The bandhas are energetic locks in the body. In Sanskrit, “bandha” means to ‘hold,’ ‘tighten’ or ‘lock.’ It is a physical action that affects our pranic body (or life force). You’ll hear this magical Sanskrit term mentioned in yoga classes all the time, so it’s important to know the meaning and understand how to do it.
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Where Do Bandhas Come From?
Traditionally in India, bandhas were part of mudras, and in ancient texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the two are almost indistinguishable.
Bandhas and mudras are like old friends, but you will find that bandhas are more incorporated into mudras and pranayama techniques.
The three main bandhas are mula bandha (the root lock), uddiyana bandha (the abdominal lock), and jalandhara bandha (the chin lock). Maha bandha (or “master lock”) is a combination of all three major bandhas. The minor bandhas are pada bandha (the foot lock), hasta bandha (the hand lock).
The purpose of using bandhas in your yoga practice is to redirect the flow of your prana, through locking different parts of your body.
As a beginner this practice may seem difficult if you hear your yoga instructor telling you to “lock your pelvic floor and hold your breath as you squeeze your Muladhara chakra,” but practicing them individually will help you strengthen and understand these new techniques.
After, moola bandha can be incorporated into your practice with breathing to awaken your kundalini energy in your spine.
What Is The Purpose Of The Bandhas?
There are LOTS of uses and applications of bandhas that make these locks key to unlocking the potential of your practice.
Physically, some bandhas, translated as “locks” or “seals, can support our physical yoga (asana) practice. Those in the hands and feet support our postures by creating muscular actions that make us stronger, more stable, and protect us from injury.
These locks, along with root lock and abdominal lock, can bring lightness to more complex poses and transitions—like those yogis that seem to effortlessly float forward from downward facing dog in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga? They’re using the bandhas to harness and direct that physical action! Root lock and abdominal lock can also improve our digestive functioning by toning the internal organs.
Energetically, the bandhas guide the flow of Prana, or life force energy, in our bodies, much like mudras. Organizing and channeling our five Pranas strengthens our energy body (pranamaya kosha) to improve our well-being.
When used properly (and how it’s intended), it can awaken Kundalini energy and direct it into the central channel (Sushumna nadi) where it has the potential to elevate our consciousness from fear and craving to self-awareness and connection. It can also help to clear our chakras of energy blockages or psychological knots (granthis and samskaras) to help us achieve optimal health and reach our potential. Mentally, utilizing bandhas focuses the mind to prepare us for meditation.
So yeah, bandhas are a big deal in yoga.
The Five Prana Vayus
When we are ‘moving energy’ in our bodies, we are moving them in a certain direction or pattern. It doesn’t just dissipate in a chaotic mess, like when you accidentally tip over your juice.
Instead, prana energy moves in a beautifully concerted way and in yoga they say that it moves through the five pranas (energies) along the vayus.
Our energy body is comprised of five pranas or vayus (winds). Each one is associated with different body-mind functions and types of energy movement.
- Prana vayu is associated with upward movement, the acquisition of energy, and the physical areas of the chest and throat.
- Apana vayu relates to downward movement, the elimination of energy, and the lower abdomen and pelvic floor.
- Samana vayu deals with inward movement, the absorption of energy, and is physically connected with the navel area.
- Vyana vayu has an expanding motion and is associated with the distribution of energy and the circulatory and nervous systems.
- Udana vayu relates to upward movement, personal growth, higher states of consciousness, and the area between the heart and head.
How Many Bandhas Are There?
There are six bandhas of the Hatha yoga tradition. The three major bandhas lie along the spine or central axis of the body (Mula, Uddiyana, Jalandhara) and Maha Bandha is the combination of these three. There is also one minor bandha in the hands (Hasta) and one in the feet (Pada).
How Do You Engage Bandhas?
Each bandha involves a physical and energetic movement. Physically, we engage our muscles in a specific direction while tracking that direction of movement mentally, which allows us to activate and feel the energetic movement with time. At first, we overemphasize the physical actions and eventually we engage the bandhas less with our musculature and more with our mental and energetic bodies. It sounds crazy, but it’s true … just give it time!
Pada Bandha is associated with the root chakra (Muladhara), prana vayu, and apana vayu. Pada Bandha creates stability and strength through our legs and feet to improve our balance and helps us access Mula Bandha to create lightness in our standing yoga postures. Pada Bandha is typically used in standing yoga poses, especially standing balances, but we can also use it to integrate our legs with our core during arm balances to make them lighter and more stable … cool, huh!
How to do it: Stand in mountain pose with your feet two fist-widths apart. Lift and spread your toes to lift of the arches of your feet and switch on the muscles of your lower legs. Ground from your pelvis down through your legs into the four corners of your feet (the two balls of the feet and the inner and outer edges of the heels). Maintain the grounding of the four corners of your feet and the lifting of your arches as you softly release your toes to the mat.
Precautions: Move slowly with awareness if you have foot, toe, or ankle injuries.
2. Hasta Bandha (Hand Lock)
Hasta Bandha is connected with the heart chakra (Anahata), prana vayu, and apana vayu. It creates stability from our hands through our trunk when our hands are grounded. It can be activated in any yoga pose with the hands on the earth and will really take your arm balances to a new level as it strengthens your hands, protects your wrists, and improves your balance.
How to do it: In tabletop pose, bring your hands under your shoulders and spread your fingers. Then press your fingertips into the mat and gently draw them towards your palm until your second knuckles lift slightly. Next, press into the base of your fingers as though you are trying to lift your wrist creases off the mat until your forearm muscles join the party. Maintain those actions and seal the outer edges of the palm to the ground to create an upward-lifting action in the center of your palm.
Precautions: Proceed with care if you have hand or wrist conditions (Hasta Bandha can help alleviate discomfort in the hands and wrists during asana with practice).
3. Mula Bandha (Root Lock)
The moola bandha (or mula bandha) is connected to the Muladhara chakra and is connected to survival instinct, creativity, and desires. It is close to the pelvis and works with subtle energies that strengthen the pelvic floor and can lead to a kundalini awakening. This bandha helps with depression and health. You can also use it to sublimate your sexual energy and activate your kundalini.
How to do it: To do it you must sit in a comfortable meditative posture, and focus on the muscles of your perineal region. Then, you contract by engaging the muscles of your pelvic floor then relaxing. You do this as many times as you can while focusing on the physical movement.
4. Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock)
You might have seen this bandha in weird yoga propaganda with a skinny old man sucking in so far that you can see his ribcage. As it turns out, there’s a lot of benefit to doing that! The benefits of this bandha is that it strengthens your internal organs and stimulates your digestive system by drawing blood flow from your abdominal cavity to the back of your chest and your heart.
How to do it: To practice this bandha, you have to stand up tall with your feet apart. You inhale deeply through the nostrils, the bend forward at the waist and exhale all of the air from your mouth. As you empty your lungs, you will feel your belly button get sucked in and engage the organs while lifting in your stomach.
Place your hands on your knees with straight arms, and create an inhalation without actually breathing in any air. Once you finish holding, you can release and slowly exhale to release the lock and in half through the nose. Stand up slowly and be gentle with yourself! You may feel dizzy, especially if you hold your breath for long periods of time.
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The Jalandhara bandha is also known as the “throat lock” because involves bending your head forward so your chin presses into your neck. Understandably, it’s associated with Vishuddhi Chakra, or Throat Chakra. In kriya practice, this lock is often used with pranayama. It helps you to concentrate and to relax your mind while sitting, bringing your attention to the breath.
The benefits of this bandha is that it allows your mind to relax, and relieves stress, anxiety and anger. In a way, lowering your head humbles you and allows you to tune into your inner senses. It also balances the thyroid and regulates your metabolism.
How to do it: Sit in a meditative position and place your hands on your knees. Slowly inhale and hold your breath. Slowly move your chin toward your chest as you contract your throat muscles. Straighten your arms and gently push your hands into your knees. Hold this position for as long as is comfortable. To release, slowly let out your breath and lift your chin.
6. Maha Bandha (The Great Lock)
The last bandha is a combination of all three, and is known as the ‘Great Lock.’ To perform it correctly you engage the Jalandhar bandha, uddiyana bandha, and then mooladhara bandha. You hold your breath for as long as it is comfortable for you. Then to release you let go of the moola, uddiyana, and jalandhara bandhas in this order. The Maha bandha gives benefits to all the chakras and rejuvenates the cells of the body. You can use this bandha to awaken the prana in your body.
How to do it: Inhale slowly and lift your head up, with your ‘Drishti’ or gaze focused inward and your eyes closed.
You can practice these bandhas individually as many times as it takes to really do them properly. Know that they are working on subtle energy levels as well as physical ones and can have a great positive impact on your mind and body as you advance your yoga practice.
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