The cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
Images and sounds. Very powerful. We process images at an alarming speed connecting us quickly to our past, reminding us of people, places, feelings and stories. They can inspire and help us learn. Or they can be frightening and nightmarish.
Recently, a video of 8 minutes 46 seconds – a vivid image with three simple words ‘I can’t breathe’ – grabbed our attention and threw our country into a turmoil of protests. Cries of despair and hope. Disquieting, and horrifying. While the images and sounds of protests can be upsetting and exhausting, they are very important to initiate a much needed change. Much work needs to be done before forgiveness can manifest and humans (beings of all colors) can coexist in peace.
To support each other along the way, a simple yogic technique outlined below, when practiced, can bring you back to your peaceful center. This mudra, a yogic seal can help you regain your strength to fight another day – whether you are standing up for the downtrodden or contributing towards the upliftment of humankind as a whole in your own way.
Śunmukhi Mudra is a yogic hand seal that represents closing the six gates, – the eyes (2), ears (2), nose (1) and mouth (1), the senses of perception. The term Śunmukhi comes from the euphonic combination (sandhi) of two words in Samskritham. First word is šat, means six; mukhi, means face or gate, opening; and mudra, means gesture or seal.
The attitudes adopted during mudra practices establishes a direct link between the physical, mental and pranic bodies (koša, sheaths), enabling you to develop awareness to the flow of prāna in the body. (Svāmi Satyānanda)
Hata Yóga Pradīpika, presents the practice of Śunmukhi Mudra to awaken the kundalini, coiled energy at the base of the spine towards the attainment of Samādhi. The aim is to reach the source of all sound by eliminating gross distinct sounds and becoming aware of a fainter subtler sounds behind the distinct vibration. (Svāmi Satyānanda)
First, this mudra helps you to leave the external world of gross objects and then prompts you go inward into the subtle realms of mind. This process of turning inward of the senses is called Pratyāhāra, fifth limb of Rāja Yóga. With the honing of Pratyāhāra the mind is able to fix its attention more easily and progresses to Dhārana, concentration, the seventh limb on the eight fold path. Advancing steadily through each of the eight limbs the yogi finally arrives at Samādhi.
The text also points out an important difference between subtle and gross sounds. The subtle sound is not caused by two things being struck together, whereas the gross sound can only occur by two objects coming together. Meaning, the subtle sound is heard within the consciousness itself, while the gross sound is heard through the ear which sends vibrations to the brain allowing the mind to perceive it. (Svāmi Muktibodhānanda) Keep this in mind when you are trying to train your senses using sound as the focus.
Sit in a meditation posture that is comfortable for you with your spine upright; it can be on a chair, or on a yoga mat in Sukhāsana, easy pose, or Ardha Padmāsana, half lotus. In Hata Yoga practice, Siddhāsana or Siddha Yoni āsana is utilized (Svāmi Muktibodhānanda). Comfort in the seat is crucial so you can forget your physical body and concentrate on the subtle body.
- Close your eyes and breathe deeply.
- Raise your arms with your elbows bent and relaxed to the side.
- Close your eyes with your index fingers, your nostrils with your middle fingers (on either side of the nostrils) and your mouth by placing your ring fingers above your lips and your pinkie fingers below your lips. Finally close your ears with your thumbs.
- Allow your fingers to gently seal shutting off the six gates – the two eyes, the two ears, the nose (two nostrils) and the mouth. This can be initially uncomfortable for a few, especially if you are shutting the flow of breath through your nostrils (see Breath Section below).
- Start by placing your fingers beside the nostrils, applying and releasing the seal, observing the rhythm of the breath without causing any distress. However, the ears can be sealed completely and comfortably, shutting out the external sounds.
- Focus your attention at bindu – the point at the back of the head, or on Śāmbhavi Mudra or Ajña Chakra, middle of your eyebrows or on Anāhata Chakra, the heart center.
- While the inner gaze gets you focused, it imperative to become aware of the vibrations that arise when you chant ÒM and to progressively hear more subtle sounds of the inner body.
Close the ears so you don’t hear any outside noises. Middle fingers are gently placed by the nostrils. No pressure is applied to shut off the flow of air in this version.
- Take a deep inhale and slowly exhale ÓM with your mouth closed. You may start with your mouth open and then close it as you chant the ‘mmm’ sound.
- Become aware of the vibrations that begin at the level of the head and quickly spread all over the body.
- Prolong the ‘Mmmm’ sound until it fades.
- Now, become aware of the silence after the sound. Observe the peacefulness that comes with that silence.
- Notice how long you feel the vibrations even after the sound hushes, and before a thought arises to disrupt that peacefulness.
- Repeat steps 1-4 chanting ÓM a few times.
- When you are ready, proceed with your regular meditation practice.
For this method to be successful, you must be familiar with the Prāṇāyāma practice of Kumbhaka, retention and suspension of breath.
Throughout this second practice, your middle fingers should release the nostrils as you inhale and exhale. Only when you are ready, at the end of a deep and slow inhalation, close your nostrils gently with your middle fingers for a few seconds, noticing the silence, then release the pressure of the middle fingers and slowly exhale humming the sound ÒM or Mmmmm for as long as the breath lasts.
Pause, breathing quietly, and notice subtle sounds vibrating through the head. Allow your full attention to focus on this subtle sound pulsating through your being. Repeat chanting or humming a few times and then dwell in the peaceful silence for as long as the heart wants.
There are more involved practices outlined in the text Hata Yoga Pradīpika regarding perceiving inner subtle sounds which are not discussed here. However, these two practices are a good place to begin training the senses to go inward and cultivate the habit of listening to inner sounds.
Mudras are a combination of subtle physical movements which alter mood, attitude and perception, and which deepen awareness and concentration. They are higher yogic practices which lead to the awakening of the pranas, chakras and kundalini (coiled energy at the base of the spine) (Svāmi Satyānanda)
By shutting outlets of the five senses, you are shutting out the material world of distraction and attempting to go inward. Physically, the energy and heat from the hands and fingers stimulate and relax the nerves and muscles of the face. Mentally, it balances the internal and external awareness. Spiritually, it induces the state of Pratyāhāra, sense withdrawal. (Svāmi Satyānanda)
Don’t expect to hear the subtle sounds immediately; regular practice is necessary (Svāmi Satyānanda). However, practice of this mudra decreases mental agitation through introversion of the awareness, averts anger and anxiety and soothes the nervous system inducing calmness. You can indulge and enjoy this practice a few times a day or whenever you need a stress break. With steady training you may even notice transformation in your habituated thinking, maybe a surprising act or attitude of selflessness, or purification of intention leading to an unexpected rise in compassion. This is beautiful way of assessing your progress in your personal practice. Be aware of these transformations with gratitude.
Then again, using your senses mindfully, for example, when spending time in nature has its own benefits. Practicing gratitude for the healthy functioning of each of your senses, using them to experience the wonders of creation like the clear blue sky, sunset over still waters or listening to the chirping of the birds or the sweet sound of babies laughing, can melt your stress as well.
Be Well. Choose Peace. Practice Yóga.
Satyānanda, Svāmi. 1966, 1973. Āsana Prāṇāyāma Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.
Muktibodhānanda, Svāmi. 1993. Hata Yoga Pradipika. Yoga Publications Trust. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.