At both the beginning and the end of a yoga class, we sit upright and fold the palms. Bringing the hands to touch each other in this way is a gesture of reverence, often simply called “prayer position.” Placing the hands together in front of the chest brings our attention to the heart region, and to the present moment.
This position can be called Namaskarasana, the pose of respect to the divine within. It can also be called Atmanjali Mudra. Mudra is a gesture or a seal, and Atma is the individual soul. So this is the gesture that brings attention to the innermost core of our being.
So what happens when we assume this posture of folded palms? On the physical level, this position tends to invite a lift and broadening of the chest, which in turn creates space for fuller breathing. As the breath softly spreads, the mind can become passively alert and thoughts may quiet down. With conscious attention on the touch of the thumbs on the breastbone, awareness can descend down from the head and into the heart region.
When we place our attention in the center of the chest, we can experience an almost immediate inner shift. Thoughts loosen their grip and we may get a glimmer of non-conceptual awareness, or awareness of awareness itself.
The head is said to be the center of the ego and the everyday mind, and the heart is the abode of the soul, or as B.K.S. Iyengar has written, “the citadel of the Self.” The brain sifts through the past and plans for the the future, while the heart resides in the eternal now.
The ability to think clearly and use our brains is clearly crucial to our lives, yet we also need to cultivate the quietly attentive experience of heart-centered awareness. In this mode, we may access our inner spiritual wisdom, the intuitive guidance that helps us make fine-tuned value judgements. From the intelligence of the heart, known as buddhi, we can discern the best way forward, in a way sometimes completely inaccessible to the brain.
The first word in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is atha, which means now. How appropriate that we have the method of folding the palms to bring ourselves back to the present each time we practice yoga.