(First published 20/1/10)
During some of my recent classes I asked you to perform some exercises called bandhas. These were used to control the flow of your breath and also hold the breath in a particular posture. So below you will find an explanation of bandhas.
The literal translation of Bandha means: joining together, fettering or catching hold of, to bind or tie together, to close.
“It is also a posture in which certain organs or parts of the body are contracted and controlled,” states Indian Yoga teacher BKS Iyengar.
In yoga terms this translates to mean “to lock”. In other words, the bandha will lock certain areas of the torso in a particular way.
The bandhas are used to control the flow of prana, to ensure that the energy generated within the body is safely contained and channelled to the correct place. As Iyengar points out: “When prana is made to flow in the yogi’s body by the practice of pranayama it is equally necessary for him/her to employ bandhas to prevent the dissipation of energy and to carry it to the right quarters without causing damage elsewhere.”
Bhandas play an important role in the cleansing processes of yoga, explains TKV Desikachar. Where pranayama helps to reduce waste matter in the body by directing the agni (fire of life), bandhas intensify this process.
The three principle bandhas, and important in pranayama practice, are: jalandhara bandha, uddiyana bandha and mula bandha.
Jalandhara bandha involves the neck and upper spine and makes the whole spine erect. In this bandha the neck and throat are contracted and the chin is made to rest on the chest in the notch between the collar-bones and the top of the sternum (breast-bone). This lock regulates the flow of blood and prana to the heart, the glands in the neck and the head together with the brain. Jalandhara means “ a net, a web, a lattice or mesh”.
Jalandhara is essential in the three processes of pranayama – puraka (inhalation), rechaka (exhalation) and kumbhaka (retention). It is possible to perform this bandha with many, though not all, asanas (yoga postures).
Uddiyana bandha focuses on the area between the diaphragm and the floor of the pelvis. Literally, uddiyana means “flying up”. The technique involves lifting up the diaphragm high up the thorax and to pull the abdominal organs back towards the spine.
The texts highlight this bandha as being the best of the bandhas, and when practised correctly and constantly makes one young again (or some people’s case, keeps you young!). It should only be performed during the interval after complete exhalation (rechaka) and before inhalation, when breathing is suspended (bahya kumbhaka). Texts also point out that when mastered to a reasonable degree, the cavity created massages the muscles of the heart, thereby toning it, as well as the other organs in this area of the body.
Mula bandha involves the area between the navel and the floor of the pelvis. Mula means “root, source, origin, basis or foundation”. It is located between the anus and scrotum/vagina. By contracting this region (as if one is holding back the need to urinate), apana vayu (the prana in the lower abdomen) whose course is downwards, is made to flow up to unite with the prana vayu, which has its seat in the chest area. The whole lower abdominal area between the anus and the navel is contracted, pulled back to the spine and lifted up towards the diaphragm.
Or to put it another way, it sends the energy back up into the body, stopping leakage out of the body by putting the plug in “sink”. On a physical level, contracting the anal sphincter muscles helps one to master the mula bandha.
Mula bandha can be used during asanas practice. It helps to keep your energy contained to help facilitate a certain movement or hold of position.
When all three bandhas are engaged it is called the “Three Locks”. This is a powerful tool for practice in pranayama and asanas.
For example, the forward bend yoga posture called Mahamudra uses all three locks. Whether one is performing pranayamas or asanas, the air is exhaled before the three locks are applied.