Bandha = ‘to lock’ or ‘to restrain’.
The Bandhas can be thought of as internal locks and are an integral part of yoga practice. As we perform our asanas we affect the prana within us and this energy can be controlled and directed to take our practice deeper. The way we do this is by activating our Bandhas, literally ‘locking in’ our energy - sometimes combined with Pranayama, sometimes during asanas – so that our pranic energy can be properly utilised.
As the bandhas involve muscle contraction, they can also be utilised for a number of physical benefits. They work with the organs and the nervous & endocrine systems and can help with a number of issues including, but not limited to, back problems and recovery after childbirth.
There are three bandhas and they can be directly associated with our three diaphragms. The first is our Mula Bandha, or root lock. This bandha is related to the pelvic diaphragm. To activate this bandha we need to draw up the perineal muscles, or pelvic diaphragm, and contract the anal and urethral sphincters. The easiest way to understand how to isolate these pelvic floor muscles, rather than contracting the whole of the lower abdomen, is to imagine you need to go to the loo but reeeeeeeeally have to hold it in! This bandha is used a great deal in Ashtanga and dynamic yoga practice as it creates internal heat and pulling up the Mula Bandha is very important in balancing postures to maintain stability. But it is also used effectively in Tadasana to focus our attention on our rooting and connection to the ground. Locking this bandha stimulates kundalini energy and improves the health of the reproductive system.
The second bandha is the Uddyana Bandha, or abdominal lock, which involves the respiratory diaphragm. The activation of this bandha requires the ribs to lift upwards – Uddyana means ‘to fly upwards’. It is basically an inward pull of the abdominal muscles, best described perhaps by imagining the navel being pulled in towards the spine. During pranayama practice, this bandha is activated after exhalation. During asanas, especially deep flexion and extension postures, for example back bends, it is used to protect the spine as the contraction of these muscles stabilises the core. Activation of this bandha channels the energy in the central meridian (Shushumna Nadi).
The third bandha is the Jalandhara Bandha, or chin lock and regulates the energy in the throat, or vocal diaphragm. This bandha is used mostly in any pranayama that involves retaining the breath and is activated after inhalation. As it regulates the flow of energy in the head, it can be used to prevent headaches, dizziness and problems with the eyes, ears and throat. This lock is activated by lowering the chin to the chest, elongating the back of the neck. This restricts the flow of air through the throat and therefore slows the breathing right down. This partial closing of the glottis creates the audible breath we hear during Ujjayi Pranayama.