No, this isn’t an entry on my fishing blog; I don’t HAVE a fishing blog… but earlier today, my husband and I were having this discussion about how one stays ‘released’ and supple in their body as one ages. We were talking about this because I asked him- as I often do- ‘What would be a good theme for my yoga class today?’. This question is a terrific way to prompt a dialogue or to generate an idea for me to articulate in class. (In contrast, his Big Question to me is often more along the lines of ‘What are you making yourself for lunch and can you make some for me, too?’ It’s a very good, reciprocal relationship we have. He is my sounding board for ideas, and I provide him with a different kind of fuel).
I took our discussion into my Executive Office, i.e. the bathtub, and mused on the bandhas while I soaked. For those of you who lean more towards fishing than towards the subtleties of yoga, the bandhas are these kinds of ‘valves’ that can regulate the flow of energy in the body. There are three ‘major’ bandhas: one located in the pelvic floor, one in the lower belly and one at the base of the throat. There are ‘secondary’ bandhas in the bottoms of the feet and in the palms of the hands, and some systems of yoga have a lot more bandhas than that. I limit my use to the aforementioned five.
The first bandha- ‘mulabandha‘- is activated by engaging some of the muscles of the pelvic floor. In men, this area is located between the genitals and the anus. In women, the location is the cervix. You bring your awareness to your designated body-spot, and you imagine an action of gently drawing in and up. The second- ‘uddiyana bandha’- is located between the navel and the pubic bones. You draw this low-belly area in gently, creating a vacuum of varying degrees of intensity.
You ‘catch’ these actions, and you ‘release’ them, repeatedly, throughout the course of your asana practice and in some pranayama practices as well. Some asanas, and some methods of practice, also incorporate ‘jalandhara bandha’– the throat lock. Again, it is not and should not be an action that creates rigidity and a cutting off of energy or breath or prana in the body. It is an action of subtleness and skill, and it takes practice. The action of the bandhas being engaged and released, engaged and released, is part of what creates a flowing, dancing asana practice, especially when one is working in the vinyasa style of linking one asana to the next.
In this morning’s class, I wanted to emphasize the ‘releasing’ action, rather than the ‘catching’ action. I asked the folks in class to allow themselves to cultivate a certain physical softness, to see if they could notice what happens as they let go of a muscular contraction. Would this then help them recognize- with greater sensitivity- when it is that they are contracting, engaging, holding?
This ability to work subtly assists us in other ways, too. As we age, our pelvic floor can become more lax, creating a whole slew of issues. In some people, certain habits, traumas, etc., have led to a pelvic floor that is chronically tight and tense, which creates a whole other set of problems.
The analogies we find on the yoga mat, in the form, and in the language, of our practice, have the potential to inform and enrich our off-the-mat lives in so many ways. Can we stay strong and supple in our bodies, in our minds, and in our world views? Can we let go of bad habits, stale friendships, suffocating self-images?
But today, our attention was drawn downwards and inwards to the darker recesses of the pelvic floor, to the purview of mulabandha. Next time you are on your mat, stay down there awhile, and play a bit. Experiment. See what you find. It could very well be that one of the contributing factors to that post-yoga bliss, that smile you see on your favorite yogi as they walk down the street after class, is that they’ve just had a wonderful time in the playground of their own body. They’ve gone into the darkness, armed with a powerful set of tools and equipment, and come out cleaner, more ‘light’. And the funny thing is, we are not always wholly aware of what it is we are doing, and how it is we might experience a ‘shift’. These subtle aspects of a yoga practice have some of the most profound effects.
So if someone asks, when you are ‘basking in the afterglow’ of a particularly good practice, ‘Why the smile?’, you might try answering simply, ‘Been fishing’.
I am looking forward to exploring topics like these at my upcoming winter yoga retreat, ‘Open Hearts and Supple Spines’. It takes place at Earthdance, in western Massachusetts, from February 10-12, 2012. Email me for more information. The $325 fee includes two nights and all meals- deliciously vegetarian- all yoga classes, use of the wood-fired sauna and excellent company. There is a ‘no yoga’ option for friends and family who might want to join you for the retreat time.