Bound for Glory
So, once you "get it," how will the bandhas change your practice? In the Ashtanga tradition, Mula Bandha is so critical to the correct performance of asana that K. Pattabhi Jois, the leader of the tradition, instructs his students to keep Mula Bandha engaged throughout every practice; in fact, he's often quoted as saying that it should stay engaged 24/7. That's a metaphorical overstatement, of course, meant to emphasize the importance of Mula Bandha, which when mastered and used correctly has the potential to transform even the most lackluster practice.
Mula Bandha is what helps Ashtanga practitioners find the balance they need to tackle arm balances and inversions, and the strength and control they need for difficult tasks, such as jumping through and jumping back. But the list of the physical benefits to a yoga practice is nearly endless, and Freeman can rattle them off handily: "It's grounding, so students feel much more stable. They won't lose balance. Correct movement of limbs becomes more natural. When they do a backbend, they'll be less likely to compress the spine. They'll find more space under the belly, which is very convenient for twists."
"By practicing Mula Bandha, you gain a real sense of the central axis of the body," says Freeman, a student of Jois. "You learn to move from the lower belly, feeling the pelvic floor and letting it participate in aligning the body. It will help you integrate the movements of the body and give you the sense that you are composed of radiance...One becomes juicier, more intuitive, more sensitive, and more able to express feeling with the entire body through every movement."
Iyengar teachers lead students into Mula Bandha with simple instructions that emphasize its practical application within each pose, explains advanced Iyengar instructor Joan White, owner of the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga School of Central Philadelphia. "The beauty of the Iyengar system is that it gives form through direction that's easy to digest," White says. She offers an example: "When we sit at the beginning of class, we are told to sit exactly on the center of the sit bones and to make sure that the space is even on either side of the anus, that the pelvic floor should not be descending, that the pubic bone should be running perpendicular to the floor, and that the outer hips should be sucked in. As we're inhaling to get ready for invocation, Gita Iyengar will often say that the sides of the navel should lift. The effect of these directions creates Mula Bandha."
In the Iyengar tradition of yoga, Mula Bandha is not often taught overtly, partly because B.K.S. Iyengar believes it can be misused by those who might be distracted by one of its enticing side effects: increased sexual power. Still, it is an integral part of the practice, White says. "The practice of asana can be very external," she notes. "But when you add Mula Bandha, you are drawn toward your own source, your own core. It is the path inward."
The Inside Line
That inward path, let's not forget, is the point of yoga. "I think it's important for people to remember the original context of hatha yoga," says Pomeda, who was a Vedic monk in the Sarasvati order for 18 years. "This opens up your perspective, puts the practice into a much larger framework. From that reference point, all practices are geared to the awakening of kundalini and the attainment of the highest realization."
Kundalini is the feminine energy that is classically depicted as a serpent coiled and asleep at the base of the spine, which is also the seat of Mula Bandha. When she awakens, she rises up through the spine to merge with universal consciousness at the crown chakra, found at the top of the head. The bandhas —particularly Mula Bandha and Jalandhara engaged together—can be used to help create the internal pressure necessary to roust her out of her comfy home, where she might otherwise snooze away forever.
To create that pressure, you have to understand another branch of subtle anatomy: the vayus (vital airs) —patterns of energy that flow through the body. In the Ashtanga tradition, yogis use Mula Bandha to help reverse the flow of apana vayu, the naturally downward-moving energy that's responsible for the body's eliminative and reproductive processes (it comes into play with every bowel movement, menstrual cycle, and birth, for instance). "Typically, the apana is said to have its root in the pelvic floor," says Freeman. "If you exhale very fully and smoothly, you'll notice that it takes attention right to the root. Then when you inhale, you draw your attention through the root as if you were drawing a string through the seat of exhalation."
The reversal of apana vayu alone does not cause a kundalini release, but it helps create the right conditions for spiritual elevation, says Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care, an ashram in Knoxville, Tennessee. "The bandhas are the bridles we use to train the vayus, such as one would use a training string to tame a falcon," says Harrigan. "Training the vayus is an important and necessary step in setting the conditions not only for better health and more vitalized energy, but also for improved spiritual development."
And though spiritual life certainly does not end with Mula Bandha, it does, in a sense, begin there. "Engaging Mula Bandha creates a foundation," Harrigan says. "The root of the tree is important for the entire tree. Likewise, Mula Bandha is important for making asana and pranayama beneficial. Without the bandhas, these exercises have only physical effects."
For Freeman, the practice of Mula Bandha is —and should be —an act of devotion; he was taught by Jois to picture Ganesh, the elephant god, seated on the pelvic floor, and to see Ganesh stand up with the contraction of the bandha. "What often happens is that people think, 'I'm just going to squeeze my anal sphincter muscles together,'" he explains. "Then they think, 'I'm doing Mula Bandha!' Ego is involved, and the practice doesn't produce the desired fruit. It should be done with great humility —otherwise, you're just becoming anal retentive."
To learn more about how to integrate Mula Bandha into your daily asana practice, read Mula Bandha in Action.
Hillari Dowdle is the former editor in chief of Yoga Journal and of Natural Health.
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