Getting along with home practice (part three)

Lock to unlock…The mysterious Bandhas
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this new space we inhabit has been taking the time to answer questions about practice. Time to mull over these questions often eludes us in the relatively fast paced Mysore Room, where the clock is always ticking. I hope those of you who sent in specific asana requests have found your way to the clips I am making. If you haven’t, let me know and I’ll point you in the right direction. Some other questions can be examined more fully on these ‘pages’. Today we’ll look at a subject which vexes many Astanga practitioners: The Bandhas.
The application of Bandha to our Asana practice brings us to a place where our modern understanding of anatomy rubs shoulders with a very ancient one. As a result many people view the Bandhas as a means to gain or enhance core strength. They can do that, but to understand them better we need to look beyond lifting, jumping and floating!
Bandha is a Sanskrit word with a number of possible translations, but the one most widely used is “lock”. In some ways this is a rather blunt translation because the action of Bandhas is not to lock but to release -or rather channel – the flow of life force or prana around the body. If working with images is helpful for you, I sometimes see the Bandhas as valves: restricted spaces which nevertheless allow movement.
Imagery has been used as an aid to understanding the more subtle energies of the human body for centuries.
In the Bagavad Gita, Krishna uses wild horses to symbolize the unruly mind (and it is no coincidence that he is cast as a charioteer when in human form). Arjuna complains that attempting to to control his own thoughts is like trying to catch the wind.
When we practice Yoga we are in effect trying to catch the wind or harness the galloping horses of the mind. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the earliest texts to deal explicitly with using physical means to aid meditation, we find this oft quoted and rather poetic assertion:
Cale Vate Calam Cittam
Niscale Niscalam Bhavet
Yogistanutvamanopti
Tato Vayum Nirodhayet
(HYP 2:2)
There are many and slightly varied translations of these verses but one of my favourite translations is by T Krishnamacharia.
When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady
When the breath is focused, the mind becomes focused
The Yogi becomes steady
Therefore, Yogi, restrain your breath.
Interestingly, Krisnamacaria translates Yogistanutvamanopti (the yogi becomes steady) as “rooted, like the trunk of a tree.” You may recall that we used the tree trunk to explore the intertwined eight “limbs” of Astanga Yoga last week.
Returning now to our restrained or becalmed breathing, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika goes on to say that breath controls the mind by controlling the flow of prana.
We tend to think of Prana as one thing but it actually moves round the body in five ways. These are the ‘vayus’ (sometimes, incidentally, translated as ‘winds)’.
Here they are:
Prana is the vayu which brings life force into the body. Represented by inhalation, it is associated with the upper body (especially the heart and the head).
Apana is the means by which the life force leaves us. It is represented by exhalation but also elimination (digestive and reproductive). It is associated with the lower abdomen, anal and genital regions.
Vyana circulates the life force and is associated with the whole body. Represented by the whole breath, it is present even when the breath is held (for example: during pranayama).
Samana is assimilation, represented by the middle of the breath and associated with the digestive tract.
Udana is expression, represented by speech and associated mainly with the throat.
Not all hatha yoga texts place the vayus in this order and some texts list a further five, dealing with everything from belching to yawning.
The two forces we will focus on here are Prana and Apana. Think of Prana as upward energy and Apana as downward.
I use ‘up’ and ‘down’ for want of better words because we are somewhat conditioned to think that ‘up’ is good or ‘positive’ and ‘down’ is it’s opposite. It doesn’t apply here. Remember that hatha yoga doesn’t deal with polarities (or at least strives to draw them toward one another).
To ensure that there’s a good balance between our ‘up’ and ‘down’ energies, we apply Bandhas to the breath. It’s really important to think of them as part of our breathing technique and not something separate, for reasons which will become clear as we examine them.
There are many types of Bandha listed in various Hatha Yoga texts but let’s turn to the three which are associated with our practice:
Mula Bandha (the ‘root’ lock). This is accessed by drawing the anal sphincter upwards (it’s an enhancement of the involuntary action we take to avoid urinating and defecation). It’s not an easy movement to isolate and for most of us, contracting the perineum is the best way to engage it.
Uddiyana Bandha (the ‘upward’ lock) is accessed by drawing the lower abdomen inwards and upwards, towards the spine and the ribs.
Jalahandra (the ‘web’ lock) is accessed by pressing the chin on to the top of the sternum.
We are encouraged to apply Mula and Uddiyana Bandhas to the breath during our Asana practice.
Jalahandra Bandha is only applied to a handful of asana and is mostly associated with Pranayama.
The Bandhas seem like quite overt or rigorous actions and just about every student I’ve ever met has struggled with the idea of applying them to the entire practice. In reality, the Bandhas are far subtler than most of us realize.
Before I go on, it might help to remind ourselves that many elements of practice arise spontaneously from one another. To a certain extent this is true for the breath and the Bandhas. You may have noticed that in the previous paragraph I wrote that Bandhas are applied to the breath. They are also inherent in the breath. If breath is slow and controlled enough, Mula and Uddiyana Bandhas will engage themselves naturally as we inhale and exhale. What we do when we deliberately pull up our roots and pull in our navels is enhance this process.
It is good to know the distinction between natural and enhanced Bandha action because there is a tendency amongst practitioners to believe that we must actively apply “the locks” to everything or risk undermining the practice. In fact there are times when we really shouldn’t apply them (during pregnancy for example) and times when focusing too much on them doesn’t do much… apart from stress us out.
To experience the difference between spontaneous and enhanced Bandhas you can try these simple, seated exercises.
Sit somewhere quiet with crossed legs. You can support yourself against a wall or a chair. Or place your hands on the floor about 45 degrees behind you, with your arms straight but not rigid.
Breathe in and out deeply and evenly five times to make sure that your breath is steady.
Now make your inhalation as slow and as long as possible and, as you reach the top of the breath, bring awareness to your root. At the very top of the inhalation you may notice an involuntary and gentle ‘upward’ movement. This is spontaneous Mula Bandha. Don’t worry if you can’t feel it. Some people notice it more when exhaling. Take an equally long outward breath and see if you can feel it releasing as your lungs approach ‘empty.’
Don’t worry if you still can’t feel it! The movement is extremely gentle and this next exercise will show you how much of Mula Bandha is involuntary or even imperceptible.
Take another deep, slow inhalation and, at the very top of it, pull up your perineum. Now keep it engaged all the way through the exhalation. Inhale again, and at the top of the breath, see if you are able to pull up your perineum once more. You’ll find that, even though you never meant to let it go, somehow, mysteriously, you’re able to pull it up again. This will happen no matter how many times you try it.
Incidentally, if you’ve ever tried Kegel or pelvic floor toning exercises, this is why they involve “pulsing” the muscles. It’s very difficult to keep awareness of the small and subtle engagement otherwise involved.
To experience spontaneous Uddiyana Bandha, stay seated but bring your hands to your abdomen. Have your index fingers meet at the belly button with the other three fingers together, not spread. Bring your mental awareness to the part of your abdomen touched by your little fingers. Now take a deep, slow inhalation. You will feel your belly rise a little. Now exhale all the way to empty, slowly. As you get towards empty you will notice that your belly moves inward slightly. You may feel less contact between your abdomen and your fingers. To enhance the Bandha, on the next breath press your fingers into the abdomen at the end of the exhale. Draw in the abdomen, not tensing it but pulling it toward your spine, until there is less pressure from your fingers. Try to maintain this gentle pull as you inhale. Instead of feeling your belly move outwards you will now feel your ribcage swell more than usual. Incidentally, you may also notice that your root lifts instinctively, too.
These are great exercises to do in their own right. You could add them to any sitting routine. They can be done before you start your asana practice. They are also handy if you feel fatigued later in the day.
Furthermore they are a good way to get yourself familiar with the Bandhas without them being a distraction on the mat. During Asana practice, you are much better served by bringing your attention to the breath. It’s the most vital component of practice and, as we’ve just demonstrated, it is giving rise to some Bandha action anyway.
You might be asking yourself why Bandhas are such a “big deal” when it comes to Astanga Yoga. And this is where western ideas about anatomy and the more “subtle body” focus of traditional hatha yoga have blurred a little.
Today, many people come to the mat having already tried other forms of mind – body exercise like Pilates, for example. The chances are they know something about core strength or stability and its focus on parts of the body we have just been taking about. Many elements of Asana practice strengthen the core. It’s worth pointing this out because sadly, many more parts of the practice seem to be beyond our grasp and we think,
“I’d be good at so – and – so – asana if I had a stronger core!”
Well meaning teachers tend to blend core strength and bandha terminology, sometimes inadvertently, because the two concepts seem so alike.
That’s not to say it’s a bad idea to focus on your core during practice. Quite the reverse, in fact. For one thing: it helps with strength building and – at certain points of the practice – stops us relying on upper body strength. Over – using our arms and shoulders can cause problems and core strength eases pressure on these areas. Lifting the pelvic floor and drawing in the abdomen also protects the lower back, especially in forward bends. Engaging the core helps tone the digestive system, especially when applied to the asanas of the primary series.
The action of pulling up the perineum and closing the sphincter is good for toning the autonomic nervous system, especially the vagus nerve. This is something New York teacher Eddie Stern explores at length in his book, One Simple Thing. I highly recommend this book if you are curious about exploring the parallels between ancient and modern body – mind wisdom. If you are not yet familiar with the concept of Vagal toning I will include a couple of links in this week’s resources.
There are points in the practice where you can really access your core with enhancements of Mula and Uddiyana Bandha: In samastitih, right at the start of practice and again during Surya Namaskar…each time you pause to breathe five times in “downward dog”. With the chin dipped, pull the navel in toward the spine and pull the perineum up toward the navel. Really focus on the breath and the dristi (navel) because they both help you enhance the “locks”.
Then, right at the end of practice, in the three, seated finishing postures, do the same thing. This beginning and end method is a less draconian approach than thinking “Bandhas! Bandhas! “ all the way through practice. Over time, these movements will become more like second nature. You will barely notice them and at that point they really start to work their magic. One thing I have noticed over time is that Bandha awareness doesn’t bring a feeling of strength, but lightness.
Resources:
Just very quickly, before I recommend some further reading, we can look at a few other occasions during practice when you can apply a little Bandha awareness.
Prasarita Padottanasana
Especially ‘B’. When you bring the hands to the waist, ensure that your index fingers sit just above the top of your hipbones. Press gently there with your thumbs and those first two fingers. All four parts of Prasarita Padottanasana will help tone and strengthen the waist. Really get in touch with the feeling of your head moving toward the floor via a sensation of lengthening your abdomen. Use the uncounted “third” vinyasa in each to help create this length (that’s the inhale just before you bend forward). Don’t arch your back as you take that inhalation. Lift the ribs instead.
Uthita Hasta Padangustasana.
Once again, use the “waist squeeze” to help you engage and lengthen your abdomen. Straighten the standing leg as much as possible to help access your core. This posture actually strengthens the perineum.
Pascimattanasana
Just after jumping through to sit for the first time we find ourselves in an ‘unlisted’ position that some other schools of yoga refer to as Dandasana (or ‘staff posture’). This is one of the few points in our practice where we are asked to lock the chin onto the sternum. Really press it down onto the very top of your chest. Look at the navel, pull the navel in and pull up your root assertively. When bending forwards into Pascimattanasana, release the chin lock but try to maintain the other two. See if you can relax as much of the rest of you as possible (especially your arms and shoulders).
Here are some moments when we should ease off from certain ‘locks’ and let the Bandhas arise naturally.
In Padmasana, make sure you are not locking the chin as in Jalahandra Bandha. The spine is meant to be as long and straight as possible for this posture. Just dip the chin towards your throat. It’s a really small movement.
In Backbends, don’t actively pull in the navel. This can cause tension where you really don’t need it. Focus instead a feeling of softness there, but keep locking at the root.
Further reading and resources :
There are pdf downloads of the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā available here.
Krishnamacharia’s translation is the fifth one down!
Moola Bandha ,the master key by Swami Buddhananda is a fascinating read and quite consise. It is possible to download the book but you can also buy it through most online retailers
More info on and the chance to Buy Eddie Stearn’s book One Simple Thing here
A good interview with the author here
A good interview with Dr Stephen Porges, expounder of Polyvagal theory (explored by Eddie Stern and an increasing number of yoga teachers) here.

 

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