Imagine yourself floating, as if weightless, through calm waters. Now imagine you’re suspended somewhere in that place of conscious recognition just before you fall asleep – that sensation of complete physical surrender and of total relaxation is what Yoga Nidra is all about.
This year has been tough. We have all been impacted in some way or another by the Covid-19 pandemic.
You might have caught the virus, and are still recovering. You might have lost someone you love. You will almost certainly have lost business, or been furloughed, had to change the way you work or lost your job completely.
We have all experienced fear, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness and anger. On the other hand, for some this time has been a quiet blessing in disguise. With our busy lives cancelled, we have stayed at home and learnt to appreciate the simple pleasures that brings.
This is an example of emotional resilience. Understanding that times are tough, but also that no experience, however painful, is ever all bad. (more…)
Where would we be without our hands? We do so much with them.
They express our innermost feelings even when we ourselves aren’t even aware of it, the opposable thumb and index finger give us the fine motor skills that differentiate us from most of the animal kingdom (bar the monkey family). Our hands are used to stroke our children, communicate, write, shake hands in greeting, and also as weapons when curled into fists.
The hands are also important in yoga, and nowhere more important than in the practice of mudras, meaning seal, mark or gesture. Most mudras (but not all) are gestures with the hands and are specific positioning of the fingers, thumbs, and whole hands. Historically they are used in religious ceremonies and rites to symbolise different meanings.
But what are they? Can they actually benefit us, or are they just symbolic gestures used in ceremonies and rituals?
The Mudras and Prana
Mudras are not just symbolic hand gestures, they are so much more. This becomes clearer when we factor in prana – or subtle energy. The goal of the yoga postures is to prepare the body for pranayama, or control of the breath. When we practice the mudras, this is another way of influencing the dispersal of prana throughout the body.
In Mudras for Modern Life Swami Saradananda writes:
Since ancient times, Indian philosophy has taught that how the fingers move and touch each other influences the flow of prana, the life-giving energy within the body.
Mudras are so effective because they help to clear energetic blockages, which impede the flow of prana through the body. This is because the energetic pathways (called nadis) mostly either start or finish in your hands or feet. So working with your hands is a particularly effective way of cleansing these subtle channels of any impurities, and directing the prana in healthier directions.
Mudras and the Chakras
The mudras also affect the flow of prana through the chakras. The chakras are particularly important to clear because they are points where the nadis intersect with the most density. The seven main chakras are located along the spine, moving up from the root, lower abdomen, solar plexus, heart, throat, forehead and the crown of the head. But there are also other chakras, such as the ones in the hands. These are also essential as they are directly linked to the heart and transmit a flow of healing energy out from the heart centre.
For example, Anjali Mudra (or Namaskarasana), which is the joining of the palms and bringing the base of the thumbs to the base of the breastbone, aligns the hands with the heart chakra.
The Mudras and the Elements
Each finger and thumb relates to one of the five great elements.
- the thumb relates to fire
- the index finger relates to air
- the middle finger relates to ether
- the ring finger relates to earth
- the little finger relates to water
So, mudras that focus on the different fingers and thumbs have a different set of elemental, energetic and emotional benefits.
Some Important Mudras
Some mudras come up with more frequency and are perhaps more important than others. Jnana Mudra, for example, is traditionally used in Siddhasana (Sage Pose) and during pranayama. B K S Iyengar gives this clear description in Light on Yoga:
Stretch the arms out straight and rest the back of the wrists on the knees. Join the tips of the index fingers to the tips of the thumbs, keeping the other fingers extended. (This position or gesture of the hand is known as the Jnana Mudra, the symbol or seal of knowledge. The index finger symbolises the individual soul and the thumb the universal soul. The union of the two symbolises knowledge.)
Sanmukhi mudra is another important mudra, which is often used to prepare the body and mind for pranayama and meditation. San means six and mukha means mouth. Sanmukha is the name of the six-headed god of war, also known as Kartikeya. This mudra is also known as Parangmukhi Mudra (facing inwards), as the student looks within himself to find the very source of his being.
Sanmukhi mudra is when the hands are placed over the face shutting out the outside world. The ears are blocked by the thumbs, the index fingers and middle fingers rest over the eyelids and the ring fingers and little fingers control the breath. The senses are turned inwards, the sound of your own rhythmic breathing calms the mind, and there is a feeling of inner peace.
Some Non-hand Mudras
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, not all mudras are to do with hand gestures. Khechari Mudra – literally ‘roaming through space’ – is a tongue mudra, and is NOT to be tried at home. Described in the religious text Gheranda Samhita (3:25 – 28), it is described as cutting the lower tendon of the tongue and moving the tongue constantly (aided with the addition of fresh butter) and drawing it out with an iron instrument. Once achieved the practitioner will experience no hunger, thirst, fainting or laziness…we’ll pass on that one, thanks!
Maha Mudra – the great seal, is a whole-body mudra, or pose, which also encompasses the three main bandhas, Jalandhara Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha, and Mula Bandha, in order to seal prana within the body.
The Benefits of the Mudras
In order to feel the benefits of the mudras, you need to practice regularly, preferably daily, and for a decent amount of time. But if you are prepared to put in the time, regular practice can help to:
- ensure prana moves freely to keep your body and mind well-balanced and healthy
- increase flexibility and mobility of your hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders
- improve technique if you play an instrument or hand-intensive sport
- boost mental acuity and concentration
- ease symptoms of common ailments
- overcome emotional difficulties, from anger to grief
- purge your sub-conscious mind of negativity
- develop a regular meditation practice
- encourage inner peace and a sense of oneness with the universe
However, there are a couple of mudras that you can do, which will give you an immediate result, such as Bhairava Mudra. Place the left hand in the lap and rest the right hand in the palm of the left, cradling it. This mudra is for when you find yourself in a situation that you find scary, and will bring you an immediate sense of peace.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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,
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 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.
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.
There is a cycle to life that’s happening around you and inside of you. Everything is connected and according to Ayurveda, comprised of the five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and space. And so, as the seasons change so do you. Thus, your experience is greatly determined by how in-tune you are with your mind and body in relation to nature. For this, Ayurveda provides different ways to connect with yourself which can help you recognize the rhythms of nature within you, in truth, Ayurveda may already be in your life. (more…)