Yoga Practice: What are Bandhas?
“Mastery of the bandhas leads to the fullest realization of our potential.”
-Swami Buddhananda, Moola Bandha, The Master Key
Granthis are psychic knots that block our ability to see our true essential nature (as Buddha said, we have clay over the eyes which keeps us from experiencing our own innate peace). Bandhas were prescribed to yogis as an incredibly effective way to remove those granthis, allowing us to expand our consciousness and see our pure, true nature.
In basically every yoga class you take, you'll hear the teacher say something like, "Belly in!" or "Lift the lower abdominals up!" or "Engage your bandhas!" But what does that really mean, and why should we do it during practice?
Bandhas tone, massage, and stimulate the inner organs and muscles, leading to increased blood supply and removal of toxins from the body, adding quality years onto our life and deepening our yoga practice indefinitely. All bandhas increase efficiency of the systems of the body, granting us better health and wellness overall.
In regards to asana practice, those yogis you see floating effortlessly into seemingly impossible positions have begun to hone in their bandhas. By learning to engage our bandhas on our mat, we prevent injuries by taking pressure off the joints and keeping the body aware and aligned.
Traditionally, bandhas were only introduced to students who showed tremendous dedication, willfulness, and understanding of the yoga practice. They are considered one of the most highly respected practices within yoga.
Bandha, defined simply, means “to lock.” Another common definition is “to bridge.” The bandhas are associated with energy centers in the spine and brain. We lock our physical bandhas (explained below) to unlock our subtle pranic energy centers, shifting our awareness, mood, and literal physicality. It’s said that the practice of engaging the bandhas awakens the dormant kundalini (wise and powerful sacred energy within all of us), which then enters into the shushumna nadi (central energy channel along the spine) and enlightenment takes place.
By locking our bandhas, we bridge the gap between the physical, mental, and pranic planes, heightening our awareness and connection to our physical, mental, and pranic bodies. This in turn gives us more control over every area of our life.
There are three main bandhas we focus on in asana practice:
Moola bandha when physically practiced is the contraction of the perineum. It’s the action of lifting in and up through the entire pelvic floor. This tones and strengthens all the muscles of the pelvic floor, healing common issues such as urinary incontinence. Perineal contraction also enforces parasympathetic activities in the body, activating and increasing the "rest and digest" response of our nervous system (known as the parasympathetic nervous system). Some of the benefits of increasing our parasympathetic nervous system response is lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a sense of ease and peace within us, and an increased ability to recover and heal our bodies.
Uddiyana bandha is the practice of contracting the lower abdominals. Compressing the internal organs like this tones the sympathetic nervous system, which is our fight or flight response. Most of us are constantly living our lives in some low key form of this stressed out state, maybe without even realizing it. By practicing uddiyana bandha, we give ourselves the opportunity to hone in on the sympathetic nervous system, giving us the ability to better control our fight or flight responses. This ultimately helps us to stay calm and collected in all situations, turning off our stress response to situations and lowering our stress levels altogether.
Jalandhara bandha engages the hyoid muscles, which compresses the throat and stimulates the thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus glands, as well as the parasympathetic spinal area. By stimulating these glands, the endocrine system awakens, hormones and blood calcium levels are regulated, the immune system strengthens, and the functions of the heart, bones, kidneys and nervous system are normalized. You can practice this bandha by bringing the chin to touch the chest, lengthening the back of the neck. This is an extreme version of the bandha; simply by lengthening the back of the neck you are engaging jalandhara as well. Another way to engage this bandha is breathing ujjayi pranayama (slightly contracting the throat muscles to breathe with sound).
Maha bandha (the great lock) is when all these above mentioned bandhas are simultaneously engaged.
"All three bandhas are connected physically in the body. They follow the central line and pass through the heart and the lungs, connecting near the brain. All the muscles in this line tend to overreact during the fight for flight response. Learning to control all of these structures gives us a back door pass into the system that is otherwise ran automatically, and we take control of the machine." -- Sean Shelton
On a subtler level, when maha bandha is executed, prana is compressed and locked in the central energy channel, revitalizing the body and deepening consciousness, allotting us the power to heal our body, mind, and spirit. When bandhas are then let go, all that healing pranic energy floods into those areas, like the un-damming of a river, giving the physical, mental, and pranic bodies fresh energy, life, and awareness.
So when you practice your asana on the mat, or even when you’re walking down the street or driving in your car, practice engaging the bandhas. Whenever you think about it, engage the pelvic floor, pull the lower abdominals in and up, and breathe with sound while subtly lengthening the back of the neck. But perhaps most importantly, whenever you're in a stressful situation, go back to your breath and bandhas as a way to hack the brain and nervous system to remain calm, centered, and in a state of clear thinking. It really does work.
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