Bandhas are no simple topic and aren’t something you can master overnight. But don’t let that put you off. Let’s take a look at the bandha basics and how you can start to integrate them into your practice.In yoga, bandhas are known as locks; the word in Sanskrit means to bind or tighten. There are three bandhas and a fourth that ties them all together. Bandhas are muscular contractions in the physical body that work on a much deeper level in the subtle body.
Bandhas are no simple topic and aren’t something you can master overnight. But don’t let that put you off. Let’s take a look at the bandha basics and how you can start to integrate them into your practice.
In yoga, bandhas are known as locks; the word in Sanskrit means to bind or tighten. There are three bandhas and a fourth that ties them all together. Bandhas are muscular contractions in the physical body that work on a much deeper level in the subtle body. They work to direct the flow of prana, the life force that sustains all living things, and help regulate and control our internal systems. While traditionalists say bandhas should only be practised with pranayama — breath control exercises — they can also be integrated into your asana practice and have a wide range of benefits.
To best understand the bandhas and their effects on a physical level, we need to look more deeply at the subtle body and how this all relates to the flow of energy.
Bandhas are muscular contractions in the physical body that work to direct the flow of prana ... and help regulate and control our internal systems.In our bodies, prana flows through the central energy channel, or nadi, known as the sushumna. This runs along the spinal column, starting from the perineum and ending at the base of the skull. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says Kundalini Shakti — our body’s corporeal energy — lies sleeping, coiled at the base of the spine. When awakened, the kundalini takes the same path of the sushumna as it travels up through the chakras.
Two other passages of energy, known as ida and pingala, are described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as intertwining upward along the sushumna, like a double helix, ending in the left and right nostrils respectively. Hatha yoga aims to unite and balance ida and pingala. When these streams are united, prana can freely flow through the sushumna and allow it to rise to sahasrara chakra, located at the crown of the head.
Yoga great BKS Iyengar described the bandhas as the body’s “safety values” for distributing, regulating and absorbing that precious prana and ensuring it gets carried to the right places, in particular those that have blockages. Hatha yoga practices in general strengthen and increase the free flow of energy in the body; the bandhas, Iyengar said, act as the “transformers, conductors, fuses, switches and insulated wires to carry the power to its destination”.
So, the bandhas play an important role in yoga’s overall aims of attaining a state of cosmic bliss or enlightenment. Awakening the kundalini and directing it to the sahasrara chakra allows energy to flow freely through the body, releases blockages and imbalances in the chakras and ensures the healthy functioning of the body’s systems.
The benefits of the bandhas are very diverse and, to get a better understanding of the systems at play behind the bandhas and the actions themselves, we’ll take a look at them individually.
Just remember, the bandhas are advanced and require practice and patience. We’ll be taking a general look at the bandhas, but consult your yoga teacher to really help you break down the actions involved and guide you through the practice, so you in time can master them.
The purpose of this lock or bandha is to draw energy upward, as opposed to down and out. To activate the mula bandha, sit in sukhasana or a cross-legged pose. Inhale, and on your exhale start to engage the pelvic floor, drawing it in and up towards the naval. This bandha will require practice to master as the muscles in the perineum tend to all contract at once.
The bandhas, Iyengar said, act as the “transformers, conductors, fuses, switches and insulated wires to carry the power to its destination”.To help you gain better awareness of the pelvic floor muscles, try alternately contracting the muscles to the front and the rear and then attempt to gently contract through the perineum in the centre and lift upwards. Ideally, the action should be done in isolation, without contracting the anus or genitals, but this will take practice. For now, focus on gaining awareness of the various muscles, which will eventually help you better isolate the area. Ensure you practice this bandha gently and not forcefully and continue to breathe normally throughout.
The mula bandha also works to bring the pelvis into alignment and stabilises and supports the lumbar spine in asana practice. Mula bandha can be activated in essentially all postures but is particularly beneficial in seated postures or can help you “lift up” in asanas like warrior or tree pose. Mula bandha allows you to connect with your earthed energy and foundations and draw this upward so you have greater firmness and stability. From here, we can use this energy to further move into uddiyana bandha.
As the energy from the mula bandha travels upward, this naturally helps to activate uddiyana bandha, located in the area from the lower abdomen to the top of the abdominal diaphragm. Uddiyana translates as “upward flying” and helps direct the flow of energy further up the sushumna.
This creates a feeling of lightness in the body, which makes uddiyana bandha also particularly helpful when practising inverted postures.
To practise the uddiyana bandha, stand with your feet slightly apart. Lean forward and bent the knees slightly, resting your hands above them. Take a deep inhale and, on your exhale, contract the abdominals and feel as though you are pulling the navel inward and upward to the spine. The look of this bandha is somewhat daunting. The abdominal area should be as hollow as possible and ribs will protrude outward. Hold for as long as possible. When ready, slowly release and take a deep inhale. Take some time to breathe normally here before practising again.
With all this focus on the abdominals, it’s no surprise that this bandha strengthens and massages this area and also stimulates our digestive system. It is said this bandha helps raise up the body’s rubbish so our agni, or digestive fires, can burn it up and further release blockages in the body.
Uddiyana bandha occurs naturally in postures such as downward dog and a basic supine full-body stretch. In these poses, the abdomen is already hollowed so, if you are still unsure of this bandha’s action, practise these poses. Once you’re in the final position, attempt to activate the bandha by simply relaxing and slowly contracting the abdomen, bringing the naval further toward the spine.
The third bandha is the easiest to explain and practise. Also known as the throat or chin lock, the jalandhara bandha activates the thyroid, stimulates the endocrine, circulatory and respiratory systems and is beneficial for relieving stress.
The jalandhara bandha activates the thyroid, stimulates the endocrine, circulatory and respiratory systems and is beneficial for relieving stress.To start, sit in padmasana or lotus pose and extend and lift the spine up so it is very straight. Simply contract the muscles of the neck and inhale slowly, bringing the chin towards the chest. During this, make sure you keep the length in the spine. You should also be able to feel a double chin forming when you practise this bandha correctly. To come out of this lock, inhale and slowly lift your chin back to the normal position, finishing with an exhale. By drawing the chin down to the base of the throat, this bandha locks ida and pingala and thus unties the breath and activates the sushumna nadi.
The jalandhara bandha is traditionally performed in conjunction with breathing exercises; however, the lock is also naturally activated in postures such as shoulder stand and bridge pose. In these positions, the chin tilts towards the chest, which in turn partially closes the vocal cords. So you’ll know if you’re doing this bandha and these poses correctly if your voice is muffled when you try to speak.
The great bandha
And now time to put them all together. Once the bandhas have been practised individually, you can try combining them together in the maha bandha, also known as “the great lock”. To do this, sit in lotus or a cross-legged pose, inhale deeply and then try to exhale all the breath out of your body. Continue to hold the exhale and first engage the mula bandha, followed by lifting the uddiyana. Now inhale slowly to expand your chest, while maintaining the two bandhas, and finally engage the jalandhara bandha. As you breathe in this pose, visualise the energy flowing up through the sushumna channel from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.
Activating the bandhas in asana practice
Now that you have a better idea of the bandhas and the actions behind them, we’ll take a look at how you can apply them in asana practice.
Although some schools of yoga say bandhas are only to be used in pranayama practice, integrating them into your asana practice can help you get a better idea of the actions themselves and the effects they have on your body.
Remember to seek guidance from your teacher when putting these into effect.
Downward dog (adho mukha svanasana)
Begin on all fours, with your hands shoulder distance apart and feet hip distance apart. On an inhale, lift the knees off the mat and lift the hips up. Start to bring the soles of the feet toward the mat. Relax the neck and head. Once you’ve gone as deep into this pose as possible, start to practise uddiyana bandha. Hollow the abdomen and draw the navel inward. Continue to breathe normally, while maintaining the space in the abdomen and the stretch through the back of the legs.
Shoulder stand (sarvangasana)
Inversions are a great way to activate all the bandhas but in shoulder stand we have particular focus on jalandhara bandha, which stimulates the throat. Start by lying flat on the mat with your hands beside you. Bend the knees and start to lift the hips off the floor. Use your hands to hold the back, eventually moving them as far up the back as possible. During this, start to extend the legs straight up. Let the chin touch the chest in this pose to activate the bandha. Bring your awareness to the lock and hold. When ready to release, slowly bend the knees and lower yourself down.
Tree pose (vrikasana)
The mula bandha connects with the earth and the flow of energy from the ground up, making it a great bandha to practise in tree pose. Begin by standing in mountain pose. Ground your feet to the floor. Bend the right leg and bring the sole of the foot to the inside of the upper left thigh. Bring your hands in prayer at the heart centre and, once you have your balance, extend the hands upward. Continue to root down through the feet and lift up through the mula bandha, feeling the energy rise up through the legs, abdomen and arms. This bandha keeps the energy flowing between the body and the earth, so allow this connection to give you stability and firmness in the pose so it remains energised and active.
Head-to-knee pose (janu sirsasana)
This pose will let you activate the maha mudra. Sit with the legs extended in front of you. Bend the right knee and bring the heel to perineum. This will help support the mula bandha. Square the hips and inhale, lifting the arms up. Keep the length in the arms as you slowly inhale, bringing both hands to the left foot. Once you grab hold of the foot, start to hollow the abdomen in uddiyana bandha and then tuck the chin in for jalandhar bandha. Breathe normally, maintaining all bandhas.