This article is a follow-up on the last one which covered Mula Bandha. There need not be any ambiguity about Uddiyana Bandha at all. There is nothing elusive about it at all.
There are two vastly different types of Uddiyana which are sometimes mixed up. One utilizes suction and the other uses pressure to deform the abdominal cavity. I will here first get the suction-type Uddiyana out of the way and then focus on the pressure-based Uddiyana for the rest of the article.
I have described the suction-based Uddiyana in great detail in my 2013 text Pranayama The Breath of Yoga. This Uddiyana is also mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and it is only to be used during external breath retention (bahya kumbhaka). To make it absolutely clear you will use this Uddiyana only when sitting statically and when not breathing. Because of its link to external kumbhaka this bandha is in the scriptures sometimes called Bahya Uddiyana (external Uddiyana). To perform it one exhales completely, then locks the throat and finally sucks the contents of the abdomen up into the thoracic cavity, giving the abdomen the characteristic scooped-inwards appearance. The purpose of this bandha is to turn upwards the vital down-current (apana vayu) during external breath retention. If this bandha is not applied during external breath retention the mind tends to succumb to tamas, i.e. it will get excessively dull and heavy.
This type of bandha is not suitable during inhaling, exhaling, moving and doing our asana practice. If you would try to perform it while breathing and moving you would excessively tighten your diaphragm, which can bring about anxiety, panic attacks and ultimately depression.
(True) Uddiyana Bandha
I will now describe the form of Uddiyana appropriate for movement, inhalation and exhalation (but not during breath retention) and to differentiate it from the above technique I will call it Uddiyana Bandha and the above technique Bahya Uddiyana. You notice that Bahya Uddiyana does not contain the word “bandha”. Bandha in yoga is defined as a muscular barrier from which a pranic force re-bounces. Bahya Uddiyana then in a narrow technical sense is not a true bandha as it uses a muscular contraction (the contracted throat) to suck a pranic force (the vital down-current) towards it. In this nomenclature Mula Bandha is a classical bandha: apana descents and hits a muscular contraction (the pelvic floor) from which it rebounds.
Mechanics of the bandha
During the classical Uddiyana Bandha (the one used during inhale, exhale and movement) the lower part of the transverse abdominis is contracted and the lower abdomen tucked in slightly. The lower abdominal wall is contracted to drive part of the inhalation up into the thorax and prevent the abdomen from distending. The transverse abdominis muscle runs horizontally across the abdomen and is used to draw the abdominal contents in against the spine. It is crucial that the lower part of this muscle is isolated from its upper part. The upper half extends from the sternum to the navel. This part of the transverse abdominis interdigitates with the diaphragm and its contraction during movement would translate as tension into the diaphragm. Since the diaphragm is attached via a tendon to the pericardium, tension in the diaphragm is felt in the heart. If it reaches a certain magnitude the mind interprets it as fear of annihilation, which may then be felt as a panic attack.
To isolate the two parts of the transverse abdominis sit on the floor and place your thumbs or fingers outside of the rectus abdominis (six-pack-muscle). The rectus runs vertically in front of the spine from the sternum to the pubic bone. Of course, it’s impossible to isolate the upper part of this muscle from the lower part. So, you need to place your fingers on either side of the rectus which is approximately 100mm or 4 inches wide. If you place your fingers 150mm or 6 inches apart on either side of the rectus you are far away from the rectus to feel the transverse abdominis. Drop your fingers now to the horizontal line which would be formed by your belt if you wore one. Now experiment until you do find under your fingers the muscle that tucks in. Important is that you do not try to push out. Pushing out against your fingers does not activate the transverse abdominis, which can only tuck in (draw the abdominal contents in against the spine) by contracting. Once you do have the muscle that tucks in move your fingers higher above the navel (but still outside of the rectus) and make sure that the upper part of the transverse remains relaxed so that we don’t annoy the diaphragm.
Biomechanical effect of rectus abdominis contraction
The importance of this fact is long known to biomechanical researchers. It has been shown that even when lifting a relatively light weight with your arms the transverse abdominis will fire up about half a second beforehand. This reflex exists to protect the lumbar discs. When the transverse abdominis fires (co-contracts) it will tuck the lower abdomen in. Because the hollows in the abdominal cavity are filled with fluids (different to many in the thoracic cavity which are filled with air) the abdominal cavity cannot change its volume. Tucking in the lower abdomen must therefore result in shape-change. Since the circumference of the abdominal cavity gets reduced by transverse abdominis contraction the height of the cavity must increase. This will lead to the lumbar vertebrae being pulled apart, increasing the lumbar intervertebral disc spaces. This means that the contraction of the transverse serves primarily the aim of protecting the vulnerable lumbar discs.
This is a reflex that is inbuilt into our bodies, however with increasingly sedentary life-styles disfunction or weakness of these reflex become more likely. However, especially when performing yogic arm balances, deep back bending or leg-behind-head postures it is essential that the transverse fires appropriately before the low-back is loaded up. Uddiyana Bandha should therefore be trained to proficiency before any of these posture groups are tackled. One should also not wait until the bandha comes on “spontaneously” but one should systematically focus on it during the beginner’s stage, i.e. from the first sun salutation onwards. Once one is used to do one’s yoga without the bandhas retraining oneself is much harder. For this reason, bandha instruction should be part of all beginners courses. It is much easier to focus on transverse abdominis engagement during easy beginners postures than learning it later during the performance of more challenging postures.
Move towards subtlety
Similar to Mula Bandha also Uddiyana Bandha performance should gradually move towards subtlety. A novice will start by firming the abdominal wall below the navel and then, as awareness increases with years of practice, allow Uddiyana Bandha to slide downwards, that is away from the navel and towards the pubic bone. The subtler it becomes, the more influence Uddiyana Bandha will have on the subtle body. Similar to Mula Bandha, we learn to connect Uddiyana Bandha to the breathing cycle. Once the muscle-contraction aspect of the bandha is mastered, visualize your abdomen being hollow and a row of hooks attach to the inside of your lower abdomen. Let the inhalation reach down, hook into the abdominal wall and let that draw the lower abdominal wall in towards the spine. Also, here the upper abdominal wall needs to be excluded.
Further benefits of Uddiyana Bandha
If the lower abdominal wall is kept firm and the upper wall is relaxed, the diaphragm moves up and down freely. This produces a strong oscillation of intra-abdominal blood pressure, and it is exactly this mechanism that produces healthy abdominal organs. When the diaphragm moves down and the abdominal wall is held, the pressure in the abdomen rises. When the diaphragm moves up, all the blood is sucked out of the abdomen and blood pressure drops. This strong oscillation of abdominal blood pressure constantly massages the internal organs and leads to strong, healthy tissue. By relaxing the abdominal wall, letting the belly drop out this invigorating massage of the abdominal muscles is prevented.
Differentiation of breathing with Uddiyana Bandha and exclusive abdominal breathing
There is one more thing to clarify. Try the following experiment: Breathe in while keeping the abdominal wall completely relaxed. You will find that the belly expands more and more but the breath never reaches the thorax and clavicular area. This is a denatured and devitalizing way of inhaling. Now keep the lower abdominal wall firm and controlled, and inhale again. You will notice that now you will be able to draw the breath as high up as you choose. If you would contract the entire abdominal wall you would chest-breathe exclusively – a form of breathing that is as denaturized and devitalizing as exclusive abdominal breathing. To prevent this, you need to allow for a slight protrusion of the abdominal wall above, but not below, the navel. The slight protrusion above the navel is feedback from the body that the diaphragm is moving freely up and down. You need to watch out for this sign otherwise you produce something called “paradoxical breathing”, where the entire abdominal wall moves inwards when inhaling.
I hope this article helped to dispel any mystique and elusiveness around Uddiyana Bandha. You will find that it is essential to maintaining your yoga practice and vibrant health especially as you get older.
Enjoy your practice!
I appreciate the detail you have gone into. Especially since you already have given us 10 pages in your Pranayama book. I have been looking for a while for a precise description on how to isolate the transverse abdominis. Thanks for the excellent practice section. It will help with my Kapalabhati practice.