I love uddiyana bandha. Once you find it, it becomes this fabulous host, inviting jalandhara bandha down and mula bandha up and everybody’s happy. But there is more- much more- to your system of ‘locks’. Read on…
When introducing uddiyana bandha (“UB”) in my classes, I would sometimes threaten to lift my shirt in order to demonstrate the vacuum action of a ‘lock’ fully engaged. A teacher once did that in a class on pranayama I attended when I was a yoga-noob. It really felt like we had all been invited there to admire this person’s abdominal dexterity, as not much instruction followed the lifting of the shirt.
The next time I got up close and personal with uddiyana bandha- and the rolling action of nauli– was in a workshop with the Ashtanga Yoga teacher, David Williams. He was so warm and articulate; funny, too. He demonstrated and explained and got us laughing with his stories, then he had everyone get down on their hands and knees, talking us through it a couple times. Then he stopped, and asked everyone there to really let their bellies go, let ’em hang. After four babies, I had some belly. When he came over to me and cupped my mama-belly and asked me (quite kindly) to drop it more, and more again, we discovered just how much belly I had, and just how much effort I had been putting in to sucking that belly in all the time. It was liberating to experience the contrast between mama-belly and uddiyana bandha. Letting go of one ALL THE WAY allowed for a more intelligent and complete engagement of the other other, ALL THE WAY. Pretty cool. But I still won’t expose my belly to students. Call me a prudish New Englander. Instead, let’s try the following exercises:
Firstly, some precautions. Do these exercises on an empty stomach, and preferably after you have evacuated your bladder and bowels. If you are pregnant, no uddiyana bandha. You may do gentle pelvic floor and abdominal exercises to keep those muscles supple. If you have hernias, or other conditions where compression in the upper abdominal area is contraindicated (even some heart conditions), no uddiyana bandha. And if you don’t know… then try it, perhaps under the guidance of a good teacher, and monitor yourself carefully. See how it all feels. When I have private clients or students with physical conditions that don’t allow for deep bandha work, I teach them to use their imaginations. They are often able to get the effect- or at least some of it- through visualization and gentle movements alone.
UB Locater Exercise #1: Take a supine position, like Constructive Rest, and allow your body and mind to settle. Then, stretch your legs forward along the floor and float your arms up towards the ceiling and back behind your head. Do not force your arms to land on the floor (we want the shoulders to be happy). You could interlace your fingers, or even fold your arms so that you can grasp the opposite elbows. When you INHALE here, picture your body growing longer, with more space between the vertebra. Nestle your shoulder blades against the back side of your body and gently push the heels forward. When you EXHALE here, sink your navel into the back-body (without flattening the arch in your lumbar spine).
As you continue breathing, and noticing expansion and contraction, can you feel how the abdominal area, from your pelvis to your ribcage, becomes somewhat ‘scooped’? I liken the sensation to having someone tighten the laces of a wide corset, except the breathing isn’t constricted (and we’re not getting into a Victorian gown afterwards…). Return to Constructive Rest, and breathe in a relaxed way.
UB Locater Exercise #2: Come onto your hands and knees. You know the drill- hands under shoulders, knees under hips, spine neutral. Put extra cushioning under your knees and the heels of the palms if needed. Try a few slow rounds of ‘Cat and Cow’, inhaling as you lift your sit bones and chest for the arching action of Cow; exhaling, gently tucking the pelvis, hanging the head and rounding your spine for ‘Cat’.
Coming back to all fours with a neutral spine, inhale through the nose and exhale more forcefully through your mouth with a kind of ‘HAH’ sound from the back of your throat. When the exhale feels complete, suck the belly up towards the back body, allowing your spine to round, your head to hang and even your chin to tuck in gently. Slowly release the belly, bring the spine to neutral, THEN inhale again and breathe in a normal fashion. Notice the after-sensations.
UB Locater Exercise #3 (here is where your work begins to get more ‘subtle’): Come to a comfortable seated position. If you struggle to cross your legs, then sit in a chair. Place a folded blanket or two under your buttocks; spine is neutral, not collapsed or over-arched. With your mind’s eye, draw downward lines from right below your navel back to your anus, and from the top of your sacrum forward to the base of the genitals. Where they intersect is about 2″ above the pelvic floor. Hold your awareness there. As we move through engaging and releasing uddiyana bandha, your mental awareness will feel something like the physical sensation of holding the neck of a balloon and tugging downwards a bit. You will keep a gentle but firm grasp on the neck of the balloon- which you have placed above the pelvic floor- as you fill it then release some of the air.
When you are ready to start, rest your hands on your knees. Inhale, then elongate your exhale. Create the scooping sensation in the belly area, holding awareness at that point above the pelvic floor. Still holding the ‘neck of the balloon’ in the region of the pelvic floor, begin to release the muscular contraction until the belly is relaxed, THEN inhale. Trying to inhale before you have released the ‘lock’ is counter-productive, but it does happen to many of us as we traverse the learning curve. If you notice a sudden sucking-in of your breath, or a ‘catch’ in your throat, it indicates the release wasn’t complete. Try again. As you continue to experiment with this, one of the next steps will be to release the abdominal contraction from the solar plexus area downwards.
As you work with this bandha, you will begin to notice a few other things happening, perhaps right away, perhaps after a long time of trying, sensing, waiting. You will feel a lift in the pelvic floor (mula bandha); a pulling downwards contraction at the base of the throat (jalandhara bandha); and a turning inwards of your senses and awareness.
When you begin to notice this aspect, this drawing inwards,
look at it as an invitation to enter a stream of awareness.
Your system of locks has begun to direct your attention to your ‘subtle body’,
much like the locks that govern and regulate the flow of ocean waters.
Your waters are prana, and you can now be in them, and ‘of’ them;
dissipating, re-forming, exploring.