Bandha Basics: The Three "Bonds" of Yogic Practice

When I was a beginning yoga student in the tradition of Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga, my teacher often reminded us to “use mūla bandha” or “engage the root lock.” The benefits of doing so, she explained, range from lightness in arm balances to ease during childbirth to eternal youth. Wow, that’s some real yoga magic, I thought. I earnestly wanted to experience this mystical bandha thing, whatever that was, but my teacher’s instruction on how to do it was a series of baffling cues.

“Squeeze your anal sphincter and hold it.”

“Pretend you’re trying to stop yourself from peeing.”

And of course, “Lift your pelvic floor,” which sounds simple and impossible all at once. (My early attempts to do this very thing made me furrow my eyebrows so intensely I wondered if my mūla area was somehow connected to my forehead.)

If you’ve ever been confounded by these phrases in yoga class, you’re in good company. As yoga continues its explosive growth — with more than 300 million practitioners estimated worldwide — the challenge of illuminating yogic concepts for a broad, 21st-century audience has never been greater.

How can we modern yogīs explore esoteric concepts like bandha in practical terms? Do I really have to squeeze my you-know-what? What does my pelvic floor have to do with eternal youth? 

Relax your sphincters (for now), and let’s just start with the basics.

What is a bandha?

Bandha is a Sanskrit word that can mean bondage, seal, stop, or capture, as well as binding or putting together. In yoga classes, teachers often use the translation “lock,” as in the phrase “root lock” or “chin lock.”

There are three major bandha in the human body: 

  1. Mūla bandha, located at the pelvic floor

  2. Uḍḍīyana bandha, located at the solar plexus and diaphragm area

  3. Jālandhara bandha, located at the throat

Mūla means root and connotes foundation, stability and fundamentality. This word also appears in the name of the root chakra, mūlādhāra.

Uḍḍīyana comes from the root uḍ, meaning up or upward. Uḍḍīyana bandha is sometimes translated as “upward flying seal.”

Jālandhara is comprised of two terms, jāla, which means web or net, and dhara, which means holding or containing. Jālandhara bandha is sometimes called “the catcher’s mitt” in reference to how this technique directs the life force energy, or prāṇa.

How do I practice these bandha?

Yoga practice is designed to support wellbeing by directing the flow of energy throughout the body. Instead of releasing and relaxing, however, bandha practice emphasizes energy containment and activation.

Mūla bandha

The lowest of the three major bandha, mūla bandha comprises the very base of the abdominal balloon, the pelvic floor. The pelvic floor plays a crucial role in supporting the organs and stabilizing both posture and movement.

Activating mūla bandha restricts the downward flow of energy, which helps prāṇa circulate back upward.

 To find mūla bandha, try this… 

Envision a layered criss-crossing of slings that amount to a diamond-shaped hammock, anchored to your pubic bone, tailbone, and both sitting bones. Pour your attention here, into your pelvic floor. 

Exhale as smoothly as you can, while focusing on emptying yourself completely. Can you detect a subtle lifting sensation here? If yes, you’ve found it. 

If no, try the cues my long-ago Ashtanga teacher gave me. Squeeze your anal sphincter, and imagine you’re stopping the flow of urine as well. These are way-exaggerated actions, but they serve a good purpose: to bring awareness to a body area that you might not have consciously engaged before.

Once you’re oriented to this mūla area in your own body, experiment with intensity. How gently can you contract these muscles without losing your awareness here? Can you activate this area strongly? How completely can you relax here?

Uḍḍīyana bandha

The “upward flying seal” of uḍḍīyana bandha is located at the diaphragm and represents the top of the abdominal balloon as well as the bottom of the chest cavity. The top of the diaphragm connects to the pericardium (the membrane around the heart) and contacts the lungs.

When practiced in conjunction with mūla bandha, uḍḍīyana bandha encourages prāṇa further upward and is used to generate heat. Engaging this bandha at the end of the exhale lifts and massages the internal organs.

To find uḍḍīyana bandha, try this…

Note: With any uḍḍīyana bandha practice, including this exploration, your stomach should be empty and you should not be menstruating.

Visualize (or briefly touch) all the way around your rib basket at your lowest ribs. Imagine a dome that’s anchored to this circle. Sense your heart riding on the top of this dome, gently moving downward on your inhale and upward on your exhale.

At the end of an exhale, again focus on emptying yourself completely. Feel your pelvic floor lift slightly with mūla bandha. Continue exhaling as you envision expanding through your rib basket, raising the dome of your diaphragm. Your belly may suck inward of its own accord, but don’t force it.

Release gently and let the breath flow as normal.

Jālandhara bandha

The uppermost of the three major bandha, jālandhara bandha is the “catcher’s mitt” that contains prāṇa at the top of the chest. This bandha is almost never engaged during yogāsana (physical poses), with the exceptions of Setu Bandha Sarvāngāsana (Bridge Pose) and Sālamba Sarvāngāsana (Supported Shoulderstand).

Using jālandhara bandha restricts the upward flow of energy (and can temporarily prevent air flow), encouraging prāṇa to circulate back downward. 

To find jālandhara bandha, try this…

Note: With any jālandhara bandha practice, including this exploration, stop immediately at any sense of lightheadedness.

Envision your throat as the bendy portion of a bendable drinking straw. From a seated position, lengthen the back of your neck such that your chin lowers toward the very top of your chest — bend the bendy straw.

On a big inhale, lift your chest until your breastbone meets your chin, or comes close. As you do this, avoid jutting your front ribs forward, instead sensing an even expansion all around. Feel the gentle restriction in your throat in this position. Maintain this soft hold through exhale, and hold your breath out for a few seconds.

Release jālandhara bandha smoothly, and return to your normal breath.

When should I use bandha? What’s their “traditional” usage?

Modern yoga has popularized the use of bandha in physical practice, with Pattabhi Jois and his disciples at the forefront of this development. However, this usage of bandha isn’t quite as “traditional” to yoga history as one might assume.

The concept of bandha as a physical practice is mentioned in two classical yoga texts, the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā and the Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā. These texts suggest that the three major bandha are for use during prāṇāyama, or breathwork, and not for constant engagement in yogāsana practice.

Interestingly, a more widely-read text, the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, contains the word bandha only once, and this solitary mention refers to the binding of consciousness via concentration, and not to any body-centered technique.

So… To bandha, or not to bandha?

The question remains: Will bandha practice ultimately deliver on my first yoga teacher’s lofty promises? 

To be completely honest, well, maybe.

Each of the three bandha are located at a confluence point in the body, a place where energies intersect, where muscle and fascia connect in trampolines against gravity. Cultivating awareness in these areas builds strength and coordination in the physical body, and it deepens the inner work of svādhyāya, or self-study, which develops emotional resilience.

You might not be after effortless arm balances, easy childbirth or eternal youth per se. No matter. Bandha practice yields these other meaningful benefits along the way.

Now, that is some real yoga magic.

This article appears in edited form in Yoga Hawaii Magazine, 2019 issue.


Travel Like a Yogī, Part 3: IN-FLIGHT FAVES

Welcome to part three of my “Travel Like a Yogī” article series. In part one of this series, I revealed my five essential tips for flying in comfort. In part two, I shared how I pack, including a specific folding method that maximizes space and visibility. In this part three, I’m spotlighting my top seven products for DIY in-flight luxury.

I love the feeling of first class travel, without the hefty price tag. With this collection of seven items, curated and tested over thousands of hours of travel, I’ve got luxury in the bag.

Favorite product #1: Vogmask face mask

My Vogmask is the most game-changing product in my carry-on bag. This little guy was $30 and worth every penny. I wear a size large, although I’m a small human—most adults wear a large, the medium size is for children.

The mask helps keep allergens and pollutants out, but it has the bonus of keeping my own moisture from my breath in. This is a huge win for staying hydrated in dry airplane cabins. And if I have to be in polluted air for an extended period of time, the Vogmask is designed for exactly that.

Breathing with the valve mask properly aligned did take a little bit of getting used to—it is after all filtering the air coming in, so there’s a noticeable restriction of airflow. At first, I had to tell myself not to get annoyed that there was something totally covering my nose and mouth. But I got used to it quickly, so I don’t see this as a huge downside. However, if you suffer from respiratory difficulty, do give yourself a few short-duration practice wears before you decide to have it on for a long period of time.

Favorite product #2: Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones, over-ear, Bluetooth capable (QC35 II)

The technology of the Bose noise-cancelling headphones is well documented on their site and there are glowing reviews aplenty all over the Internet, so I’ll just skip to the effects of having them on me personally.

The moment I put these on I feel a dramatic reduction in sound-based stressors. What does that mean? Because I’m a meditative singing teacher (plus actor and singer), my sonic environment and my hearing are very important to me. I need to avoid sound fatigue in order to fulfill my service to the world. This isn’t just for musicians and sound professionals, however. Coping with environmental noise stressors can be fatiguing and damaging to your ability to focus.

Conversely, when I have a peaceful sound-space I experience less stress, my nervous system is less keyed up, I can pay attention more easily, and my energy can be pointed at the things that deserve my focus. 

Here are a couple more detailed notes on this product, which you can skip if you’re not interested in these headphones:

In the latest version of the Bose Quiet Comfort noise cancelling headphones, there are three levels of cancellation—high, low and off—so you can pick whether to cancel out most of the ambient noise, to keep the level of noise cancelling lower to be more aware of the sounds around you, or to have no noise cancelling at all. This is a nice feature, especially when I’m working in a café and I don’t want to be rude to the people around me that might talk to me, but I really don’t want to hear the blender and air conditioner.

There is a very slight “air cabin pressure” feeling in my ears when I turn the noise-cancelling function on. It’s just a bit weird at first; however, I find this an easy exchange for quieting the loud airplane drone, especially when I’m trapped with that drone for 10 hours or more. These headphones plus my Vogmask are my must-haves for experiencing zero jet lag.

Favorite product #3: lululemon vinyasa scarf

I love this thing. “You can wear it so many ways,” the lululemon educator told me, but when I first saw this scarf in the store I thought it was too fussy. I wasn’t interested in turning my scarf into a hoodie and a vest and a toboggan or whatever. I ended up buying it because I wanted a scarf and it’s a nice one, and I ignored the ‘how to style’ instructions attached to its tag.

I was wearing my scarf on a flight not long after, double-loop style, read: the laziest way to wear it. I got cold. I pulled one loop of the scarf over my head. Lo, I made a hoodie.

That was enough for me. I’ve since learned how to make my vinyasa scarf into a vest, a cravat, a shirt, a turban and several other variations. It comes with me on every flight. It isn’t fussy, as it turns out—it’s versatile.

Favorite product #4: Quay blue light filtering glasses

I’ve heard great things about these glasses combating the effects of prolonged screen time, including eye strain, headaches and fatigue. However, I did not suffer from any of these symptoms. I simply decided to try these glasses because I had a coupon.

(Drop a comment if you’ve ever done that. And tell me what you bought. Shoot, drop a comment if you’ve NEVER done that. Otherwise I’m not sure I believe that people like you exist.)

I noticed that after using these glasses for a week I felt much more energetic after my usual amounts of laptop work. My sleep quality improved noticeably, and the only thing I was doing different was using these filtering glasses. Although I didn’t think I had eyestrain, I was clearly experiencing something adverse from spending hours each day staring at my laptop and phone screens.

These glasses are in the $50–65 range, they’re really well-made, and—bonus points—they come in a bunch of different styles that all look really cute. I raise both hands for life hacks that also are cute hacks.

Favorite product #5: Aloha collection pouches 

These little guys are packing efficiency wonders. They factor heavily into my overall packing strategy, so I have an entire article in this series (Travel Like a Yogī, Part 2) dedicated to that. I’ll let you read about these pouches in that post. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of them, I use all of them, they seem a little spendy but they’re totally worth it.

Favorite product #6: Hydroflask food flask / Zojirushi insulated bottle

I wrote about why I love my Zojirushi insulated bottle in the “What’s In My Bag” article here on skkYOGA. It’s the perfect size and shape for hot or cold beverages of all kinds, and I can lock and unlock the ‘open’ button with just one hand.

For hot food, I use my Hydroflask food flask. I put freshly-cooked porridge in this flask and it stays piping hot for hours. It takes two hands to open, so it’s not convenient for use while I’m teaching, but it’s great for all other occasions. The screw-top mouth is nearly the diameter of the flask itself, so I can stick a fork, spoon or chopsticks into the wide opening, no problem. The wide mouth also makes it easy to thoroughly wash up.

Favorite product #7: USB-powered mini-humidifier by Deneve

My little Deneve gives me moist air whenever, wherever I want. This is a huge boon whether I’m stuck in a desiccating airplane cabin for a few hours or living in a dry climate for a few weeks. Every time I’ve traveled without it, I wished I’d had it.

It’s super easy to use: all I have to do is stick this tiny guy in a cup with water and plug it into the nearest USB outlet. On long-haul flights I plug it directly into the USB at my seat. I take off my Vogmask and stick my face right over the mist output and breathe deep—this keeps my skin and breathing holes hydrated, which mitigates the effects of jet lag. To maximize the moisture I’m breathing, I make a little tent over my head with my lululemon vinyasa scarf, worn hoodie style.

The humidifier comes in a little kit with a couple of spongy, straw-like refills, so you can reserve one for water and use the other one for essential oils. Important note: I never use essential oils on airplanes, and I always check with the person I’m sitting next to before I use the humidifier at all. The last thing I want is for the person I’m sitting next to for 10+ hours to feel uncomfortable, even when it’s pretty obvious that the only thing it’s misting is the water in the cup.

These seven must-haves for in-flight luxury also amount to a large part of my no-jet-lag master plan. All seven of these products fit easily together in my purse, which makes them even more travel-friendly.

Travel time can be a stressful gauntlet or a luxury adventure, depending greatly on how you’re prepared. I’d love to know which of these seven items you like best, which you’ve already used or which you’re excited to try.

As always, I wish you good travel wherever you wander.

How to Get Your Friend to Try Yoga

or, Why ‘I’m Too Inflexible’ Is Kinda Legit

When I hear someone say “I’m too inflexible to do yoga,” I take it that on some level, they are experiencing fear. Fear is not a bad thing, as long as you recognize it for what it is and treat it with compassion.

Fear is wonderful for keeping us alive and safe. Fear is why I didn’t shortcut down that dark alley in Chicago. Fear is why I didn’t hike ‘Olomana on that windy day. Fear has saved my life over and over; however, fear can be a little trigger-happy in its enthusiasm to protect me. It’s like a well-meaning guard dog, but it’s scaring off some good stuff. Like yoga.

If you’ve never experienced a yoga class before… ahem, I mean, your friend… there’s a lot to be afraid of. What if you don’t know what to do? What if you hurt yourself? What if you can’t understand what the teacher is asking? What if you can’t keep up? What if you look or move differently from everyone else? What if you fall down? What if you have to leave? The “what ifs” pile up and you might decide at that point to quit before you even start. That’s fear, barking like a nervous and very loyal dog, trying like hell to keep you in your comfort zone where no bad happens — and no change, either. Woof woof woof.

When you attend a yoga class, you’re asking your body and mind to enter a space that you’ve never visited to do an activity that you’ve never done. The unknown is scary. Change is scary. The thought that we might not be up to the task is very, very scary. Woof.

Consider the possibility that what you think of as physical inflexibility is actually mental inflexibility. There is no rule book that says you must touch your toes to practice yoga; however, you may have decided for yourself that that’s a necessary qualification. I encourage all would-be yogīs to stretch their mindsets, firstly, to imagine that yes, you can practice yoga and be just the way you are right now.

You might hear someone say in protest, “If I did yoga, I’d probably hurt myself.” When I hear statements like this, I understand that the underlying concern is physical safety. To those individuals, I offer this reassurance:

Your yoga teacher is dedicated to helping you feel good in your body. The chance to help people is why we got into this yoga teaching thing in the first place. (It’s definitely not for the money and prestige.) We want you to feel safe, strong and spacious. If you show up in class, we will do everything we know how to do to support you. If you tell us your limitations, we will work with them. If you share your fears, we will ease them. Different teachers have different approaches and personalities, but I promise that we all want the best for you. 

I’ve heard a different response to the “I’m too inflexible to do yoga” statement, and it goes like this: saying you’re too inflexible to do yoga is like saying you’re too dirty to take a shower. 

This answer is funny, but it doesn’t work for me. If you’ve never taken a shower before in your life, okay, maybe this answer fits. If a shower has ever left you feeling sore, or made you question your ability to live successfully in your body, sure. Otherwise, I find this response avoids addressing the person’s concerns and makes a joke instead, and with that I disagree.

One of the greatest lessons of the beginning yogī is the fraught journey to your first yoga class. You might feel mountains of doubt, anxiety, inadequacy and confusion, and that’s before even rolling out your yoga mat. I find the best way to ease these feelings is to connect to the deep values underneath. For example, a strong value for integrity might rise up as self-doubt. Your core values of clarity and security might activate your anxiety. 

Allowing yourself to recognize and honor these values is a compassionate way to work with uncomfortable feelings. When you give yourself the space to hear the beauty in these underlying values, you let your fear know that you’ve heard its warning and determined it’s okay to proceed. A shift occurs, a softening, an opening to new things.

Yoga practice is a safe way to look your fear in the face and say, “I see you. I honor you. I thank you. But I’m doing this for good reasons, and it’s not going to kill me.” In yoga class, with love and consistency, you send a clear message with each new movement and every breath, “You can bark all you like, I’m listening to a deeper voice.”

Seeing things from a different perspective can feel like a stretch. When you practice yogāsana, this stretch is literal. Taking a new position is not comfortable nor easy, but the understanding you gain from the effort is worth it. As you learn to approach your own edges, you get to know yourself in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. You may realize that a certain pose is not for you, at least not right now. When you experience first-hand the struggle of a new pose or a new angle, you naturally gain empathy for the struggles of others. 

I love this quote from Judith Hanson Lasater, “Yoga is not about touching your toes. It is about what you learn on the way down.” I’ve offered this very quote to my own friends who are hesitant to try their first yoga class.

And finally, here are a few words you can share from my heart to your friend’s, or even yours:

You will live in your body for your whole life. I imagine you might enjoy it more if you explore it more, fear and flexibility and all. Yoga class is a great way to do that.