I have repeatedly been asked to shed some light onto the “elusive bandhas”. I’m surprised that they are still considered elusive. I have written about the bandhas extensively in my 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013 textbooks and had assumed that this had laid any elusiveness to rest. But rather than recapping any of those writings I will tackle the problem afresh here, hoping that students will still read up on those essential passages in my books.
In this article I am focussing on Mula Bandha. Mula Bandha has three aspects, layers or phases of which the first is introductory, the second intermediate, the third advanced. To learn the bandhas students should first focus on the introductory aspect and then move on. The introductory aspect, layer or phase of the bandha is gross/muscular. The intermediate aspect is subtle/pranic and the advanced layer is causal/mental, i.e. thought-based. That means that our work gets subtler as we mature, similar to the progression through the yogic limbs from asana via pranayama to meditation.
So let’s deal first with the gross or muscular phase of Mula Bandha: The pelvic floor is primarily formed by the pubococcygeus muscle (or pc muscle for short), which reaches from the pubic bone to the coccyx. It has the form of an 8, allowing for the anal orifice in the back and the urinary/reproductive orifice in the front. You may know the feeling of being at the movies and having to go to toilet but postponing the visit because you don’t want to miss the end of the movie. In this case you may contract the entire pelvic floor or parts of it. Humans and many animals can differentiate between contracting parts of the pelvic floor. For example, if you are male you may have encountered situations where you line up at a urinal and you are required to release the front of the pc muscle to allow for urination but not the back, which would facilitate defecation. Nothing elusive about that, right? Just basic house-training that we internalize somewhere during our early childhood. The same capacity is learned by many mammals and even reptiles which use urination to mark territory. They will not defecate at the same time as they mark their territory through urination so they know how to control part of the pelvic floor while releasing others. Again I mention that to drive home the fact that it’s not elusive to control the pelvic floor but totally natural.
In yoga we have a technique that deals extra with the rear part of the pc muscle, called Ashvini Mudra. We could say that Ashvini Mudra entails the fluttering of the anal sphincter. There is also a technique that deals with various levels of control of the front of the pc-muscle (urinary sphincter). This technique is called Vajroli Mudra and was sneered at by many yogis of the past (including T Krishnamacharya) to avoid debauchery a subject which I want to just mention fleetingly without engaging in it here much further. Mula Bandha is non-identical with either of them but exactly in the middle of both. Biomechanists have measured that the pelvic floor will engage a split-second before any weight-bearing exercise but also when shouting or singing very loudly. It is something that every opera singer can confirm. Also any top-level athletes must have a functioning Mula Bandha. Without it no extraordinary performance is possible.
nWhile peak-performers will engage Mula Bandha automatically without being primed for most of us it is helpful to be instructed what exactly to do to improve our physical capacities. In the first, anatomical or gross phase we need to learn to control or engage the perineum, which is the part of the pc-muscle where the two loops of the 8 meet. When you do that you feel that you can run faster, jump higher and scream louder and all simply because you become more buoyant. Any force directed out of the body whether it be speech, locomotion or grasping needs something to bounce off from. For example when trying to push a car your legs would push off the ground beneath you. In this vein by engaging the perineum the pelvic floor now acts similar to a trampoline from which any outward directed vector can bounce off. This becomes soon very obvious during jumping through and jumping back, during arm-balances, leg-behind-head postures and drop-backs. All of these are fairly intense yogic exercises during which the outward directed force needs to be able to push against an internal barrier (the bandha) otherwise not much of it reaches the environment/ exterior of the body.
What is essential for the bandha is that it is engaged before the vector of force that utilizes it as a base, is enacted. If that is not the case you could actually wet your pants in the attempt of trying to scream really loud or lifting a heavy weight. If the bandha totally fails we would call that incontinence. A high level of bandha-success could be called continence. Notice how this term has a bathroom aspect but also it means self-control or self-restraint.
In the beginning, let’s say in the first two years depending on how fast your learning curve is, it is good to focus on this muscular or gross aspect of Mula Bandha. It means that before you load up the body with any complex asana (or other exercise) you check that the perineum is engaged. And again, just in case there is still any level of elusiveness in your mind, contract the anal sphincter, then the urinary sphincter and then look for the point in the middle and release both. Repeat simply until you have it. Once you have it, try to maintain it while holding increasingly difficult asanas. That’s all! Don’t let them fool you! It’s not rocket science!
Now once you have done that for about a maximum of two years, you should start migrating to the second tier of Mula Bandha, the subtle/pranic aspect. Let’s look first at why and then at how. All good things will eventually turn to poison if only you do or take too much of them. That you should limit the time and energy spent on pelvic floor contractions becomes most obvious when you plan to give birth anytime soon. A super-build-up pelvic floor makes it more difficult for the baby to pass through. Also, in males too much Mula Bandha can eventually lead to extra visits to the toilet in the night because it does limit the passage of urine. However, it is mostly the psychological changes that I want to discuss here. In English we have the beautiful term tight-arse. If you get stuck at the gross, muscular aspect of Mula Bandha you will eventually become a tight-arse. That is a miserly, un-generous person that looks at life mainly in terms of acquisition. I’ve seen it happen often. You may have also noticed that when you say no to somebody, defend your position and stand your ground you do so by contracting your anal sphincter when communicating. Try it out! Your expression will be much more congruent when doing so. Freud noticed this tendency and called the phase during which the infant learned to say no the anal phase. If you do not graduate to the pranic phase of Mula Bandha it’s muscular aspect tends to overemphasis the anal aspects of your personality. But as yogis we want to become appreciative, giving, caring, nurturing, loving, etc. While we must be able to say no to and reject wrong positions and actions (raping and pillaging our beautiful Mother Earth, genocide on indigenous people, exploitation of the disenfranchised, etc) the anal aspect of the psyche should not be allowed to take over.
While much more could be said about this subject (and I would have much pleasure to do so) the length of this article means I must move on now to the description of how to graduate to a pranic Mula Bandha. During this phase we slowly move away from the muscular contraction and use the suction of the breath to lift the perineum upwards. There are various ways of doing this. One involves to imagine that you literally inhale through the pelvic floor. Do it and you will feel how this raises the perineum. You can also imagine how the breath lifts and expands your torso and thus creates a suction that lets the perineum billow upwards. You can also imagine that the inhalation reaches down, hooks into the perineum and pulls it up. In these and similar metaphoric descriptions you will find the same two elements that combine to bring about an effect. The two elements are breath and thought and notice how the Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that both always move together. In this phase/ tier of the bandha we are using the imagination to direct the pranic force (breath). Students often master this level and you notice that they become able to do things which they shouldn’t really be able to do. There is a certain lightness and effortlessness to their practice but if you ask them how they are doing it they often cannot explain what they are doing.
With this second stage of Mula Bandha you will be able to do much more while using much less energy. That’s what you want. Don’t waste any unnecessary energy and effort if something could be achieved much easier. It is fair to say that stage-2 Mula Bandha takes much longer to perfect than stage-1. Again, learning curves of students differ vastly but it wouldn’t be wide off the mark to say that one could easily take a decade or more to become proficient of this tier of the bandha.
Why then would we need to move on to a third stage if stage already enables us that much? With stage 3 the trajectory is continued. It uses even less energy. It is described in Shankara’s Yoga Taravali and Aparokshanubhuti where is said that eventually Mula Bandha becomes pure thought. No breath at all is required anymore to create the suction. This is of course very important when in kumbhaka (breath retention). When no breath movement is there the holding of Mula Bandha has to eventually mature to the level of pure thought.
Enjoy your exploration of this magnificent bandha and firmly know that you will master it. Elusive no more.
To read this article in Korean please click here.
Got it, Gregor. Thank you for the excellent concreteness of your explanation. Very helpful!
Glad you found the article helpful and thanks for the inspiration to write it. I intend to follow up with one on Uddiyana Bandha.
I found this an excellent addition to the already extensive coverage in your books. Sometimes what is elusive to me is the recognition that a certain feeling created by a muscle contraction matches that described in words. There is nothing like a good bathroom training example to demystify the bandha, and render it “elusive no more”.
Thank you for this wonderful explanation
Thanks for the article Gregor!
Some questions on Kumbhakas in relation to bandhas. I know that in the Orthodox ashtanga system breath retention is not allowed with some claiming that it might as well be a cause for arthritis (!?) however Krisnamacharya had implemented them throughout his practice.
The thing is that especially during external breath retention in the state of the asana I sometimes find the peace and uplifted-ness that sometimes lack when I try to properly engage the mula though ujjayi or muscular contraction.
What’s your thoughts on that?
I know a few students who learned kumbhakas from Pattabhi Jois (he didn’t teach any during the times I was there but must have done so earlier). These kumbhakas he taught were intense and long. So he wasn’t adverse to kumbhakas as such but they had to be performed when sitting or more precisely, sitting in Padmasana.
So, I think what you mean is that KP Jois didn’t teach kumbhakas in any other postures and none when moving in and out of posture. His stance here is similar to BNS and BKS Iyengar who all trained with Krishnamacharya during K’s Mysore tenure. So we may deduce that this was also K’s stance during this teaching phase.
I remember doing kumbhakas with AJ Mohan during other asanas and possibly also during movement. I have heard that Shrivatsa Ramaswami also teaches that way and both learned this from Krishnamacharya during his Chennai period. It appears that K. experimented with different practices during different phases of his teaching.
I am more influenced by K’s earlier teaching via KP Jois and the two Iyengars. Personally I didn’t really get the point of holding kumbhakas in different postures and during transitions. But that may only be personal preference.
The arthritis story sounds a bit like a far fetch to me.
Hope this helps
Thank you, Gregor for this article! Would you allow me to translate this into Korean to share with Korean practitioners?
Thanks so much, Rory. Much appreciated.
This article is translated into Korean on my blog.
I added my own takeaway and personal experience below your article. I hope many practitioners in Korea can read this! Thank you.