Bound for Glory
It's Tuesday evening, and I'm grabbing a 6 p.m. yoga class at a generic studio located somewhere in the paved-over wilds of Southern California's San Fernando Valley. The teacher, a newly minted graduate of a local training program, instructs her brand of vinyasa flow in a way that delivers all of the sweat and none of the depth. And that's OK with me. I'm not looking for enlightenment tonight; I'm looking to burn off that caramel-pecan brownie I enjoyed with my lunch.
Tatiana (not her real name), the teacher, is one of those ex-dancers who naturally gravitate to yoga in their postperformance years to dazzle envious stiffies like me with their grace, fluidity, and amazing flexibility. Tatiana focuses more on the physical form of the practice than on its philosophical underpinnings. And, again, that's just fine: Her form is fantastic, her manner both soothing and encouraging, and her instructions clear, concise, and delivered in plain English (we're doing Down Dog, Triangle, Warrior, Side Angle, rather than Whateverasana).
But then she surprises me and goes all Sanskrit on us. "To power up your poses, apply Mula Bandha," she says. Half the class pauses mid-Sun Salutation to stare blankly at her, while the other half carries on, either ignoring her or faking it. One brave soul a few mats down finally asks: "What's that?"
Good question, I think to myself, as I await Tatiana's answer. Mula Bandha is the Root Lock, she explains. "When we apply Mula Bandha, we get in touch with our core muscles," she says. As for how to do it, her instructions are simple: "Basically, you just squeeze your anus shut and hold it."
Huh. Depending on whom you ask, Tatiana's version of Mula Bandha is either a gross oversimplification or an outright misrepresentation. But it's the way many instructors teach this technique, which is —like so much else about yoga —esoteric, intuitive, and intertwined with the ultimate goal: union with god.
It is safe to say that nobody has ever squeezed their way to enlightenment; otherwise our uptight, type-A society would be rife with saints and sages. So what, exactly, is Mula Bandha? I asked a few of the best teachers from around the country. Here's what I found out.
The word bandha is usually translated as "lock," though, like most Sanskrit words, it has many nuanced meanings. "It comes from the root bandh, which means to bind, to fix, or to stop," explains Carlos Pomeda, a scholar of Sanskrit and Tantra who teaches yoga philosophy within the Anusara Yoga system.
Four bandhas are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita, two classical yoga texts: Mula Bandha is generally practiced in conjunction with asana; Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock) and Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock) are more often associated with pranayama, yoga's breathing practices. (To learn more about the latter two, see Keep a Cool Head and Fly Right.) The fourth, Maha Bandha (the Great Lock) is a combination of all three.
"The bandhas are specific positions of the body and manipulations of the organs designed to prevent the flow of energy from escaping the body," Pomeda explains. In other words, the bandhas are mechanisms by which an accomplished yogi can direct the flow of prana, the universal life-force energy that animates and unites all of us.
So the bandhas are physical movements, yes, but also much more than that: They serve as a gateway into the mental, psycho-emotional, and subtle energy planes. In any given session, it's easy to get caught up in the physical practice, with all its brownie-burning, butt-firming benefits, and totally forget that the physical component of yoga is just part of the preparation for enlightenment.
"We go through the physical body as a doorway, but the effects on the physical body are secondary," says David Life, cofounder of New York City's Jivamukti Yoga Center. We may be in class to work out that part of ourselves that wants to look great in tight jeans and baby tees, but the real point of our yoga practice is to shape up that part of our being that allows our truest nature to be experienced and expressed in the external world.
Tatiana was right —Mula Bandha does help us engage our core muscles and power up our poses. But that's not the half of it. "It's really about awakening consciousness, which is much more interesting than 'contract your anus,"" says Life. "But, you know, you've got to start somewhere, and you don't usually start with the esoteric teachings."
Let's Get Physical
And so, Life says, you start with the physical movement, which in the case of Mula Bandha is a toning and lifting of the pelvic floor. It sounds simple enough, but it is taught in countless ways. Do any of these descriptions sound familiar to you?
Draw up the cervix and vaginal walls
Contract your muscles as if you were stopping and starting the flow of urine
Do a Kegel exercise
Draw the coccyx toward the pubic bone
And —yes —contract your anus.
If several of them do, you may be wondering, which one is correct? and, why is this action so hard to describe? The answer is, Mula Bandha is both a subtle movement and one that involves a complex anatomical structure that's not easy to isolate. "There's a whole sling of musculature that extends from the tailbone to the pubic bone and supports the internal organs," Life says. "What you're trying to do is lift that sling."
Unless you're an anatomist or a fully realized yogi (in which case, you can stop reading here), chances are you've never even heard of most of the muscles that make up the sling Life refers to. They're a complex group comprising the deep and superficial transverse perineal muscles, the bulbocavernosus, the ischiocavernosus, the sphincter urethrae membranaceae, the pubococcygeus, and the levator ani. Forming a diamond shape at the base of your pelvis, they are bordered by the pubic bone in the front, the coccyx in the back, and the sitting bones on the sides.
Unfortunately, instructions in the ancient texts are vague at best; the Hatha Yoga Pradipika instructs the student to contract the muscles of the perineum/cervix and hold for as long as possible, then release. The Gheranda Samhita recommends a more encompassing contraction of below-the-belt muscles. Once upon a time, when yoga was taught one-on-one and a guru could guide and encourage a disciple to find Mula Bandha for him- or herself, it wasn't a problem that the texts offered only a rough outline. But now that we're divorced from the guru-to-student dynamic, even the most seasoned teachers do little more than recommend a dose of patience and a willingness to experiment with all of the different instructions you hear until you eventually discover Mula Bandha for yourself. "There are times when I've told a class to contract anything they can find down there just to give them something to do," Life says. "Hopefully, they'll do their own investigation and get it on a deeper level."
To help his students find it, Richard Freeman, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher and the director of the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado, offers this hint: "If you exhale very fully and smoothly, you'll notice that the end of exhalation creates a natural toning in the pelvic floor muscles that allows you to get the last of the breath out. This is the point where Mula Bandha is set. It's really complex but really simple. Once you get it, it's like, Of course!
Tim Miller, director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, California, agrees. For all the confusion about what it is and how to do it, he says, even the greenest beginners may find themselves practicing Mula Bandha —and not even know it. "Mula Bandha is, in a sense, hard-wired into the poses, and as you do them you'll discover you're doing Mula Bandha, unwittingly sometimes," he explains. "It just happens.
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