What’s a bandha, and why should I care? And, if I do care, should I employ bandhas during my Yin Yoga practice?

If you have been ambling along the yogic path for any length of time, you will undoubtedly have heard about bandhas. Everyone knows: a bandha is a lock. More precisely, it is an energetic lock. Funny, the more you explore the world of yoga, the more you may discover that things are not always what “everyone knows.” For example, everyone knows that hatha (from which we get the term Hatha Yoga) is made up of two syllables, “ha,” which means, “sun,” and “tha,” which means, “moon.” However, not everyone agrees with even this; for a few famous teachers “ha” means moon and “tha” means sun! [1] Curious!

So, what does this have to do with bandhas? And why talk about bandhas from a yin perspective? Bear with me! Our journey today will reveal how the yin-side of bandhas can actually be beneficial, not just in our yoga practice but in our every day life, and especially for people with lower back issues.

So where were we? Ah yes, “everyone knows” that bandhas are locks. Is this best metaphor though? Swami Satyananda Saraswati defines bandha in several ways: it means to hold, lock or tighten [2]. And its purpose is to lock prana into certain areas and redirect its flow for the purpose of spiritual awakening. However, another view of bandha is offered by B.K.S. Iyengar, who wrote, “Bandhas are like safety valves that should be kept shut during the practice of kumbhaka” [3]. (We create a kumbhaka when we retain, or hold the breath with either the lungs full or empty.) This idea of a valve is a useful metaphor, one used by the Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, who describes bandhas as energy gates or valves, like in the heart; just as the heart regulates the flow of blood, bandhas regulate the flow of energy (prana) [4]. David’s teacher, Pattabhi Jois described bandhas similarly as a muscle contraction or lock [5].

Let’s go with the metaphor of a valve: just as a bicycle’s tire has a valve that allows air into the tire but doesn’t allow the air to escape, engaging bandhas in our yoga practices helps to direct and hold energy in places where it is useful. There are three bandhas employed in yoga: the root valve located at the perineum (called mula bandha, also spelled as moola bandha), the stomach valve located around the belly (called uddiyana bandha) and the chin valve located at the throat (called jalandhara bandha). As we will discover, the teachings about these bandhas are quite varied.

Mula Bandha

Let’s look at mula bandha first; it is the one valve that we can continuously engage while doing Yin Yoga. Mula bandha is performed by contracting and lifting inward and upward the muscles of the perineum. If you are not sure where your perineum is, (to borrow a quote from David Swenson) it is halfway between your anus and the vegetables. (Check out the drawing for a more precise map: the crosshairs mark the spot.) If you are not quite sure how to engage mula bandha, think of doing a Kegel exercise; imagine you are urinating and stopping the flow quickly. That is engaging your perineum. Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama reports that the benefits of mula bandha include stimulating the pelvic nerves, toning of the urogential organs and improving constipation and hemorrhoids. On an energetic level, the apana vayu (one of the ten forms of energy discussed in yoga physiology) is raised upwards to combine with the prana vayu, thus generating energy of a higher dimension, facilitating the awakening of the kundalini. Mula bandha helps to maintain celibacy by acting to sublimate sexual energy and raise it to higher chakras [6].

While not a bandha, ashvini mudra (horse mudra) is similar to mula bandha. Dr. Motoyama explains that this mudra is performed by repeatedly contracting and releasing the sphincter muscles of the anus [7]. The contraction is held while the breath is held, and then both are released. The benefits of this action include relief from piles and reducing prolapse of the rectum or uterus (especially if performed in an inverted posture). Intestinal peristalsis is improved and constipation is eased.

In the long periods of time that we hold our Yin Yoga poses, especially sitting or forward folding poses, we have time to perform either mula bandha or ashvini mudra; like everything in the yin-world, however, be subtle. Don’t over do these. When we work the energy body, we are working the subtle body; you do not need to make your perineum rock hard. Just a 10% engagement of the muscles is enough. With this subtle engagement, we can also hold our awareness there as well. Simply being aware of this area will open the flow of energy to the region.

There are several ways you may choose to work with mula bandha during your Yin Yoga practice: you can engage (lift the perineum upward) while inhaling to a four second count, and then relax while exhaling to a four count. Try that for the first minute or two and then try the opposite; relax while you are inhaling for a four count, and then engage for a four or even eight second exhale. At first, you may find that you are engaging more than just your perineum (or anus, if you are including the ashvini mudra). For example, we may also engage our leg muscles or stomach muscles while engaging mula bandha; be alert – try to relax all the other muscles in your body while only engaging the perineum. Visualize drawing the apana (downward rooting energy) up into the core of your body, and hold it there. Apana is often most easily felt during an exhalation, which is why the second option (engage on the out breath) can be so effective. A useful visualization is to feel energy rising up from the base of your spine to the heart centre each time you engage the mudra or bandha, and hold it there as you release the engagement.

So, it is possible to engage mula bandha while we are doing our Yin Yoga practice, as long as it is subtle; now let’s look at the most confusing bandha – the uddiyana (or “flying upward”) bandha.

Uddiyana Bandha

The Gheranda Samhita states that uddiyana bandha is “the lion to the elephant of death” It is praised above all others [8]. To perform the bandha we “contract the abdomen above and below the navel and toward the back” [9]. It is suggested that this is done while sitting on your heels. Ok, so this sounds like the important one, but is this the right way to do it? Ancient texts, like the Gheranda Samhita, were very brief and skipped a lot of the details, leaving it up to the student to learn the correct technique from his teacher.

B.K.S. Iyengar agrees that uddiyana bandhas is the best one to learn and mastery of this valve will make you young! He instructs us to lift the diaphragm high up in the thorax and to pull in the abdominal organs against the back of the spine. (See the picture here of Rod Stryker, from his web site, doing all three bandhas while in the maha mudra. Notice how deeply scooped in and up his belly is.) This is to be done while holding our breath at the end of an exhalation (known bhaya kumbhaka) and only to be held as long as we can easily hold the breath out. Iyengar states this practice gives a gentle massage to the muscles of the heart thereby toning it [10].

Swami Satyananda adds a refinement to the practice: his version of uddiyana bandha is performed at the end of a the full exhalation, and then “make a false inhalation, keeping the glottis closed and expanding in the chest, as though breathing in but not actually taking in air.” To release, “exhale slightly to release the lock on the lungs and finally breathe in …” [11] Satyananda includes a warning about uddiyana bandha: it is an advance technique that should only be performed under guidance, and after mastering mula and jalandhara bandhas. Similar warnings are given by many senior teachers about the practice of pranayama, which is when these bandhas are employed.

Again, not always! In the Ashtanga tradition, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, the uddiyana bandhas is used (along with mula bandha) during the whole asana practice. The difference here stems from the definition of uddiyana bandha. Jois defined uddiyana bandha to be the lifting of the core muscles four inches below the navel [12]. “They should be performed while practicing asana and the like … While in the state of this asana, the lower abdomen should be draw in and held tightly, and rechaka [breathing out] and puraka [breathing in] should be done slowly as possible” [13]. David Swenson clarifies that the level of uddiyana bandha used in asana is more subtle than the full form, which can only be used in rechaka. He suggests, “maintain a stillness located three fingers below the navel” The action is subtle. “Don’t harden the stomach as if someone is about to punch you in the gut that is overdoing it” [14].

In brief, there is one version of uddiyana bandha that can only be employed when we have exhaled and are holding our breath. The action here is to dramatically draw the full abdomen inward and upward, from the lower belly to above the navel. This version is often employed during pranayama practice or during nauli. It would take a very special yogi to be able to a 90-minute power yoga class while holding this version of uddiyana bandha and not breathe at all! Fortunately, another version of this bandha is employed while doing asanas, and this version is subtler and more yin-like. It engages only the lower abdomen below the navel. This is yin-like because it is not the hard contraction found in the first-described version of uddiyana bandha.

A Western View of Uddiyana Bandha

Now, let’s hop across the great divide of centuries and culture and look for a moment at a Western view. While I have found no corroboration for engaging the stomach muscles from an energetic viewpoint with Western science and science has no way to address the spiritual benefits of this practice, there are definitely known benefits from a physiological viewpoint for this action. Again, the key is subtlety.

A hard contraction of the stomach muscles is yang in nature compared to a softer engagement of the core muscles. It turns out that, if our goal is to protect our lower spine and maintain strength through the core, the yin approach is best. Studies conducted by Professor McGill and others have revealed that very modest levels of cocontraction of the core muscles are all we need to brace the spine against heavy loads [15]. In fact, too much contraction of the core muscles may actually overload the spine and reduce its stability.

The spine is a flexible rod, analogous to a fishing pole. By itself, an unsupported spine, shorn of its ligaments and muscles, will buckle with as little as 5 pounds of weight applied to it, just like a fishing pole standing on its end that will buckle if a 5 pound fish is hanging off its tip. Imagine, though, attaching several guy wires to the fishing rod. Now it can support much more weight without bending. The contracting musculature of the lumbar spine and the spine’s ligaments perform the roles of buttressing guy wires, bracing the whole spine against buckling.

Often, we are taught that in order to protect our lower back, we should strengthen our stomach muscles. However, increasing the stiffness of just one guy wire actually decreases the stability of the pole. Symmetry is essential. We have to strengthen all the supporting wires: the whole abdominal region, including the side stomach muscles (the obliques) and the lower back muscles, as well as strengthening the ligaments of the lumbar spine.

“While stiffness is always stabilizing, force may stabilize or destabilize. The relationship is non-linear. Large increases in stiffness occurs quite early as activation begins, but if the force keeps rising, little additional stiffness is created and the force of the muscles may become large enough to create buckling. Better is to coordinate and balance the stiffness in all contributing muscles [guy wires] than focusing on a single group” [16].

So now we see the physiological benefits of the moderate uddiyana bandha, the yin-version. We actually only need to engage our core muscles to about 10% of their maximum strength to receive optimum support for the spine for normal daily living. However, if you have lost some spinal stiffness due to injury, some extra engagement of the core muscles may be required. This 10% rule is one that we can apply as well to our mula bandha practice, as recommended earlier.

Not surprisingly, the practice of yoga can help us even when we are not on our mat. By training ourselves to habitually have a small uddiyana bandha, the yin-version that employs only a 10% engagement of our core muscles, we can provide ongoing support to our lower back during daily life. Should we engage uddiyana bandha during our Yin Yoga practice, though?

Generally, in our Yin Yoga practice, we like the muscles to be relaxed so that the stress of the pose can get deeper into our connective tissues. If the muscles are engaged, they take up the stress. It is okay to engage mula bandha during our Yin Yoga practice because these particular muscles are not taking stress off areas we are targeting. With uddiyana bandha we may be reducing the stress we want to apply to the lower back. In poses like Sphinx, Seal or Saddle we deliberately seek to stress the lower back. So, should we or shouldn’t we? Well, the answer is – try it and see! When I have a subtle uddiyana bandha in these poses, I actually feel an increase in the stress. If I make the bandha much stronger, then I feel less curving in the spine, which defeats the purpose of the pose. But, a softer (think 10%) engagement feels good to me. If you sense that a subtle or soft uddiyana bandha could work for you too, try it.

While I do not find any benefit to engaging uddiyana bandha when I am performing forward folds, twists or seated postures, I do feel a benefit from engaging mula bandha in these poses. Again, you should try them and see if you can feel a positive difference, both physically (i.e. does it create more stress to the deeper connective tissues you are targeting?) and energetically.

Jalandhara Bandha

Finally, let’s look at the chin valve: jalandhara bandha. This pose is done by extending the neck and dropping the chin to the chest; for the more advanced student, it feels more like she is raising her chest to the chin rather than dropping the chin to the chest. Some teachers recommend closing the glottis, but others, Paul Grilley for example [17], recommend keeping the glottis open when we performed jalandhara bandha while holding our lungs full. If we elect to keep the glottis open, the sense is that we are still trying to breathe in a little bit more air, while not actually inhaling further. In either version, to release, inhale a bit more and then exhale; this helps to eliminate the gasp heard from beginning students that often accompanies releasing this bandha. (Similarly, to release a deep uddiyana bandha after holding the breath with empty lungs, trying exhaling a little bit more and then inhale.)

There are many possible meanings for the name of this bandha: one interpretation is that this practice is named after a famous Hatha Yoga teacher named Jalandhari [18]. Sometimes for Sanskrit words, we can find their meaning by breaking the word into syllables; jala means “net” and dhara means “stream” or “flow.” But we can also break these words into jal, which means “throat” and adhara, which means, “base” [19]. The general feeling is that jalandhara bandha will control the flow of prana in the network of the neck. Dr. Motoyama claims that this practice will stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid. He recommends combining this bandha with khechari mudra (where the tongue is folded backwards in the mouth). This mudra will stimulate all the meridian lines associated with the tongue, including the heart, kidney, spleen and stomach [20]. Satyananda claims that jalandhara bandha will help regulate the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and develop mental relaxation, thus reducing stress and anxiety [21].

Normally, jalandhara bandha can only be engaged when we are holding our breath. This retention of the breath is not practiced when we do Yin Yoga, but it is a common practice in pranayama exercises. However, once again, there is a yin version offered by Satyananda that we could employ during our Yin Yoga practice. Satyananda states, “A more subtle form of jalandhara bandha is practiced where the head is simply bent forward so that the chin presses the neck and the awareness is concentrated on the vishuddhi (throat) chakra. This variation is the one most commonly used in association with asana practice.” [22]

Obviously not all the Yin Yoga postures will be conducive for jalandhara bandha. In Saddle pose, reclining twists and other postures where our head is held high or even dropped backwards, this bandha is not possible. But, many of the Yin Yoga poses are seated poses or forward folds where we often drop the head down to the chest. In these cases, we can obtain some of the benefits of the chin valve by simply bringing our awareness to the throat.

Just as we can do when we engage mula bandha, we can direct our awareness while doing jalandhara bandha. As you inhale, draw your awareness from the throat area down to the heart. As you exhale, allow your awareness to return to the throat. Alternately, allow your awareness to stay at the heart region while you exhale. Energetically, you are drawing prana energy down to meet apana. You can choose to alternate performing mula bandha with jalandhara bandha, thus continuously drawing energy up from the root of the spine to the heart as you exhale, and from the throat down to the heart as you inhale. Experiment with variations and watch carefully how you feel. As always, don’t overdo this! Keep it subtle. If you start to feel lightheaded or dizzy or just plain weird in any way, stop right away.

In Summary

There we go: three out of three! We can employ mula bandha most of the time during our Yin Yoga practice; we can invoke a subtle version of uddiyana bandha while we hold the back bending Yin Yoga poses; and, at times, we can use a subtle version of jalandhara bandha. In all cases we can enhance the effectiveness of these bandha by directing our awareness to these regions. Not surprisingly, the use of bandhas in our Yin Yoga practice is subtle, yin-like. No need for the strong yang-like versions of the bandhas.

  • We can use mula bandha any time, but if you feel yourself contracting other muscles, release the bandha. Mostly, keep these for sitting poses and forward bends.
  • We can do the 10% uddiyana bandha while in backbends.
  • We can do a subtle jalandhara bandha in sitting poses and forward bends.

Remember; keep them all subtle and yin-like and stop if it doesn’t feel right.

Footnotes:

  1. — See Desikachar’s book, The Heart of Yoga, page 137
  2. — See Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
  3. — See Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar
  4. — See Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual by David Swenson
  5. — See Yoga Mala by Pattabhi Jois
  6. — See Theories of the Chakras by Hiroshi Motoyama
  7. — ibid
  8. — See The Shambala Encyclopedia of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein
  9. — ibid
  10. — See Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar
  11. — See Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
  12. — See Yoga Mala by Pattabhi Jois
  13. — ibid: rechaka means breathing in, puraka means breathing out
  14. — See Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual by David Swenson
  15. — See Lower Back Disorders (page 119) by Stuart McGill
  16. — ibid
  17. — See the DVD, “The Chakras,” by Paul Grilley
  18. — See The Shambala Encyclopedia of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein
  19. — See Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
  20. — See Awakening of the Chakras and Emancipation by Hiroshi Motoyama
  21. — See Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
  22. — ibid

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