May 2006 – The Bandhas

It’s only been a little over a year since I last had bandhas as the topic. Through my yogic life the bandhas keep changing for me — in the beginning they were very physical and I put a lot more physical effort into them. That feeling shifted to finding some lightness with them . . . and in not too long that shifted to finding a deeper inner lift in the core of my body . . . and that too is now shifting as I have been connecting my bandhas to my breath and bonding the two together feeling the bandhas come alive in my body. I feel them more esoterically than physically which can make them difficult to teach. Traveling and teaching workshops this month makes me talk about the bandhas a bit more . . . a topic I like to avoid as they can be so hard to explain . . . But here I will try, I may feel differently about them soon . . .

Bandha — like so many words of yogic vocabulary can not be exactly translated. It means to tie, to control, to block, to hold, to join and to contract — all at the same time.

The sanskrit term bandha has been translated as a means to bond or bridge together–the pose setu bandhasana means the building of a bridge. So our bandhas are about connection–inner connection, building a bridge to take us from the outer to the inner. Ashtanga yoga pays more attention to the inner work than the outer work.

Our human energy powerhouse is in our gut, many of our cultures recognize this, example the taoist qi or chi, the japanese ki, the Egyptians call it ka, and the Hawaiians call it ha (breath) or mana. In yoga we refer to our energetics as Prana or Shakti. Our bandhas of which 2 of the most used bandhas originate in our gut, help us tap into this energy. From the yoga perspective the point of the bandhas is to awaken and control these subtle yet powerful energies in our body.

Being conscious of this energy and making the mental effort to stay connected with it throughout most our day will have amazing benefits to your energy levels, your attitude, and your health.

On a physical level Bandhas refer to various muscular contractions intended to influence the circulation of the blood, lymph, the nervous system, and the endocrine glands.

Pattabhi Jois explained the bandhas as “squeeze your anus”. Many others try to explain the bandhas as a kegel exercise or a lifting of the pelvic floor or perineum (mula bandha) and an inward upward lift of the abdomen (uddiyana bandha)–and these are ok descriptions to help you connect with the muscular control you have of your pelvic floor and abdomen; but the bandhas are a bit deeper–in the core of your body. When I connect with the inner lift of my bandhas I feel the connection an inch or two below my navel and deep into the center of my body.

On a physical level, Connecting with your bandhas requires more mental effort than physical effort, although the body will understand it much sooner than the mind will! It may take years to develop — but you should begin the process early in your practice. They are a subtle, constant lift — in the beginning we tend to squeeze too much — or not at all . . .

Connecting our bandhas to our breath helps us feel the bandhas from the inside–instead of using too much external muscular effort for them. Here is a nice way to connect your bandhas to your breath which will help you do your practice from the inside:

  • Sit with a relaxed abdomen, eyes closed, tongue on the roof of your mouth. Inhaling and exhaling both through your nose only, and keeping your abdomen relaxed; feel your abdomen expand with each inhale and relax inward on your exhales. Feel this in your body for a few breaths.
  • Start to become more active with your exhale; as you exhale follow the natural inward upward movement with your abdominals tucking up in under your ribcage. As you become more active in your breathing process you will get a deeper exhale that is just a little quicker as the lifting of the bandhas pushes the air out a little quicker. Relax on your inhales and let your belly drop. Sit with this breath for a few breaths.
  • Now becoming more active with both the inhales and exhales; as you exhale connect with the inward upward lift–HOLD that inward upward lift and inhale. Now as you inhale instead of you abdomen expanding your lower ribs will expand instead. Feel this expansion in your back ribs, side ribs, as well as your front ribs. Sit with this breath for a bit.
  • Taking it just a little deeper, now inhale from your pelvic floor up to your heart. INhales moving from the root of your spine to your heart. Exhales connecting with the inward upward lift under the ribs. Feel your breath moving up and down your spine, feel your breath moving in your body.

Pulling together your breathing and bandhas fills your body with prana, prana is your energy–kind of like a yogic energy that helps you feel awake and alive and energetic. Prana is intelligence at a cellular level, intelligence is called buddhi in Sanskrit, which comes from the root “bud,” which means to wake up, and so it is the energy of waking up.

Bandhas Defined
I prefer mostly to teach the bandhas from the inside–not so much about the external musculature, however some of us need to wrap our brain around something tangible to begin the understanding. As you find it in your musculature, try to relax the external muscles and feel your bandhas from the inside out. The bandhas help you do your practice from the inner experience–not the outer experience. This is very liberating as you are not limited to what your physical body can or can’t do.

“The Root”
Mula Bandhas is our root, we establish our support and grounding with help of the mula bandha. Simply explained by Pattabhi Jois as “squeeze your anus”. And when all else fails do just that –squeeze your anus 😉 Mula Bandha is hard to define and teach but here are some words that may also help:

Mula bandha is an inner lift that starts at the pelvic floor. It is not just a tightening or clenching of the pelvic floor muscles, it creates an inner lift. It is a small and subtle contraction, it does not require much physical effort, but does require attention and mental effort.

When learning Mula Bandha it is easier to start by contracting the muscles around the genitals, then contract as if you are stopping the flow of urine which takes the contraction deeper. To take it even a little deeper–although there is no movement, perform the following muscular contractions as if there was movement in the bones; try to pull your pubic bone and tail bone toward each other and try to pull your sitz bones toward each other, follow that contraction to the center of your pelvic floor and lift it all upward. Or in the words of a friend of mine — “its like a shloop shloop” (like a suction action ;).

Continuing upward with Uddiyana Bandha
(There is some debate whether the uddiyana bandha we practice during postures is a continuation of mula bandha or a separate exercise. In many yogic texts uddiyana bandha is described as a cleansing technique done by a complete “sucking up” of the lower and upper abdomen (others call this uddiyana kriya). For our purpose I am going to refer to uddiyana bandha as separate work from mula bandha, and uddiyana kriya as the cleansing exercise.)

Uddiyana bandha involves the abdominal muscles, primarily 3 of the 4; it uses the transverse abdominis (the innermost muscular layer running horizontal), and the internal and external obliques (muscles that extend from the hips to the ribs and from the ribs to the hips at an “oblique” angle).

Uddiyana means “to fly upward”, so your uddiyana bandha is not a contraction or hardening of your abdominal muscles, but a pulling inward and upward–hooking in just under the rib cage– akin to “picking yourself up by your bootstraps”. Your uddiyana bandha gives you a lot of lift and lightness in your movements–it makes your movements effortless. Those who can jump back or forward and land lightly are using the lift of their bandhas for control of their movements.

Pulling together Mula and Uddiyana Bandha:

Seated in your meditation position, exhale fully and connect your uddiyana bandha to your exhale, bring your attention to the Cave of Mula Bandha (a point in the center of your body about 2 or 3 inches below your navel and inward), tilt your pelvis forward and inhaling lift your mula bandha, exhaling rock your pelvis backward into a posterior pelvic tilt pulling in the lower sides of the abdomen and draw your front lower ribs in and down, hold these muscular contractions and inhaling bring your pelvis into a neutral alignment feeling length on the back, front and sides of your body, ribs now floating far above the hips.

As you sit up tall pay attention to keep the front lower ribs in and down, this keeps you connected with your uddiyana bandha and prevents “rib cage” popping.

You want just enough toning and lift of lower abdomen to leave belly unrestricted for breathing (this distinguishes Uddiyana Bandha from just tightening your abs). The bandhas should not restrict the action of the diaphragm, it supports it and aids to better exhale. The bandhas give lift and extension to the spine, this provides greater ease in your practice and more room to breathe — not less. NOTE: These actions should feel natural and supportive rather than forced or constrictive.

The physical contraction of perineum has beneficial effects of maintaining hormonal balance and stimulating and regulating the nerves that innervate the lower pelvic region. Many of the nerves that regulate the pineal and pituitary glands are in the pelvic region–the toning of your mula bandha positively affects those nerves. The bandhas also keep our lymph moving in our gut–since the lymph does not have a heart to pump it, moving lymph is important to our immune system. Mula bandha is a tool in the treatment of digestive ailments and sexual disorders. This is one of the reasons why mula bandha has been called “the destroyer of decay”.

Physiologically uddiyana bandha provides muscular support for pelvis and spine, it lifts the lower abdominal organs up off the pelvic floor releasing pressure on the pelvic floor, as our bandhas keep all our organs from prolapsing–this allows the organs to operate better and will do more for your waist line than any diet! The bandhas develop elasticity and tone of the intercostals muscles (muscles between the ribs) and diaphragm, which enhances deep thoracic breathing.

The bandhas move energy in our body and help us feel alive and energetic. As you sit and breathe with your bandhas feel the energy in your body and pay attention to the experience of it.

Another major benefit of breathing with bandhas (all day long–or at least til 9pm 😉 Is the venous blood return. the vena cava collects blood from our body below the diaphragm, this blood has to be pushed against gravity, so sometimes is slower to circulate. When you breathe with bandhas the contraction of the abdominals helps to propel the venous blood upward to the heart and lungs where it can be purified and recirculated better and quicker.

Breathe behind your heart . . . A common phrase I use when I teach, if you have proper lift of mula and uddiyana bandha your breath will no longer be dropping into your belly, it will instead be expanding the ribs and thorax. This type of breathing encourages deeper lung gas exchanges, giving your body more oxygen with each breath. The lower lobes of your lungs has larger capillaries–thus more blood with more oxygen, so deep thoracic breathing gets you more oxygen in each breath. Thoracic breathing will also strengthen and soothe the nervous system, enhancing body/mind control. The pressure of the inner support of the bandhas puts pressure on the vagus nerve (the nerve that goes from your gut to your brain) which relaxes the nervous system.

Through the practice of mula bandha combined with other yogic disciplines we learn to channel nervous energy at will so we can act in a more graceful, flowing way.

Combining Inner Lift with Outer Lift
There is a 3rd bandha (and many other smaller bandhas, for example our hands and feet have bandhas too 😉 called Jalandhara Bandha–jalandhara; jalan means net or network or trellis referring to the network of nerves in our neck) and dhara means stream or flow or pulling upwards. Most people refer to this bandha as chin lock–the full bandha is only used during pranayama when holding your breath in. The bandha is a combination of lifting your sternum and dropping your chin to the crook in your chest. In yogic lore when this is done during a pranayama breath hold combined with the lift of mula bandha–it seals both ends of the spine keeping our energy moving in the spine and to keep our nectar of life from flowing downward from our crown chakra and getting consumed in agni–our digestive fire.

During pranayama this bandha is very important and has many benefits:

  • Compression on the throat — pressing of chin into the hollow in the collarbones:
    -prevents air moving upward and causing pressure above the glottis, this is important as pressure in the Eustachian tubes is not good.
    -puts pressure on the carotid artery which helps to keep our heart rate lower (when you hold your breath your heart rate speeds up).
  • The stretching of the cervical vertebrae at the nape of the neck pulls on the spinal cord relieving pressure on the cranial nerves and acting on the nervous system — particularly the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of our nervous system that de-stresses us.
  • Compression on the thyroid, helping to balance the action of the thyroid.

Practicing sarvanganasana and halasana will help prepare one for jalandhara bandha, this is whymany years of asana must precede pranayama and breath retentions.

Using the LIft of Jalandhara outside of pranayama
We do not use the full jalandhara bandha outside of pranayama, but we can take from it the alignment and lift of our sternum, neck and head for a healthy posture that promotes good energy movement in your spine and attitudes all day (When we slouch in our posture our attitude tends to slouch with it!).

Sometimes when we focus too much on our bandhas we collapse our chest and round our shoulders–or when we focus too much on lifting our heart and lengthening our spine we arch our back and sag our abdomen outward–so we need to combine both movements for the best results. This is counter intuitive as when we pull in our abdomen our habit is to drop our chest and vice versa when we puff out our chest we tend to arch our back–so initially you will have to put your attention into this alignment until it becomes natural.

We can practice it here. Sitting in your meditation posture; relax for a few breaths, now emphasize your exhale and the natural inward upward lift of your abdomen under your rib cage–connecting your exhale to your uddiyana bandha. Relax on the inhale and let your belly drop. Take a few breaths as this. Adding on, as you exhale and draw your uddiyana bandha inward and upward–hold that inward upward lift as you inhale; feel your ribs expand now with your breath instead of your belly. As you inhale feel as if you are pulling your tailbone and pubic bone toward each other, and your sitz bones toward each other, in the center of your pelvic floor where those contractions meet pull it all upward. Inhales coming from your pelvic floor–your mula bandha, exhales coming from your uddiyana bandha. Just sit for a few breaths connecting your breath to your bandhas.

Taking our alignment upward:
Without popping your ribs, draw the bottom inner tip of your shoulder blades slightly toward each other and inward toward your heart — to cradle your heart. This creates lift of your chest, your upper arms will rotate outward slightly, and your collar bones will lift and broaden. Feel as though you are hugging your shoulder blades to your back ribs.

Most of us sit in “forward head posture” (chin jutting forward) all day, shortening and tightening the back of the neck, collapsing the chest, and rounding the shoulders, when the chin juts forward it puts pressure on all the nerves at the base of our skull creating a strong excitation of mental processes. By adjusting your head position the brain relaxes:

Lengthen the back of your neck and bring your ears in line with your shoulders, dropping your chin only slightly, as you do this you will feel a release of tension at the back of your skull.

As you adjust your shoulder blades and your head and neck alignment, feel a lengthening upward from the center of your spine through the crown of your head.

Sit with your breathing and bandhas from above to below and feel the energy moving in your body.

In a tangible form, Mula and Uddiyana bandha keep the pelvis and lower spine in good alignment, the beginning stages of jalandhara bandha brings our alignment upward from our heart center to the crown of our head.

I like to refer to this as combining inner lift with outer lift; we have the inner lift of the bandhas from our pelvic floor upward combined with the outer lift of our heart center and relaxation of our shoulders and neck–this is the posture we want to be in most of our days. We have the energy of our mula and uddiyana bandha keeping our pelvic and spine areas toned and in good alignment combined with the lift of our heart and broadening of our collar bones which keeps us open hearted and happy faced.

I like to picture this as a Lotus Flower. Our spine is the long stem, the blossom starts at our heart. The lotus flower grows out of the mud and muck–It uses the muck as fertilizer and rises upward, opens to the sun and blooms. We can do the same, we can use the mud and muck in our lives as fertilization and rise above our challenges in life and bloom 🙂 May we all behave as the lotus flower, using our fertilizer wisely, rise above, and bloom.

In Ashtanga yoga our form of downward dog is a bit different than other styles of yoga. This is due to the connection of the bandhas during our practice.

If you look at the pictures, you can see the picture of Pattabhi Jois in down dog–how he is pulling into his inner energy. Compare that with the picture of the “no bandha” downward dog–that pushes energy out of your body as you let your back and abdomen sag it over arches the lower back leading to back and hip pain. I also snuck in a picture of myself in down dog, this was my last practice in Nepal and I did not realize my picture was being taken . . . but it was nice to see my downward dog pose, and notice that I was pulling into the inner energy.

When you do your practice pulling in to your inner energy you feel energized and alive from your practice. When you focus on the inner experience–you are not limited to what your physical body can do. As Frank (one of our teachers here) says, he just connects to his breathing and bandhas and goes into his practice — he does not worry about where his body is in the postures. Men with thick muscles sometimes need more time for the flexibility to come, this attitude has given Frank longevity and happiness in his practice. This way of practicing reduces frustration about — being flexible or not–being able to do the “tricks” or not — and fills your body with energy and vibrancy.

And remember just like your breath, your bandhas can go with you wherever you go 😉 Do your bandhas subtly and gently throughout most of your day . . . well except a+er 9pm then you can relax and just let it all hang out . . .

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