My student Mary came to me nearly in tears one day after class. She’d been working for years to get into a headstand, yet continually watched newer students lift up with ease before her. She asked, “What am I doing wrong?”
Since Mary had come into my yoga classes only the week before, I asked her if she was using her bandhas to help her attain headstand. “What’s a bandha?” she asked, looking puzzled.
This reaction is quite common among yogis today. And without a proper knowledge of how powerful the bandhas — classical muscular “locks” at the pelvic floor, abdominals, and throat — can be in your practice, you’re missing out on a whole new world.
Usually used in pranayama, the vision of a super sucked-in tummy or triple chin at the throat can be confusing. After all, we can’t use such massive movements in an active asana practice. It could cause constriction of oxygen and blood flow. That’s OK for short periods while sitting, but not while getting a heart-pumping workout.
Many teachers don’t focus on these three areas, and it’s a real shame. Adding the bandhas to your poses can instantly create the power you need to go that extra few inches and rock those pesky arm-balances and inversions. They help contain your prana (energy) and help spark your central nervous system into action.
If you need proof, simply sit, drop out your pelvic floor and relax your belly so you can’t sit up straight. Now try to breathe. I call this posture “yuckasana.” Notice the difference when you engage your pelvic floor and draw in your abdomen. You should become instantly more alert and taller. Now breathe through your nose. Voila! Freedom. The bandhas support the spine for greater range of motion and safety, and they are the root of your most expansive breathing.
After one bandha session, Mary showed immediate improvement. She was self-generating her full headstand within a month.
During the asana portion of class, I prefer to call the bandhas “lifts,” as the word “lock” can cause students to grip too firmly. If you learn to apply them during your active classes, you too will speed light years ahead in your yoga practice.
The 3 bandhas (and how to activate them in order)
To activate your bandhas, use about 25 percent of your maximum effort, just enough to keep your spine and head in optimal mountain pose alignment. Release the bandhas completely once you come into savasana, final resting pose.
Mula Bandha: The Root Lift/Pelvic Floor
Active muscles: levator ani, coccygeus, pyramidalis (wraps into lower belly)
How to: Gently engage and lift your pelvic floor muscles (the ones in a diamond from the pubic bone in front, the tailbone in back, and the sitting bones on either side) as if you have to go to the loo, but there’s no loo to be found.
Prevents: energy drainage, weak PC muscles, incontinence, reproductive organs dropping
Uddiyana Bandha: Upward Abdominal LiftActive muscles: transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis
How to: Draw your navel in and up as if to touch the underside of your heart. At the same time, draw the points of your lower front ribcage slightly closer together. Lift from the inner body.
Prevents: lower back stress, weak abdominals, loss of breathing capacity, lower ribs jutting forward and straining mid back/spine
Jalandhara Bandha: Throat Lift
How to: Draw your soft palate back and up until the crown of your head sits in line with your pelvic floor.
Prevents: dropping the head back in backbends and compressing the back neck spine, jutting jaw forward and straining upper back/cervical spine, loss of blood flow to head
Now, add the bandhas into all your poses, reap the benefits — and enjoy!