hen you begin a yoga practice you might feel like you are a bit of an outsider. As your instructor says things like, “Lift mula bandha,” you nod your head in agreement, but inside you are screaming, “what the hell is a bandha and where can I get one?!?!”
Part of becoming a yogi is learning a whole new language, filled with Sanskrit terms that describe all sorts of internal processes, lifts, etc. The more you learn about them, the deeper your practice will become–on and off the mat! The first time I heard my instructor mention bandhas, I went home and started my research. What I discovered was the secret to transforming my awkward yoga practice into a graceful flow of asanas.
In Sanskrit, bandha means to lock, to hold or to tighten. There are 3 main bandhas in the body, as illustrated below:
The combination of all three of these is referred to as Maha Bandha.
For beginners, I like to focus on Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha.
Mula Bandha: In Sanskirt this is the root lock, and there is no polite way to say this–it all lies between your legs! For women, Mula Bandha is very much like a kegel exercise where you contract, or lift, the pelvic floor. For men it may be harder to find…basically the place between the front and the back if you get my drift. When you first use Mula Bandha, it is difficult to hold for more than a few seconds. Eventully you should hold Mula Bandha through your entire practice. That’s right–for an hour and a half! That won’t happen overnight, so in the meantime, try to connect the lift with your breath. On every inhale, I remind myself to lift Mula Bandha. This keeps me focused on my breath and bandhas at the same time. I particularly focus on Mula Bandha when I am in a difficult posture! The only way to stengthen your pelvic floor muscles enough to lift them for an entire practice is to continually use them. Start with your next practice and watch how you will become lighter on your limbs, and thus lighter on your mat!
Uddiyana Bandha:This bandha is much easier to find. In Sanskrit it means, “to fly up,” or “rise up.” For beginners, I like to focus on pressing the bellybutton towards the spine. Think of the transition from Up-Dog to Down-Dog. In order to move the hips from low to high you have to press the bellybutton into the spine. This inward press will help you to feel at rest in down dog–and trust me, down dog will eventually feel like rest.
Uddiyana Bandha will create space, helping you twist much deeper, and it is also the secret to those gorgeous forward bends where you rest your chin on your shins. It makes you fold through the hip creases, while sending your heart forward. Because the abdominal wall is pressing the organs and tissues of the abdominal cavity backwards, Uddiyana Bandha creates a soft massage for the deeper internal muscles of the lower back. I like to tie this bandha to breath, just as I do with Mula Bandha. We have already talked about inhaling while lifting Mula Bandha. On your exhale, engage Uddiyana Bandha. This way you are continually reminding the body to lift both bandhas–and to breathe!
Over time these lifts will become natural and automatic. After four years, I am at the point where I have a hard time lifting one without the other! During my pregnancy, Mula Bandha was the key to just about everything. It reduced the pressure in my pelvis, preventing varicose veins, hemmorrhoids, loss of bladder control, and back pain. It also made my labor and delivery a breeze–still painful, but quick and easy to push.
Ancient yogi philosophers said that when you master the locks, your master the yoga practice. Your external practice– floating in and out of asanas, holding for long periods of time, and managing new positions–and your internal practice–consistent single-pointed concentration, steady and long breath, and a calm, clear mind. In a modern, western sense, the bandhas help you regulate and control all your internal systems–hormonal, sexual, metabolic, digestive, and more. They balance the adrenal system, relieving stress, lethargy and tension. Whether you care about the east, the west, or both, the bandhas are critical to your yoga practice–and life!
In a more day-to-day sense, using bandhas will give you gorgeous posture and killer abs without doing a single sit-up. I have had to drive my husband to Duke every 2 weeks for the past 6 months and I always practice my bandhas during the 8-hour car ride (there and back). It is a killer ab workout plus I get some extra practice while driving. It is even helpful to stay lifted in pictures because it makes my stomach look flat. That’s enough of a reason for me!