The word Bandha translates to lock. The Bandhas that we practice in yoga are integral and foundational activations in the body that not only support physical asana embodiment but also energetic cultivation and direction.
Jennilee Toner, yoga teacher and anatomy teacher describes the bandhas as "The activation and engagement of muscle fibers, in strategic areas in the body that support in the toning and lifting of the systems of the body against the natural laws of gravity." The more subtle yogic theory supports bandhas as locks or valves in the body that once engaged can control internal prana. Mastering the Bandhas helps in the process of drawing Kundalini energy into the body and up the spine and Sushumna Nadi, the central energetic channel hosted in the spinal column.
Mula Bandha is the root lock. This bandha is located in a diamond shaped hammock of muscles in the pelvis spanning from the space between the pubis bones, the sit bones, and the coccyx. These muscles are known collectively as the Levator Ani muscle and form part of the pelvic floor. Activation and engagement of these muscles supports the internal organs of the lower abdominal cavity and brings mind body awareness to this area. Heightened and continuous awareness of this area in yoga can help alleviate tightness and tension in the lower back, and provide a buoyancy in the body that encourages axial extension along the spine and a deep core activation.
Practicing Mula Bandha is not a large physical movement, but more of a subtle activation. Several exercises to explore these muscles and their functions include
Ashwini Mudra, the contraction of the anal sphinxter, as if stopping your poop.
Vajroli mudra, the contraction of the urethra, as if stopping your stream of pee.
Mula Bandha, a gentle upward tug in your perineum, the space between the genitals and the anus.
In standing asanas, Mula Bandha can be activated by lifting the inner arches of the feet. The lift travels up the inner thighs to the pelvic floor. This lift leads into the next Bandha, Uddiyana.
Uddiyana Bandha means Upward Flying Lock, and according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is so called because this Bandha encourages Prana to fly up the Sushumna Nadi. Uddiyana Bandha is where the upward lift of gravity can be seen most clearly.
Full Uddiyana Bandha is part of specific pranayama and kriya practices, and its full engagement is a very strong pull of the entire abdominal region strongly back toward the spine and up toward the breastbone when completely empty of breath. It's full expression if easily seen in Nauli Kriya, a cleansing technique for the digestive tract.
A lighter and subtler activation and lift of these muscles is what we refer to as Uddiyana Bandha in our asana practice. An effective cue for active engagement of the abdominal muscles is to draw your navel in towards your spine and up towards the ribcage. This Bandha tones and creates space for the abdominal organs as the diaphragm draws upward into the ribcage, increasing its efficiency and productivity.. Increasing the range of motion of the diaphragm ensures that Dukkha (stagnant energy or stale air) is massaged up and out.
Uddiyana can be found at the bottom of the exhale, when the abdominal muscles are most effectively engaged. Uddiyana is what lifts you into arm balances and inversions, and what brings integrity to all other asanas and protects the spine. When the Bandhas are mastered, practitioners can 'float,' 'fly,' and make other advanced asanas and transitions look effortless and graceful. It is by gathering energy in the core and using it with intention and control that take your practice from flailing and ‘muscling’ your way into poses, to a more embodied and graceful state.
When the Levator Ani muscle contracts (Mula Bandha) they pull up the entire pelvic floor and naturally send energy upwards stimulate the core abdominal musicles into Uddiyana Bandha. At the bottom of every exhale, the belly naturally draws in and up as the breath empties out. Maintain this activation on the inhale to lift, lengthen, and float.
Uddiyana can be cued by simply saying to draw the belly in and up, or to instruct a “false” inhale. Act as if you will breathe in but don’t intake any air. Instead, feel the core activate and lift as it would have if you inhaled, and strengthen the lock as you breathe out.
Jalandhara Bandha refers to the energetic lock in the throat and neck area. It compresses the sinuses and main arteries of the neck and puts light pressure on the throat to balance the thyroid and regulate metabolism. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Jalandhara Bandha is classified under mudras. It is often practiced after asanas and pranayama and before practice of dhyana or meditation. It is used in breath retention exercises to block the flow of air and retain prana.
To explore Jalandhara Bandha:
Drink in a deep inhale and pause at the top. Retain the breath as you contract the throat muscles and bring the chin to the chest between the collar bones. Release the bandha before exhaling. It may be practiced at the bottom of the exhale as well.
It activates the throat chakra, the Vishuddhi Chakra. It is said to give the practitioner control over the physical functions and changes that happen in the body, voluntary and involuntary.
Maha means great or supreme. Maha Bandha is the simultaneous activation of the three bandhas - Mula, Uddiyana, and Jalandhara. It is held during breath retention and is used to turn the energy and attention inward to prepare for meditation. The different directional energies in the body (the Vayus) are believed to merge together here to further stimulate energy flow, or Prana Shakti, up the Sushumna Nadi. Maha Bandha is an advanced practice and should be learned from an experienced teacher.
"This Maha Bandha is the most skillful means for cutting away the snares of death. It brings about the conjunction of the Triveni (Ida, Pingala and Susumna) and carries the mind to Kedar (the space between the eyebrows, which is the seat of Siva)," declares the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā.
Depending on the depth of your studies, the Bandhas will at the very least provide integrity and safety to yoga practice, and are an important lesson in body awareness and control.
Enjoy and embody!!