The ‘bandhas‘ tend to be a misunderstood and therefore underutilized aspect of our modern day yoga practice. I have been in classes where yoga teachers have instructed us to “Just squeeze everything!” in the general region of the pelvic floor as they tried to direct us towards ‘Mula bandha‘, or “Just suck your belly in!” in regards to ‘Uddiyana bandha‘. It kind of felt like they were groping around blindly. Perhaps they hadn’t approached the topic thoroughly enough in their own practices, or lacked a grasp of the vocabulary they needed to guide us into our nether regions.
Let’s begin, then, to create a system of mapping the location and function of ‘mula bandha‘. Before reading any further, I would recommend that you open your favorite anatomy book or web page, and look at the following muscles and their fascial attachments:
- Peroneus Longus
- Tibialis Exterior
- Hip Adductors– Magnis, Longus and Brevis (handsome guys, aren’t they?)
- Pelvic Diaphragm
- Uro-Genital area
‘Mula bandha’, or ‘root lock’, is located near the pelvic floor. I say ‘near’, because it is not to be confused with other practices that create muscular contractions there, such as ‘Aswini mudra’, which is located at the anal sphincter. In women, ‘mula bandha‘ is located at the bottom tip of the cervix. In men, it is located between the base of the genitals and the anus, approximately where the prostate sits. Looking for mula bandha, which lies about 2” above the ‘basement’ of the pelvic floor, invites the intrepid explorer to cultivate a quiet, determined sensitivity during their travels to this oft mentioned, yet rarely understood, place. To start your journey, begin with giving yourself a foot massage. Yes, light some candles, put on some mood music… and rub your feet (the bottoms especially).
Mula bandha begins in the feet and runs all the way up the body to the base of the skull. Look at your anatomy pictures and locate Peroneus Longus (PL) and Tibialis Exterior (TE). The sprawling attachments of PL and TE on the bottoms of the feet create a stirrup-like action. This action lifts the arches up, which also creates the diaphragmatic action of ‘pada bandha‘, or ‘foot lock’. The fascial attachments of PL and TE also connect with the fascial attachments of the hip. Notice the hip adductors, and the overlay of the muscles in the uro-genital area.
Then, draw a line from the big toes, up the inner thighs, to the pelvic floor. This is the line of connection from the feet- and pada bandha– to the pelvic floor, and mula bandha.
Next, come into a comfortable, supine position, such as constructive rest. Take a couple of minutes to soften into a state of alert relaxation, then settle your awareness into your pelvis. Women will focus on the opening of the vagina and from there towards the cervix. Gently contract and release around the uterus, as though you are trying to lift it up higher into the body. Men will bring their awareness to the area between the anus and scrotum, gently lifting the scrotum up into the body without bearing down. Place your mind’s eye approximately 2” above the perineum to locate the prostate gland.
A certain amount of fumbling or frustration is to be expected in this process. Yet as we practice, and ameliorate our eagerness with a quiet, sensitive approach, we begin to ‘get it’, these somewhat elusive, subtler practices. Locating and working with the bandhas, and refining the actions required to create fluid movement takes us on a journey of self-discovery, from the gross to the subtle. This echoes- or mirrors- many aspects of a fuller yoga practice. We read about something, or are shown a new asana or technique in class, and we take it home, try it out.
The next time you are in an asana practice try some of these suggestions:
- In standing poses, whether the feet are close (samasthitihi or tadasana) or wide (prasarita padottanasana), lift and spread the toes, then settle them as you maintain an active arch. As you inhale, grip the floor with your feet and draw sensation up the legs. As you exhale, soften the bottoms of the feet and let that same flow move down the legs into the ground.
- When your hands and feet are on the floor, such as in Downward Facing Dog (adho mukha svanasana), create a sensation of suction in the palms and the bottoms of the feet; your heels do not need to be on the floor. Create a soft dome shape, like a diaphragm, and first imagine then actually feel a flow of energy up the legs to mula bandha, and up the arms, through the shoulders and down the spine into uddiyana bandha.
- When you are in a vinyasa-style practice, or when you are turning on the heels or toes, maintain that sense of connection and lift from the feet up. Center your awareness at the bulb of mula bandha, feel into the power of your legs, and watch your practice soften without losing any of your strength.
As we become adept at knowing how and when to engage the mula bandha, we can observe our mobility, flexibility and vitality increasing. Our steps, and transitions, between right side and left side, from one asana to the next, become more sure-footed. When we pay attention to the finer details and the softer sensations, we are at the threshold of entering the subtle body. Allow yourself to hang out there and look for the little ripples of sensation. Come up with your own language and imagery, something that leaves a trail for you to follow and find your way back in.
When this ‘subtle body’ awareness started grow within me, a few years into practicing yoga, I felt as though I was finally reading a book I had been just carrying, unread, in my backpack. I had looked at the front of it, read a few lines of the introduction and given the blurbs on the back cover a cursory look. I thought I had a sense of the book’s contents. It wasn’t until I began to look for the softer side of yoga that I found pathways that were, literally hidden in plain sight, a few pages in, waiting patiently for this reader’s eyes to adjust to strangeness of the font. In the beginning, I hadn’t been given (or discovered within myself) the right tools with which to dig, discover and translate. I am happy to report that this journey of discovery is ongoing, and there is much more to come.