Along with pranayama and asana practice there are some more subtle ways to direct the prana in your body. These are Bandhas.
Bandha means to hold, tighten or lock, which describes their basic function. We can engage bandhas by contracting specific muscles to encourage energy to flow in different directions in the body.
This is useful as prana (life force energy), has a the tendency to flow like electricity, from where there is lots to where there is none. By engaging these locks, we can redirect our prana to the portions of the body, mind, or consciousness that we choose. Bandhas can also be used to store up prana in the body by blocking the flow to certain areas, forcing it to flow to and accumulate in other areas.
You will find that you naturally engage the bandhas when you need focused or directed energy. Notice the sensations in your body when kicking a ball, coughing, shouting, or trying to go to the toilet when constipated. In yoga and in martial arts we consciously engage these locks to focus our energy, and create more power.
Mula bandha – Root lock
Imagine you are on a bus, you need to urinate, and the next stop is in 1 hour. What do you do? You lift and contract the pelvic floor muscles and direct your energy up so that you do not end up sitting in an embarrassing puddle. This upward action is engaging the mula bandha (though you will also be engaging some other muscles).
Sit down, and draw and imaginary diamond shape between the two sit bones, the anus, and the genitals. Then imagine the point at the centre of this diamond (for men this is the perineum, for women the opening of the cervix). The idea is to gently lift and contract this area upwards.
To learn where the muscle is, it might be easier to start by contracting the entire pelvic floor and slowly releasing the muscles in the anus and genitals.
When practiced along with asana it helps to prevent prana flowing out of the body downwards and can help to bring lightness and energy to the practice.
Uddiyana bandha -Flying lock
Uddiyana means flying up or soaring, but is sometimes just called the abdominal lock. This is the one we use to cough, sneeze, or even to laugh (again other muscles are used in these actions). Strengthening this centre of the body will improve your balance and control over your limbs.
It is done by pulling the lower abdomen (below the navel) inwards and upwards towards the spine. Try standing with your heels, shoulders and buttocks on the wall, and try to draw your lower back towards the wall. You can also try this lying down on your back and clearing the gap between your lower back and the floor by drawing the lower abdomen in.
Giving you the coordination necessary to jump forward and backward in the vinyasas from ashtanga vinyasa yoga, as well as power in martial arts.
Uddiyana Bandha Kriya
Sometimes the kriya is confused with the bandha that is used in Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, When done as a kriya we need to exhale completely, hold the breath, expand the chest and pull the abdomen in towards the spine (like a vacuum). You can then move on to practices like nauli. The bandha is less intense and can be maintained while breathing.
Jalandhara bandha- Throat Lock
Jala means a web or trap and dhar means holding . So this is the bandha that helps us to trap and hold the prana inside (and prevent it flowing out upwards). The strong stimulus on the throat helps to balance thyroid function, but in asana practice its mostly used to try to circulate prana throughout the body.
It is done by lengthening the spine, and dropping the chin down to space directly between the clavicles (collar bones). It can be done to hold breath (with the windpipe and esophagus firmly closed) during pranayama or also during a yoga asana practice. When done with yoga asana you keep the breath flowing slowly and with control (it’s a slightly less intense version of the lock).
When all three bandhas are done together then it is called maha bandha. Maha translates to great or highest. This bandha is performed during breath retention. It concentrates the pranas internally and increases the level of energy during periods of inner awareness.
When performing maha bandha work from the top down, starting with jalandhara then uddiyana and finally mula bandha, and release in the opposite order, only inhaling when the head is fully upright and your spine is completely straight.