Words by Jessie Fuller
Do you ever have those moments when you surprise yourself with your own ability? As though perceiving yourself from an outsider’s perspective.
The other day during a yoga class, I watched the teacher seamlessly flow from all fours into Parsva Bakasana or Side Crow; a challenging position that involves balancing the majority of your body weight on one arm. The instructions were simple and she made it look easy, so I attempted to copy her and swiftly ended up in a defeated pile on my mat (that isn’t what surprised me). I looked up and gazed in awe at the other bodies in the room that were somehow twisted and inverted in magnificent ways; their facial expressions revealing no hint of strain.
‘But how?!’ I wondered.
In my practice, I generally follow the mantra that I teach to my students, ‘honour where your body is today’. But equally, I believe it’s healthy to push yourself out of your comfort zone; otherwise, how would you grow? So I had another go. I went slower this time; closing my eyes, I let go of the sense of self-defeat and frustration that had come over me. I brought my attention inwards, took a deep breath and engaged my bandhas. Moving with control, I shifted by body weight slightly and before I knew it, I was hovering above the earth!
We are more powerful than we think we are.
There are vast amounts of energy created during a yoga practice, a lot of which is wasted because we don’t know how to contain it.
As with most things, when your practice develops you begin to tune into the more subtle layers of the body. Akin to listening to a piece of music or walking down a street for the hundredth time and suddenly noticing the nuances that had been there all along. Behind the seemingly effortless positions and graceful expressions of yogi’s, lies an internal and highly trained workforce; one that has been developed over years of practice to make it all possible. The bandhas are an integral part of this workforce.
‘Bandha’ means to lock, hold or tighten in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India from which all yogic terms originate. They can be understood as our internal body locks or physical areas of muscle that can unleash a host of powerful benefits when engaged properly, to help develop and deepen your practice.
Minor and Major Bandhas
We have five bandhas, two minor and three major.
‘Maha Bandha’ or ‘The Great Lock’ involves engaging all of the major bandhas at once. The minor bandhas, ‘Hasta and Pada’ (translated as hand and foot, respectively) are located where their names suggest and are a good, tangible place to start.
Engagement of these bandhas involves increasing your awareness of these body parts in order for them to support you properly during your practise. Engaging Pada Bandha involves rooting down through your feet, pressing into the base of your big toe, little toe and the centre of your heel to lift your arches and create stable foundations in standing postures. Engaging Hasta Bandha involves correctly supporting yourself with your hands by pressing into the base of your fingers that are spread equally and wide, while lifting the centre of your palm to take the pressure off of your wrists (especially important for the postures that rely on your hands to hold a lot of your body weight).
The three main bandhas are located along the spine, next to our chakras or energy centres (chakra = wheel or circle); the qualities of each chakra reflect the stages of our psychosocial development in our early years. The lower chakra’s correspond to our more basic needs and their development effects that of our higher chakras; that correspond to more advanced qualities that we develop as we mature.
Our chakras are constantly fluctuating in and out of balance and this is reflected in our behaviour and thoughts. During our practice, the bandhas help encourage the upward movement of energy along the spine, moving through each of the chakra’s with which they have strong energetic associations. Located at the base of the spine, just under the naval and below the chin lie the Mulah Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha and Jalandhara Bandha respectively.
Mulahbandha is also known as the ‘root lock’ (mulah = root), located in-between your pubis, sitting bones and coccyx. It can be felt when you engage your pelvic floor muscles, as though holding tight when you really need to pee and squeezing everything in and up. In many styles of yoga, we are taught to engage this bandha throughout the practice because it acts as a plug to contain our energy and keep it moving up from the base of our spine.
By containing our energy we reduce fatigue; this is especially helpful during a vigorous yoga practise. As our energy lifts up, it creates a sensation of lightness in the body to help us move into tricky arm balances and inversions. The Mulahbanda is located next to the first, Muladhara or root chakra, associated with grounding, safety and security. The second, Svadhishthana or sacral chakra is associated with our emotions, sexuality, creativity and trust. Engaging Mulabhandha moves our energy up towards the second chakra, working through potential blockages around trust and emotions and awakening our creative potential.
By engaging our second major bandha, Uddiyana Bandha or ‘naval lock’ (uddiyana = to fly or rise up) we lift this energy even higher. This bandha can be felt when you exhale strongly and engage your lower abdomen by tensing your belly and sucking up at the same time. The strength of the exhale releases stale air from the lungs and as we tighten the muscles of our abdomen, our blood flow temporarily stops allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to be pumped rapidly around the body upon the inhale; this also stimulates our digestive juices that aid digestion and remedy stomach ailments.
Engaging this bandha comes with a host of other benefits; it strengthens the core and prevents over-arching and misalignment of the spine; by tightening our body mass it makes it easier to invert, jump, float and twist into different positions and it contains the internal heat that we generate during our practice.
Energetically, this bandha is located between the third, Manipura or Solar Plexus Chakra, associated with motivation, joy and transformation and the fourth, Anahata or Heart Chakra, associated with love, acceptance and connection. Engagement of Uddiyana Bandha transforms our energy from self-centred to heart-centred as it continues its ascent towards our crown.
The final major bandha is the Jalandhara Bandha or chin lock (jala = throat; jalan = net; dharan = stream or flow) that helps control the flow of energy in the nerves and blood vessels of the neck. Unlike the other two Bandhas that are engaged during movement, the Jalandhara Bandha is often engaged during pranayama or breathing techniques that are incorporated into a practice. It is engaged by sitting up straight and tucking your chin towards your chest, while keeping the back of your neck long (as though creating a double chin).
Engaging Jalandhara Bandha strengthens the neck muscles, regulates our respiratory and circulatory system and stimulates the thyroid to balance the regulation of hormones that aids our metabolism.
Energetically, this bandha acts as a plug at the top of our spine, to helps contain the energy within our body by directing it back down towards the naval. It energises the fifth, Vishudhi or Throat Chakra next to which it is located, associated with communication and expression. As the energetic blockages of the first five chakras are released, the throat acts as the channel through which our bodily awareness travels from the heart to the mind; our spiritual growth, in a sense.
Through our mindfulness in our practice and seated meditation we then work to strengthen our sixth, Ajna or Third Eye Chakra associated with intuition and our final, Sahasrara or Crown Chakra that connects us to spirit.
Through development of the bandhas you can experience the internal, uplifting journey of energy from your roots to your crown; connecting earth to spirit. Tapping in to the subtle layers of your practice allows you to truly experience the essence of yoga; the unity of body, mind and spirit (yug = to join or unite).
As you direct your focus inwards, the external noise (i.e. the desperation to look like the other yogis in the room) begin to melt away; instead, you develop the tools to help you reach those postures in your own time.
With patience and practice, you can unlock the power of your bandhas and their benefits that extend far beyond the mat. Who knows, you may surprise yourself one day and suddenly become that contortionist in the room…
*Please be aware to practice these with an advanced practitioner and avoid practising Udiyyana Bandha if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure
Jessie Fuller was born in Kenya to British-Chinese parents and raised multi-culturally in Croatia, India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. She has a degree in Psychology and Sociology and is currently living in London, completing her Masters in Psychoanalytic Studies at Birkbeck University. While she continues to work in the psychosocial field, she connects to her Eastern roots through her yoga teaching and practise (facebook.com/fullerflow ). Her intention is to merge her academic background in western psychology with a holistic, Eastern approach to healing and combine the best of both worlds in her writing and practice.
Check out Jessie’s classes if you’re in the area
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