YOGA FOCUS: Bringing the bandhas off the mat
Practicing the four bandhas of yoga can help us develop a mastery of the physical body and tap into a higher potential, says yoga instructor and educator Brandi Bernard.
If you’ve ever thought your yoga teacher was talking another language when they casually drop terms like ‘Mula Bandha’, you’d be right, because they’re speaking Sanskrit, the language of yoga.
The word bandha translates to ‘lock’, meaning to tighten an area of your body. Think of it as a way to channel and conserve your personal energetic flow and deepen your practice.
The ancient texts of Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Shiva Samhita reference four bandhas, the intent of which was to direct the flow of prana (Sanskrit for universal life force, or energy). We still use these in our yoga practice today, both on and off of our yoga mat, as well as in other forms of exercise and in our daily lives to vitalise the body, mind and spirit. The bandhas help us to develop a mastery of the physical body and tap into a higher potential.
Beginning from the bottom, Mula Bandha, or root lock, means to begin from the base of the body by activating the pelvic floor. By activating the muscles of the pelvic floor we can glean many physical benefits, such as improved bladder control, as well as the sensation of lightness on your mat and strength in your yoga postures (the terms Sthira and Sukha refer to steadiness and ease). Mula Bandha provides a seal to prevent the release of energy from the bottom of the body. It is just as important to learn how to turn these muscles on as it is to turn them off.
Bringing the attention to the belly, Uddiyana Bandha means upward flying. Beginning with the transverse abdominus, the innermost abdominal muscles, begin to activate this muscle by slowly imagining the naval drawing closer to the spine on an exhale, creating a vacuum effect. There will be an automatic overflow to the obliquus, and when practiced in conjunction with Mula Bandha the rectus abdominus will begin to awaken. How do we do this while maintaining a diaphragmatic breath? We don’t. There is a strong steadiness of the lock on the exhale, but to permit a full Dirga Breath (3-part breath) we need to find the softness in the belly to allow the diaphragm to contract and for air to enter our lungs. This can be used as a nice check-in, during our exhales, to keep us present while practicing asana on the mat, and to assist our trunk alignment. Off the mat, it may or may not help us maintain that hourglass figure or with regular practice assist with improved function of vital organs and a healthy back.
As we reach the top, Jalandhara Bandha, meaning mesh or netting, is the concept of the throat lock. To practice this, the chin is tilted toward the chest in order to lengthen the back of the neck and elongate the sides of the waist. With the spine elongated, this lock has the potential to expand the breath and create more space for the vascular system to enhance blood flow to the body.
Once mastery of the three main energy seals has been obtained, under the guidance of a trained yoga teacher, the practice of all three of these locks, known as the supreme seal or Maha Bandha, can be experienced. When practicing this seal, you will begin in a seated meditation posture and work from the top down, engaging the bandhas seamlessly, one at a time. Breath retention is practiced, even if for only a moment, when learning. The locks are then effortlessly released, one at a time from the top down.
Break the bonds and begin refreshed and renewed. Begin the practice of muscular engagement to strengthen the neural connections within the body and expand awareness.
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Brandi Bernard is a 500-ERYT registered yoga teacher, a certified yoga therapist (C-IAYT), a physiotherapist and Senior Master Trainer for YogaFit.