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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, called sushumna 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 enlightening meditation 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.
See also How to Use Mula Bandha in Yoga Poses
Get to know the bandhas
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.
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.