The Bandha Approach You Haven't Tried—That Could Change Everything
This gentle way of accessing the six bandhas (energetic locks) during your practice will help you experience more freedom in your body and bliss in your life.
By Esther Ekhart
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The goal of working with the bandhas is to learn to control—and seal—prana (life energy) within the central energy channel that yogis believe runs along your spine. As prana flows freely along this channel, calledsushumna nadi, it brings stability and lightness to your physical body and helps dissolve emotional blockages in your chakras (energy centers along sushumna nadi)—balancing your body, mind, and spirit.
What are the bandhas?
Each bandha acts as an energetic lock, or valve. Similar to the way that a valve on a bicycle tire lets air in while also keeping it from escaping, your three main bandhas direct energy and keep it contained in sushumna nadi. Mula Bandha (Root Lock), associated with the pelvic floor, pushes energy up toward your navel while also preventing too much of it from leaking out; Uddiyana Bandha, associated with your core, moves energy farther up; and Jalandhara Bandha, located at the throat, pushes energy down and prevents too much energy from escaping. When upward (prana vayu) and downward (apana vayu) energies meet at your navel and you activate Uddiyana, it’s like two sticks being rubbed together to create purifying heat and awaken prana (also called Kundalini), said to lie dormant at the base of the spine.
Traditionally, the bandhas were practiced during pranayama (yogic breathing exercises), and muscles associated with each bandha region were held intensely during breath retention. But in the past 20 years, there’s been a shift toward teaching the bandhas during asana, and with less intensity.
A new approach to bandha work
The way that I now feel and apply the bandhas to my own asana practice has evolved from using force, and gripping in my body, to exploring them from a place of release and softness. I used to clench my pelvic floor and engage my lower abdominals a bit too aggressively. This never felt quite right, and at times immobilized my body and breath.
After a particularly enlighteningmeditation retreat, it occurred to me that the purpose of working with the bandhas is to awaken the same consciousness that you do in meditation—and you gain entry to this experience by inviting softness, never by force. Our whole yoga practice, including the bandhas, is a collection of techniques for observing what arises in the present moment without gripping or rejecting. It is a direct experience of awareness. My approach to the bandhas is to release any tension held around the edges of each bandha area so that I feel a gentle, spontaneous rise of prana.
When I watch my students practice the bandhas this way, I see more fluidity in their movement and more openness in each pose. I’ve also noticed that if I overdo it in a pose (trying to sink too deep in Pigeon Pose, for example) I lose the feeling of energy in my central channel, so my bandha work acts as a safeguard against poor alignment and injury. Try it for yourself with this practice, designed to help you feel more energetically balanced.
There are three main bandhas, or energetic locks, that run along your spinal column (Mula, Uddiyana, and Jalandhara), two minor bandhas at your hands and feet (Hasta and Pada), and a combo of the three main bandhas called Maha Bandha. Here, some tips for locating these energy locks.
1. Pada Bandha (Foot Lock) Helps energy rise up through the soles of your feet to bring stability to your legs.
2. Hasta Bandha (Hand Lock) Assists energy up through the soft center of your palms to bring strength and stability to your arms and upper body.
3. Mula Bandha (Root Lock) Moves energy up through the center of your pelvic floor toward your navel and keeps it from moving down.
4. Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock) Helps energy rise up through the center of your core. This bandha lifts energy, but it also intensifies upward energy from Mula Bandha and downward energy from Jalandhara Bandha.
5. Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock) Restricts the upward flow of energy and directs energy down toward your navel when locked with your chin toward your chest.
6. Maha Bandha (Great Lock)
When Mula Bandha and Jalandhara Bandha are engaged together, upward and downward energy meet at your navel. With the application of Uddiyana Bandha at your belly, the energies increase to awaken prana for purifying purposes.
Accessing each bandha takes repetitive focus, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel it on the first try. Just as you need to practice a difficult asana many times before you can access the full pose, fine-tuning your attention to feel the bandhas takes time. This basic sequence is a great starting point, and sooner or later you will experience an aha moment when you feel the bandhas in your body.
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Lightly draw your thigh muscles up. Inhale and lengthen your spine and your sides with a neutral pelvis. This is a great pose to begin your bandha practice, because there aren’t many other actions to think about—you can focus mostly on feeling the energy.
Spread your toes. On an exhalation, release the outer edges of your feet, starting at the base of your toes and moving to your heels without collapsing your arches. Inhale and feel a gentle lift up from the soft centers of the soles of your feet for Pada Bandha. Allow that energy to move up through your legs.
Now direct your attention to Mula Bandha: On an exhalation, release your pubic bone, tailbone, sitting bones, and the circumference of your pelvic floor muscles (a conscious, soft release to the earth without pressing or pushing down). At the end of your exhalation, feel the center of your pelvic floor, above your perineum, lifting effortlessly. On an inhalation, feel the energy flow farther up. Hold the pose for at least 5 breaths, connecting with the feeling of energy moving up your central channel.
From Tadasana, inhale and lift your arms alongside your ears, then exhale and fold forward over your legs from your hips. Take your arms down to the floor. Inhale, lengthen your spine, lift your chest, and place your hands on blocks under your shoulders. Exhale, and release the circumference of your pelvic floor. At the end of the outbreath, and on the inhalation, feel an effortless lift from the center of the pelvic floor up through your central channel for Mula Bandha. (If it’s hard to feel this upward flowing energy, actively press the circumference of your pelvic floor downward for a moment for easier access to the upward flow of energy. Then release any tension you’ve created.) The gentle inversion of this pose helps support energy flow up your spine. Hold for 5 breaths.
From Ardha Uttanasana, exhale to step both feet back, bringing your knees down so you’re on all fours. Place your hands with fingers spread below your shoulders and with your knees under your hips. Your spine is in a neutral position, so the natural curve stays intact with your neck long. Exhale, and release the circumference of your palms, the pads of your knuckles, and the base of your hands down to the floor. This grounds your hands and should take pressure off your wrists. Inhale, and feel a gentle lift and lightness travel through the soft center of your palms and up your arms for Hasta Bandha. When your awareness is finely tuned, you may also feel energy moving through your central channel.
As you inhale, lift your sitting bones and chest toward the ceiling, allowing your belly to sink toward the floor (Cow Pose). Exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, and release your head toward the floor (Cat Pose). Repeat at least 5 times. As you move between Cat and Cow, continue to ground your outer hands, while feeling energy drawing up from the center of your palms and through your arms.
From all fours, tuck your toes under so their pads are on the mat. As you exhale, release the circumference of your palms. Inhale, and lift energy up through the soft center of your palms (Hasta). Lift your knees off the mat, and take your hips up and back. Exhale to release the circumference of your pelvic floor, and at the end of the outbreath, feel a moving up of energy (Mula) toward your navel. The inverted nature of this pose also helps you access Uddiyana Bandha, because your abdominals relax. You may feel gravitational pull on your abdominal cavity (a hollowing out toward your rib cage). On an inhalation, consciously relax your abdominal muscles and widen your rib cage, clearing the way for energy to continue traveling upward. On an exhalation, pull more of your abdominal cavity under your rib cage. Hold for 5 breaths. Mula and Uddiyana respond to each other on an energetic as well as physical level. Because your internal connective tissue connects these two areas, if something happens in one of them, there will be a response in the other.
From Downward-Facing Dog Pose, exhale and bring your right foot forward, placing it on the mat next to your right thumb.
On an inhalation, ground through your feet as you lift your body upright. Reach your arms up overhead and arch slightly back into a Crescent Lunge. Exhale, and stack your right knee over your right heel. Keep your left leg slightly bent, and draw your left heel forward over the ball of your foot.
On an exhalation, release the outer edge of the sole of your right foot. Inhale to feel a light upward flow of energy through the center of the sole of your right foot (Pada). As soon as this lift is there, you can simply keep the breath flowing. Feel how the earth holds your weight—your joints are just there for stability.
Feel the release in your pelvic floor as you exhale. Then inhale and feel the lift of energy through the center of your pelvic floor (Mula).
Support the movement of energy farther up your spine: On an inhalation, allow your ribs to expand in all directions. On an exhalation, keep that feeling of space in your ribs and invite energy farther up your central channel. You will experience a gentle muscular contraction of your abdominals (Uddiyana). Your abdominal cavity will move much less than it did in Downward-Facing Dog because you’re now upright, working against gravity. Stay for about 5 breaths. Return to Downward-Facing Dog and repeat on the other side.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose, variation)
From Down Dog, exhale and place your right knee in front of your right hand on the mat. Slide your right foot in front of your left hip, with your shin against the mat. Inhale, and prop your hands onto blocks (on either side of you), so you can be as upright as possible without hanging out in your hip joints (your hips and spine should feel connected, like they’re one unit). Draw your legs in toward each other. Move your hips gently in any direction (likely up) to find a connection between the center of your pelvic floor and your central channel. Release the outer edges of your pelvic floor and feel how energy flows up through the center of it (Mula). Widen your rib cage and allow the energy to be drawn into your expanded rib cage, along with a gentle muscular contraction in your abdominals (Uddiyana). Keep an awareness on these bandhas and feel how they bring lightness, stability, and strength to your hips, spinal column, and rib cage. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
From One-Legged King Pigeon Pose, press your hands into the floor to lift your hips. Swing your legs out to come to a seated position with your legs straight in front of you and your buttocks on a folded blanket. Lengthen your spine, and tilt your pelvis a bit forward or backward until you feel a connection between the center of your pelvic floor and your central channel. Exhale, and release the outer edges of your pelvic floor. Inhale, and feel how the prana flows up and into the central channel (Mula). On your next inhalation, expand your rib cage in all directions. Exhale and feel that energy moving up higher, upward through your core (Uddiyana) as you bend forward from your hips. Keep length in your spine, and reach forward to hold your big toes. Stay for 5 breaths, maintaining a connection to the energy flow within the central channel, which moves up with each breath.
Draw your feet in and bring your legs into a comfortable cross-legged position. Gently exhale, and release the circumference of your pelvic floor. Next time you breathe in, take a deep, full breath from your pelvic floor—all the way up into your chest.
As you exhale, place your palms on your knees and fold forward. Expel all the air in your lungs through your mouth with your tongue sticking out. Without inhaling, come back upright, pressing your hands into your knees and straightening your arms. While holding the outward retention of your breath, release the circumference of your pelvic floor again. With a mock or pretend inhalation (the body physically inhales without actually taking air in), feel energy being drawn up through your pelvic floor (Mula), all the way up and hollowing out your stomach under your ribs (this is the traditional Uddiyana applied during pranayama).
Feel your chest rising to your chin. Lift from the top of your head, lengthening the back of your neck. Then, gently move your chin down toward your chest (Jalandhara Bandha), directing energy down toward your navel. When you feel you need to breathe in again, first let go of Jalandhara by lifting your chin, and then let go of Uddiyana by releasing your belly. Inhale, and release Mula. Repeat all steps 1–3 times.
After practicing these poses, rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose) for at least 5 minutes. Observe any shifts in the flow and quality of your body’s energy.
About Our Pro Teacher and model Esther Ekhart has been teaching yoga and meditation internationally for more than 25 years and is the founder of ekhartyoga.com, an online yoga studio offering yoga and meditation classes and resources from renowned yoga teachers.