Updated: Oct 11, 2020
A student of mine came up to me after a class and asked me this question: “Why don’t you teach the bandhas in your class?”. She was comparing me to other teachers she’s had who always say, “Engage your Mula Bandha” or “Lift your Uddiyana Bandha”, obviously expecting to hear these two terms from me as well.
I just smiled at her and said that while she may not hear me say it, we do it in class. Every time. In fact, we engage much more than the Mula and Uddiyana bandhas. Every time.
Let me take you through it; but first, let’s examine the misnomer of the “lock”. The Sanskrit bandha is popularly translated (in our yoga community) as lock, which, when we relate it to the body when doing asana, tends to bring our joints into hyper-extension. So, the problem of the extensive use of the Sanskrit terms and this particular translation without proper explanation or guidance is a proliferation of hyper-extended joints. The further problem: present and potential joint pain and instability.
It is interesting that we translate bandha to lock. Language translations, especially from a dead language, can be problematic. So, I looked at two Sanskrit dictionaries (http://spokensanskrit.de & http://sanskritdictionary.com ) and the most common translations of bandha are tying, combining, binding, forming, chain, fetter; which I think are more apt descriptions for the muscular action and joint stability we want to achieve.
When we engage a bandha, what we are really doing is activating or isometrically contracting (squeezing or engaging without shortening or lengthening) the muscles around the joint or joint complex to stabilise but not immobilise (as what a lock does). Isometric activation starts introducing heat and prepares the muscles for movement, strengthening and lengthening.
Let’s have a run-through the bandhas with my favourite cues:
Jalandara Bandha activation of the muscles around cervical (neck) spine. There’s a slight retraction (moving back) of the skull to isolate the neck muscles.
Amsa Bandha activation of the shoulder joint complex. Lengthen out the collar bones, squeeze the armpits and bring the shoulder blades together.
Hasta and Kati Bandha activation of the elbow and wrist/hand joint complex. Along with the Amsa Bandha activation, spread and lengthen the fingers and have a pushing sensation in the circles of the hands as if pressing into something invisible.
Uddiyana Bandha activation of the deep muscles along the spine. I discussed what “the core” is in a previous blog post, but just to refresh briefly; the activation of the Uddiyana Bandha isn’t just the contraction of the surface abdominal muscles or the “six packs”. Have a hugging-in and lifting sensation all around the torso.
Mula Bandha activation of the perineum. In plain speak, have a hugging and lifting sensation in the space between the toilet muscles.
Janu Bandha activation of the thigh and leg muscles to stabilise the knee joint. Don’t bring your knees into hyper-extension as what often happens when we “lock” the knees. Maintain a micro bend in the knees and bring your awareness to the muscular activation instead.
Pada and Kulpha Bandha activation of the ankle and foot joint complex. Along with the Janu Bandha activation, lift the soles by pressing in the triangles of the feet. This can also be accessed by spreading and squeezing the toes into the mat.
When these bandhas are activated, they form what we call the Maha Bandha or Great Lock. Popularly, the Maha Bandha consists of the three main bandhas, the Mula, Uddiyana and Jalandara. But hey, why can’t the others join the party too, yes?
The key things to remember are:
It shouldn’t feel forced. Activating a bandha, any of them, should feel like you’re just hugging the muscles in (hence my favorited “hug and lift” cue) and not an over-tight squeezing which can put strain on the muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joint.
There shouldn’t be any pain. Pain is an indication that there is injury present. You should release the muscles and assess the extent of the damage.
It takes time. Don’t rush into it. Don’t get frustrated and start judging yourself if you forget to do it during class or just don’t understand it. It takes time to get to know and longer to master. But when you do, you’ll find yourself engaging your bandhas when you’re at your computer, in the kitchen chopping veggies, standing in a queue or even when you’re just seating down and watching telly.
But going back to using the bandhas in a yoga class:
Don’t overly squeeze. Squeezing too much can result in cramps and other pains. A general awareness of a hugging and lifting sensation is enough.
Neutralise by deactivating. It’s ok, advisable in fact, to neutralise the muscles and joints by releasing and softening regularly.
Use transitions as a reminder to neutralise. Release the activation of the bandhas during transitions so the muscles are relaxed and the joints have space to move. Re-engage when you’ve reached your optimal pose.
So, the next time you hear “bandha”, just hug and lift. When you here “lock” your knees (or whatever joint it is), just hug and lift. Conversely, when you hear “hug and lift” in my class, that’s me inviting you to activate your bandhas.