To Infinity and Beyond!
There were only three of us in a clean, polished cement roomand him. It was our first lesson with this world-renowned yoga master. He struggled to express himself in English, but what he could not express in words came through in his touch, a touch that expressed his years of devoted yoga practice.
Sweating profusely, we had come to the end of our asanas for that day. In Full Lotus, we planted our palms alongside our thighs and pushed down, lifting our seats off the floor in mock levitation. Suddenly, as we strained to stay aloft, this imposing man began shouting, "Contact Uranus!"
Contact Uranus? What the heck is this guy talking about? I wondered. I had visions of little green people and orbiting space stations. I don't know how long it took me to realize that what my teacher was really saying was "Contract your anus, contract your anus." He was trying to tell us to apply mula bandha, the energetic lock which allows a yogi to perform the most challenging tasks with little or no effort.
Now, more than 10 years later, I realize that "contacting Uranus" is not a bad metaphor for what the spiritual master was really telling me to do. Though it might seem to be a simple physical movement, contracting your anus with awareness can be the first step on a trip toward contacting your cosmic identity.
Ground Control to Major Tom
Have you ever heard the instruction "Apply mula bandha" or "Apply the locks" in a yoga class? Did you suspect that most of the students—perhaps including you—didn't have the foggiest idea how they should go about this? Often a teacher mentions mula bandha but never really explains what it means or how to do it.
In Sanskrit, "mula" means root; "bandha" means a lock or binding. Not only physically but also in more subtle ways, mula bandha is a technique for containing and channeling the energy associated with the mula-dhara ("root place") chakra. Located at the tip of the spine, muladhara chakra represents the stage of consciousness where basic survival needs dominate.
"Mula" also refers to the root of all action, and the root of any action is a thought. As we begin to refine our thoughts—restricting and binding the intentions behind our actions—the actions themselves become refined. In yoga practice we bind our body and mind, restricting our impulses into the orderly channels of ethics, individual responsibility, and right action.
It's possible that teachers shy away from explaining mula bandha because they find talking about the anatomy of the pelvic floor embarrassing. But the advantages to a full understanding of mula bandha far outweigh any embarrassment suffered. The reason one practices yoga is to have experiences which transcend the banal, and the bandhas—along with asanas, kriyas (purifying actions), laya (meditative absorption), yamas (ethical restraints), and dharana (concentration)—are yogic techniques that can lead to transcendence
Mula Bandha Payload
Mula bandha is said to cut through brahma granthi, the energetic knot of our resistance to change, which lies in mula-dhara chakra. On the physical level, practicing mula bandha creates attentiveness in the supportive musculature of the pelvis. This increases the stability of the pelvis, and, since the pelvis is the seat of the spine, its stability creates a safe environment for spinal movement. Thus, mula bandha strengthensand teaches the importance of—the solid foundation that should underlie any movement.
Mula bandha also lifts and compresses the bowel and lower abdominal region. This creates a solid foundation, a platform under the breath that makes it possible to increase or decrease the pressure inside the torso and facilitate movement. The bandha creates lightness and fluidity; when it is properly applied, the body is less earth-bound and more mobile.
Through gradual refinement, mula bandha becomes less muscular and more subtle, energetic, and etheric. This movement from outside to inside, from mundane to rarefied, from unconsciousness to enlightenment, is the basic pattern of transcendental yogic awakening. On an energetic level, mula bandha allows us to feel, restrain, and then direct our energies toward enlightenment. Finally, when practicing mula bandha on the highest level, the yogi sees the Divine in all with equanimity and detachment.
On a physical level, mula bandha consists of a contraction, a muscular lifting-up in the floor of the pelvis. Although the pelvis itself is primarily a bony structure supported with ligaments, the pelvic floor consists of muscle fibers and fascia (connective tissue). These tissues intersect and overlap in complex ways; for our purposes, we can divide the pelvic floor into three muscular levels, each of which can be sensed and moved separately.
The most superficial physical level of mula bandha corresponds to the "contract your anus" instruction. If you are unsure about whether you understand this contraction, place a finger in or on the anal opening and alternately squeeze it shut and protrude it outward. The outward movement is the wrong direction.
Technically, isolation of the anal sphincter contraction is not mula bandha but a cousin, called ashvini ("dawn horse") mudra, named after the rather peculiar habit that horses have of pursing the anal sphincter. But contracting the anal sphincter does provide a doorway to the deeper layers of mula bandha. This muscle is connected by ligaments to the tip of the spine; when you contract it, you draw mula-dhara chakra upward, as in mula bandha. Eventually, with mula bandha applied correctly, the anus will soften and lift into the body. At first, you'll probably unconsciously contract other muscles of the pelvic floor along with the anal sphincter. The next step in the refinement of your mula bandha is to sort out some of these other unconscious contractions and make them conscious.
The intermediate physical level of mula bandha involves isolating the contraction of the perineum (the region between the anus and the genitals) and perineal body (which extends inward from the perineum and is the insertion point for eight muscles of the pelvic floor)—without contracting the anal sphincter.
In order to feel the perineum, press a finger into the space between the anus and scrotum or labia. Or, better yet, sit for a few minutes with a tennis ball or the heel of your foot placed in the space between the anus and genitals. Alternate between anal and perineal contractions until you can feel the difference. With some experience, you will find that you can refine your experience of mula bandha by moving deeper into the pelvis through the isolation of the perineum. This refinement carries the contraction of the bandha inward and upward, giving you a physical experience of the yogic process of moving from external to internal awareness.
The contraction of mula bandha on the deepest physical level is similar to the Kegel exercises used to correct urinary incontinence and strengthen the vaginal walls after childbirth. To find this level of mula bandha, practice beginning to urinate and then interrupting the flow. Alternately, women can insert a finger into the vagina and contract the muscles used to cut off urination: If you feel tightness on the inserted finger, you are squeezing the right muscles. But the isolated contraction of the muscles that control the flow of urine is actually vajroli or sahajoli mudra. For full mula bandha, you must also lift the pelvic diaphragm, mostly by contracting the muscles called the levator ani. This diaphragm is the innermost layer of the pelvic floor, a sling of muscles which extends from the pubis to the coccyx and supports the upper half of the vagina, the uterus, the bladder, the prostate, and the rectum. Besides supporting all these organs, the pelvic diaphragm also helps regulate the bowel.
As you learn to apply mula bandha and engage this deep internal contraction, you will feel the lift under the bladder, vagina and uterus (or prostate), and rectum. Relax the surface muscles and feel this contraction deep inside, at the base of the abdomen. Don't use any extra muscles to isolate this contraction of the pelvic diaphragm. With practice, you will discover that it is possible to lift the floor of the pelvis deep inside without contracting either the anus or the exterior layers of the perineum.
Make It So!
Eventually, the refinement of mula bandha begins to integrate not just the body but also the mind. The bandha bears still deeper into your psyche, permeating your life.
Mula bandha, like asana practice, is intended to purify the pranamayakosha—one of the subtle, five-layered sheaths of the energetic body. On the pranic level, mula bandha redirects the energy of apana, the aspect of prana within the body that naturally flows downward from the navel. When we redirect apana energy upward to join with the natural upward movement of prana toward enlightenment, we redirect tremendous amounts of energy toward higher levels of consciousness.
At this stage, practicing mula bandha means we try not to allow mundane concerns to stand in the way of divine aspirations. We never let bad talk take the place of good speech; we never allow wrong action to replace right action; we seek out good company and avoid bad company. As one of my teachers once said, "Your practice (and your life) should always be undertaken as if it were a photo session...with God as the photographer."
On the deepest level of the subtle body—the ananda (bliss) level—applying mula bandha means binding the normally outgoing senses inward. Normally we look outside ourselves for happiness. But any bliss which we find from outside is temporary, even if it can be very intoxicating.
Pratyahara (the inward withdrawal of the senses) has been described as seeing past outer differences to behold the inner essence of all things. When we restrain our outward gaze to enhance the unitive vision of yoga, we open the third eye, the eye of insight.
In order to do this we need to have faith, and dedicate our efforts to serve the needs, and end the suffering, of all sentient beings. Instead of continuously focusing on differences, we begin to perceive inner sameness.
It might seem surprising that such a cosmic journey can begin with a direction as earthy as "Contract your anus." But as we escape the pull of gravity, we shed the worn-out launch equipment and begin to soar. We learn to use more and more refined means to move effortlessly toward the goal that is yoga—contacting not just Uranus but the whole cosmos.