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:
Mūla bandha, located at the pelvic floor
Uḍḍīyana bandha, located at the solar plexus and diaphragm area
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.
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?
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.
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.