your hands habitually take at rest?

If you play with Open Hand, are there any observations you’d like to share?

Credit Where It’s Due: This exploration was inspired by the Reflexes: Prisons or Portals training led by Jaimen McMillan and Jane Swain. Jaimen used the image of puppet strings pulling on the fingers. I expanded the idea to rest the hand on flat surfaces out of a desire to move out of the Palmar Grasp.