For many beginner yogis, the important thing in a yoga class will probably to follow the teacher’s cues and to survive the class if it’s one of the tougher styles of yoga.
As you progress in your yoga journey, you’ll start to learn about proper alignment, yoga breathing or synchronising movement with breath.
In this post, we delve into a concept that I haven’t heard being taught very often in a yoga class but is utterly crucial for beginner yogis: the Bandhas (or energy locks)
Bandha work has fallen out of practice in most modern western yoga classes possibly due to increasing distancing from traditional yoga. However, if you wonder what magic pill some yogis take to ‘float’ and ‘fly’ or perform advanced yoga poses, the secret is probably their ability in accessing the Bandhas.
What Exactly are Bandhas?
Internal energies in our bodies and minds are constantly changing with dynamic and complex interactions and many layers of activities. To help simplify the complex dynamics of internal energies, various ‘energy locks’ were described by tantric masters and adapted by Hatha yogis.
These energy locks are what we refer to as the Bandhas. The bandhas are activated through muscular contraction of specific body parts, which serves to ‘block’ or seal off the part of the body. When this ‘lock’ is released, it results in a strong surge of energy flow throughout the body to strengthen, renew and rejuvenate the organs, circulatory system and mental health.
Mastering how to control your bandhas allows you to better control your energy flows. This enables a deepening of your yoga practice as you create strength and stability in more advanced poses.
With consistent practice, you would be able to concentrate the right energies, paired with ‘breath control’ and increase self-awareness throughout the yoga practice.
Three of these locks – the root lock (Mula Bandha), the abdominal lock (Uddiyana Bandha) and the throat lock (Jalandhara Bandha) – are foundational practices of yoga. Practised together, it forms a powerful or ‘supreme’ lock called the Maha Bandha.
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Bandhas and How To Approach Them
“Mula” means root and “Bandha” means lock in Sanskrit. Mula Bandha works to strengthens the pelvic floor and calms the nervous system and mind.
Activating Mula Bandha can transform your yoga practice by adding stability in poses and keeping energy from leaking during the practice. It contributes to lightness and prevents fatigue from doing yoga.
Related: Activate Mula Bandha to Find Lightness and Stability in Yoga
How to activate Mula Bandha
To activate Mula Bandha, exhale and contract the muscles between your pubic bone and tailbone. You should feel the pelvic floor pull up, the lower abdominal muscles engaged and pulled towards the spine. This muscle contraction feels similar to pelvic floor exercises (or holding your pee or poop).
Do not strain while engaging Mula Bandha; Breathe in and out normally.
Uddiyana Bandha means to ‘fly’ or ‘rise up’ in Sanskrit. By engaging the Uddiyana Bandha, the energy is contained (or locked) in the abdominals.
When you’re practising inversions or floating forward or backwards, Uddiyana Bandha should be engaged to help you achieve the pose with greater stability.
Related: Activate Uddiyana Bandha to Fly into Yoga Inversions
How to activate Uddiyana Bandha
Perform Uddiyana Bandha on an empty stomach and only after exhaling (never before inhaling). It is recommended to start practising Uddiyana Bandha in a standing position. You can progress to sitting after practising for a while.
Stand with your feet a little wider than hips-width. You may wish to stand against a wall if it helps.
Inhale deeply through your nose and reach upwards.
Then exhale completely and put your hands on your thighs. Straighten your arms, suck your belly in to create a hollow, and pull it up into your spine.
Do a “mock inhalation” by expanding your rib cage as if you were inhaling, but don’t actually inhale. This action pulls up the abdominal muscles and viscera into the thorax and hollows the belly, slowly lifting the abdominals.
Hold for as long as you can without breathing further – breath retention.
When you can hold no further, inhale through your nose as you stand up and extend your arms upwards. Exhale, bring arms back down and your abdominals back to its neutral position.
Related: Beginner Yoga: 9 Completely Free Yoga Resources to Help You Deepen Your Practice
Jalandhara Bandha refers to the ‘throat lock’; It engages and tones the neck muscles. Jalandhara bandha should be practised on its own initially before it can be incorporated with the other bandhas yoga asanas or pranayama (breathing) exercises.
Related: How to Practise Jalandhara Bandha for Neck, Spine & Thyroid Health
How to activate Jalandhara Bandha
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with palms facing down on the knees. Extend the spine and relax the shoulders while lifting the sternum (or breastbone).
Close your eyes and inhale slowly and deeply to 70% of your full capacity. Hold your breath.
Drop your chin to your sternum (breastbone) and draw it in as though you have a massive double chin. Let the back of the neck stay long and the shoulders roll very slightly forward to deepen the lock in the throat but keep them soft.
Hold the lock for as long as you can without straining.
To exit, slowly lift up the chin and inhale through the nose. Then take a few deep breaths in and out.
Allow your breath to return to normal before practising again.
Practise Jalandhara Bandha for three rounds, working your way to ten rounds eventually.
Bringing it all together with Maha bandha
When all three bandhas are used together, it is called Maha Bandha, which means ‘great’ or ‘supreme’ lock. Combining these three Bandhas is beneficial for the entire body, especially the nervous system, organs, muscles and mind.
How to activate Maha Bandha
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Extend your spine tall, breathe normally and relax your shoulders.
Inhale deeply, and exhale completely.
Hold your exhale, and engage firstly Jalandhara Bandha (throat lock), then Uddiyana Bandha (abdominal lock) and finally Mula Bandha (root lock).
When you are unable to hold further without strain, release your bandhas in the reverse order: Firstly Mula Bandha, then Uddiyana Bandha and then Jalandhara bandha.
Related: 8 Limbs of Yoga: A Holistic Guide for Daily Living (with Free Cheatsheet)
Understanding the Bandhas and practising how to activate them will bring huge benefits to your physical yoga practice as well as your mental and spiritual practice.
If you are a beginner, remember to master the bandhas individually first before incorporating them into your yoga practice or combining them in Maha Bandha. These Bandhas will help to grow your potential in yoga and related practices!
In the next few posts, we go deep into the “how” of accessing each of the bandhas. If you want to be the first to hear about our updates, remember to join our community below. Till then, happy practising!
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The YogaMad is founded by Mila, an avid yogini who is passionate about inspiring others to live their best lives while finding mind-body-soul balance. She has a background in business consulting but has left the corporate world in her quest to live out her dreams as a yoga nomad.