Have you ever been told to keep your Mula Bandha locked in class? Has a teacher ever asked you to pay attention to your bandhas? Have you ever wondered what in the name of all that’s yogi do they mean? Wonder no more!
Bandhas are a set of exercises designed to strengthen the core, lift and condition the internal organs and take your yoga practice to the next level. Bandhas can be practiced on their own, with mudras and some āsanas or during prānāyāma. As we know, yoga is not a purely physical practice, so it only follows that bandhas have a spiritual purpose as well.
Imagine if you will, three knots (or granthis) inside your body preventing kundalini (our primal energy) from rising up the spine and bringing about spiritual enlightenment. One is in your abdomen below your navel, one is in your upper chest and one is in your head. These knots keep us bound in the material world and prevent spiritual growth. The purpose of employing bandhas is to unravel these knots and allow kundalini to flow freely, thus propelling the yogi towards enlightenment.
What On Earth Is A Bandha?
Bandha translates literally from Sanskrit as ‘lock’ and you will find most yoga references use this term when describing bandhas. In yoga, there is one major flow that concerns us, and that is the flow of prana. A bandha regulates the flow of prana by allowing prana to move in a controlled manner and opening our energy channels.
It might be helpful to think of a bandha as more of a safety valve. The mental image of a lock might assume a complete blockage of something like water from entering a submarine or a padlock preventing entry or exit from somewhere. Either way, the purpose of a lock is to completely stop the flow of whatever it is and seal it shut. Bandhas behave more like valves controlling and regulating flow in a safe way, even as it greatly increases, preventing the practitioner from the unpleasant side-effects of raising their energy too quickly.
It is said that when prana is flowing perfectly, we are in perfect health. When prana is blocked, we are prone to disease, low in energy and feel spiritually depleted. When we work consciously to manage and increase the flow of prana through us we work on all levels (mind, body, spirit) to better our lot. B.K.S. Iyengar says in his masterpiece Light on Yoga that,
When prana is made to flow in the yogi’s body by the practice of pranayama it is equally necessary for him to employ bandhas to prevent the dissipation of energy and to carry it to the right quarters without causing damage elsewhere.
Where Do The Bandhas Come From?
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written as early as the 15th Century, gives instructions on how to perform a bandha in its chapter dedicated to mudras. The concept of bandhas has of course transmuted and evolved as it has passed from teacher to student over the centuries and no doubt many bandhas have been left by the wayside in favour of more effective methods. These days, most teachers favour four bandhas in conjunction with prānāyāma, āsanas and mudras to move students forward in their studies.
What Are The Four Main Bandhas?
Mula Bandha, also known as the root lock, involves an active lifting in the pelvic region by tightening internal muscles. The mula bandha is closely related to the root chakra or muladhara chakra. As well as being used during advanced prānāyāma practice, this bandha can be held while performing your āsana routine. By doing this, you’re actively engaging your core muscles meaning that all movement will then come from that solid core base.
Uddiyana Bandha, also known as the abdominal lock, is a contraction and lifting of the abdomen causing a concavity between the pelvis and the ribs. The Sanskrit translation of uddiyana is ‘to fly up’ and from the look of a yogi practicing uddiyana bandha you can see why. This pose strengthens the abdominal muscles and massages the internal organs. It is said to push energy up toward the brain giving the practitioner more vitality and endurance.
Jalandhara Bandha, also known as the netbearer lock, is a compressing of the jaw towards the sternum. This pose is designed to wake up the chakras, especially the throat chakra and helps regulate the circulatory and respiratory systems. By slightly restricting the air flow the practitioner can then learn to retain the breath for longer periods of time, drawing on the internal prana source of energy.
Maha Bandha, also known as the great lock, is a combination of all three bandhas practiced together. It could also be called a pranayama exercise as beathing is controlled and retained while performing this bandha.
A Word Of Caution
Please read these precautions and contraindications before practicing bandhas. Although they are a great tool, they are not appropriate for every practitioner. This does not restrict or limit your practice in any way, as there are many other ways to strengthen and deepen your yoga.
Bandhas are NOT suitable during pregnancy, for those with blood pressure problems, heart conditions, risk of stroke or thrombosis, glaucoma, an internal ulcer or any condition that may be aggravated by breath retention and increased internal pressure. It is always best to seek advice from an experienced yoga teacher and your doctor before embarking on bandha practice if you have any known medical conditions.
When Should You Practice Bandhas?
There are many times when mula, uddiyana and jalanhara bandhas can be performed, since they are tools that can be used to strengthen your practice in any of the eight limbs. During āsanas, for example, seated forward bends give a great opportunity to develop and strengthen your bandhas. Performing a maha bandha is the perfect start to a meditation session because it is soothing for the nervous system, bringing about a stillness in the mind and body.
Over the next several weeks we’ll be taking a look at each of the bandhas in turn and exploring in-depth the way that each of them can have a positive effect on your yoga practice! Stay tuned!