Tagiyengar

Cater yoga training to your life

The Definitive Guide to the Bandhas with Annie Carpenter

bandhas yoga locks breath

Becoming a yogi is like being given the secret to gaining superpowers. There are ways that we can work the physical body to summon up superhuman sources of energy, vitality, and strength.  One of these super-yogi methods is ‘THE BANDHAS’.

So, what exactly are the bandhas? Translated into English they mean bondage, restraint, joining together, fettering or catching hold of. They are a set of closing actions, which act as safety valves, to keep in the life force and energy known as prana, which is increased through the practice of pranayama. According to B K S Iyengar,

Without the bandhas, prana is lethal.

This is a dramatic statement! So, this is a subject not to be taken lightly – as such, YogaLondon has sought expert advice. Annie Carpenter, a globally respected yoga teacher, founder of SmartFLOW Yoga and an authority on the bandhas, agreed to give us the lowdown on all things bandha.

The Three Bandhas

But first, an introduction to our protagonists: Jalandhara bandha, Uddiyana bandha, and Mula bandha. Taken all together they are the supergroup Maha banda or ‘great’ bandha. Give it to us Annie:

The Maha Bandhas are the three great seals in the body. The lowest one, which is mula bandha, the middle bandha, uddiyana bandha, and the chin lock, jalandhara bandha, and if you put all three together then you have maha bandha.

What is their purpose?

spine breath yoga bandhas
Image Credit: Patrick Malleret via Unsplash.

According to Annie, the purpose of the bandhas is “to move prana up the Sushumna [the main channel for the flow of nervous energy up the spinal column]. This upward movement of energy is the goal of yoga in the classical sense of the word, yoga.”

In his book Light on Pranayama, Iyengar comes up with a neat simile. He compares prana to the generation of electricity. Just as electrical energy needs to be channelled through conductors, fuses and switches, prana, another source of powerful energy, needs to be contained and dispersed to the right places so as not to damage the body and nervous system. The bandhas are these controlling fuses.

Jalandhara Bandha

The first bandha which you should get to grips with is Jalandhara bandha, otherwise known as the ‘chin lock’, and which means a net, web, or lattice. The Jalandhara action is when the neck and throat are contracted and the chin is made to rest on the chest, or as close to the chest as you can get it, between the collar bones and at the top of the sternum. This action is first practiced in shoulderstand, Setu bandha, and Viparita Karani – all the poses where the back of the neck is lengthened and the chin moves towards the chest.

Jalandhara bandha is the first ‘locking’ action of the three bandhas, as it regulates the flow of blood and prana to the heart, neck, and head. Without this action, the pressure created by pranayama can put a strain on the heart, eyeballs, inner ears and can cause dizziness. It is also a cooling posture as it keeps the brain passive and soft.

Annie states that Jalandhara bandha is the most important bandha for pranayama, and it’s used in most seated pranayamas.

Uddiyana Bandha

This bandha is the middle bandha and means ‘flying up’. This is a literal description of the process, which is to lift the diaphragm and pull the abdominal organs towards the spine. This causes a concavity from the lower ribs to the lower abdomen (in an ideal world). It should only be performed in the space between exhalation and inhalation (and not while holding the breath on the inhalation).

Abdomen digestion bandha breath yoga
Image Credit: Jannes Jacobs via Unsplash.

Uddiyana bandha exercises the diaphragm, abdominal organs, and tones the heart. It also increases the digestive fire and eliminates toxins.

There is a pose called Uddiyana bandha as well (sometimes known as Uddiyana bandha kriya), which involves the extreme version of this action. Performed in a standing position with the legs slightly bent and hands resting on the thighs, Jalandhara bandha is engaged and then the Uddiyana action  – after an exhalation breath – where the whole abdominal region is contracted, pulled back to the spine and lifted up. This is the penultimate pose in Light on Yoga, and as the poses generally get harder the deeper you get into the book, this gives some indication of how advanced a practitioner you need to be before performing this action unsupervised.

Mula Bandha

Meaning the root, base, beginning, or the foundation, Mula bandha seals the base of the trunk – the pelvic floor. The perineum, which is the space between the anus and the scrotum, or the anus and the vagina (take your pick), is contracted, and drawn up and in. By contracting this region, Apana Vayu (the prana in the lower abdomen), which naturally flows downward, is redirected upwards to merge with the Prana Vayu (the prana centred in the chest region).

According to Annie, mula bandha is the most important bandha to engage during asana practice. An introduction to Mula bandha is through Ashwini mudra,

headstand yoga bandha inversion breathing
Image Credit: Mikail McVerry via Unsplash.

which is the practice of contracting the anal sphincter muscle. This can be used during poses such as Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Sirsasana (headstand), Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward facing bow pose), where the legs are together.

There can be differences of opinion as to exactly what regions are specifically contracted in uddiyana bandha and mula bandha. Annie clarifies that: “Mula bandha is the area of the pelvic floor. Uddiyana is above that to the diaphragm.”

Maha Bandha

Maha bandha is the practice of all three bandhas at the same time. A little like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, mastering these bandhas one at a time before attempting all three is advisable. Annie Carpenter clarifies that you should “not practice [maha bandha] if you are on your menstrual cycle, are pregnant, or if you want to fall pregnant. Also, you should avoid the practice if you feel out of sorts, emotionally or psychologically.”

All three bandhas are also practiced in the pose Maha Mudra, meaning ‘great seal’. In this seated posture, one leg is bent up and the foot placed against the inner thigh of the opposite leg. You reach forwards and catch the extended leg big toe (or a looped belt), keeping the spine lifting and concave. After inhaling, the chin is lowered into Jalandhara bandha, then Uddiyana bandha is activated and finally Mula bandha. This is a safer way to prepare the body for pranayama and to practice the bandhas.

Precautionary Words

There’s no doubt that the bandhas are best practiced under experienced supervision. Annie warns that “students should begin with a teacher who really knows the practices, as they can be very powerful and disorienting, if not done at the right pace, etc.”

It’s crucial that students are experienced at both the asanas and pranayama before regular practice of the bandhas. Annie Carpenter advises that “it is important to note that at first, the practice is very muscular; but ultimately it is mostly energetic and intentional. Less is definitely more.”

Benefits of the Bandhas

However, for the yogi who commits to and masters the practice of the bandhas, there are untold rewards. Annie herself practices them “often” and in Light on Yoga, Iyengar says:

With the mastery of the three bandhas, the yogi is at the cross-roads of his destiny. One road leads to bhoga or the enjoyment of worldly pleasures; the other leads to Yoga or union with the Supreme Soul.

…Choose wisely.

Poppy Pickles

Yogi’s Guide: Shoulderstand

Yogi's Guide: Shoulderstand

I have said it before, and I say it again – shoulderstand is truly a thing of beauty. With the right combination of strength and flexibility, it can be elegance and grace personified. It is iconic and SO photogenic – a social media ‘go-to’ pose that all yogi’s want to be able to do from the moment they discover yoga. Nicknamed the ‘Queen of poses’ – shoulderstand is considered to be cooling; stimulates the calming (parasympathetic) side of the autonomic nervous system; and is reputed to assist in resolving a wide range of medical problems. It demands significant upper body and core strength plus beautifully open chest and shoulders – all wrapped up in a healthy dose of confidence in being upside down. So easy when you are a child – so much harder as an adult! (more…)

Sally Schofield

Two Female Yoga Teachers You’ve NEVER Heard Of

Two Female Yoga Teachers You've NEVER Heard Of

Yoga has become a huge part of British popular culture, but back in the 1950s and 60s, it was an exotic and ‘foreign’ activity. We’ve all heard of the male teachers who brought about the popularisation of yoga in the UK – world-famous figures, such as B. K. S. Iyengar and Sri K Pattabhi Jois – but did you know that there were two female yoga teachers who played a crucial part? We didn’t either!

So, let’s play our part in celebrating the role of women in yoga and the history of yoga in this country. (more…)

Poppy Pickles
One Weekend Workshop to up your skills

What’s the Story with Kirtan?

kirtan music story sing

Yoga is a vast subject, and just when you think you know all about it, a whole new yogic practice hoves into view that you know nothing about – step forward, kirtan. So what’s the story of kirtan? Put simply, it is yogic chanting, meditation through song, or communal meditation. It is an ancient practice that is being brought bang up-to-date and steadily rising in popularity here in the UK. So here’s a handy guide to kirtan, from its ancient origins to its modern-day form. (more…)

Poppy Pickles
One Weekend Workshop to up your skills

New Year’s Yoga Resolutions and how to Keep Them

Resolutions New Years Yoga Hands by Jen Armstrong

Ancient Babylonians were thought to be the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, roughly 4,000 years ago. They weren’t in quite the same format as the ones we make today (reduce my screen time), and their New Year was in March (marking the planting of the new crops).  But if we want someone to blame, we can start with them.

Every year we start the new year filled with good intentions. This year we’re going mould ourselves into a shinier, thinner, richer version of ourselves and not fall at the first hurdle and…oh, we just fell…

The same applies to New Year’s ‘yoga resolutions’. So here are some ideas about how to make New Year’s yoga resolutions and actually stick to them, so that by the end of this year, you can look back with a glow of pride, not a large helping of self-contempt. (more…)

Poppy Pickles