In this article I will give you a comprehensive overview of the idea of Bandhas or energetic locks in yoga practice and beyond.
Bandhas are practiced in various forms to support presence and awareness. Their benefits are therefore not limited to your mat but apply to all areas of life. They create a wholesome balance - the kind of balance that according to Richard Freeman can be felt as „body, mind, consciousness and the whole world appearing to be in perfect balance.“
I will offer my take on Bandhas based on my 15+ years practice in a combination of asana, pranayama and meditation which I feel all continue to benefit from an understanding of the concept of Bandha. As I love to gather ideas from various authors, I will supplement ideas from various inspiring teachers that I had the pleasure to learn from.
At the end I will also give you an approach to start working with Bandhas in your practice and enjoy some of the benefits right away.
So let’s dive right in!
Bandhas are described as subtle locks, some kind of grip that can be used to guide energy. On a physical level Bandhas are a co-activation of opposing muscles around a joint or joint complex. But they exist on various levels and are as subtle or as gross as one needs them to be.
One could say that Bandhas are at the result of concentration or focused attention. For me they bring me into the present moment and I apply them in physical practice (asana), breath work (pranayama) and meditation alike.
Now how do you apply Bandhas in these varied forms of yoga practice?
Let’s say you stand up in a sluggish way. Now if you tell yourself to stand upright and tall, you will engage certain muscles in your body. Then your yoga teacher tells you to release any tension that is unnecessary to keep this upright posture, and make it as light as possible. Quickly and unconsciously testing the tension in the various parts of your body you will let go of most of the muscle activation you just exerted. Assuming that your body is functional and you have proper control over your muscles, the activation that now remains in your body constitues the Bandhas.
You are now experiencing a physical form of the Bandhas.
Now let’s add the breath to this scenario: you are still standing upright and as light as possible, and prolonging your exhalation to activly push air out, as you finish your exhalation you might become very aware of the activation at your pelvic floor and the lower belly just underneath your navel feels softly sucked in.
As you keep this activation while starting your inhalation into your upper belly and chest, you feel how these engaged Bandhas give you the length and tallness, yet allow the rest of the body to stay untensed and at ease so that the upper body can expand and welcome a full new breath in.
You are applying the Bandhas for more efficient breathing, supporting your posture by exploring and improving your breath and are on the way to improving your level of energy as breath is the base for everything!
Now let go of controlling your breath and the focus of holding your body tall and upright. Just keep the idea of a far-reaching space between your pelvic floor and the roof of your mouth, going beyond your body and mind.
This will (with practice) keep you in a state of complete presence (even though it might take some practice to maintain this state longer than a few moments). And even though there is no control of your posture, your muscles or your breath, the essence of your Bandha is still at work.
Now you are applying some form of Bandha in your meditation practice.
If you can keep these aspects or levels of Bandha present in any posture, you create a quality that Patanjali described as „sthira sukham„ - a „seat“ or posture that is steady and comfortable.
The first couple of years of my practice I neither breathed nor used the idea of Bandhas in my practice. Hence I worked hard - much more than I’d have needed to - because lightness in practice comes from connecting and activating the body through Bandhas and breath.
Also, as with everything subtle, the path to learning comes rarely from just getting it. Usually we have to over-engage, then slowly let go until the subtle remains.
As Todd Hargrove in „A Guide to better movement“ puts it:
„Thus developing movement skill is often more about learning to inhibit the spread of neural excitement rather than extending it. In this sense, learning better movement is more like sculpture than painting. You improve your art by taking things away, not adding them.“
Just like I explained the progression towards subtler experiences of Bandha, it’s about letting go of physical (and eventually mental) effort to unpack the essence of Bandha that is unforced balance.
As a practice, you could start by working your pelvic floor in an attempt to find your root lock or mula Bandha:
For Uddiyana Bandha, which is applied during asana practice in a very superficial sense, it helps to work on the much deeper version that is called Uddiyana Kriya. Try the following exercise in this video to get started with controlling your abdominal region (YOUTUBE): https://youtu.be/O1JTViKxJVs
Bandhas form a base for any yoga pratice and are to be applied 24 hours a day - according to some yoga teachers. So obviously they cannot be reduced to a muscular activation. Rather it’s about the state of presence and being they create.
Some benefitial effects include:
Any squeeze and release movement - as the one that happens through the application of Bandhas - softens hardened tissue, similar to a massage. Eventually the massaged tissue softens. This is how I feel Bandhas work over time, physically, energetically, emotionally and spirtually.
On a practice level, proficiency in applying and sustaining Bandha as and where needed helps to:
In Asana practice the application of Bandhas keeps your mind centered in the moment, creates a co-contraction along your whole body which enables you to do even advanced postures with perceived ease (never easy from the inside :). So while one Bandha is the balanced action in one joint complex, the application of various Bandhas leads to a balance alignment along the whole body.
In Pranayama practice, the application of Bandhas allows you to hold the breath for long times while staying calm and grounded. It keeps the pressure of the inbreath in the upper body without putting additional stress and pressure on the head and brain. The position of your head in jalandhara Bandha also puts pressure on the carotid arteries, slowing down your heart rate and energy consumption, allowing longer breath holds.
In Meditation, the application of Bandhas allows you to „pull your mind out of your body“ (as Dr. Joe Dispenza loves to say). Truth is that most thoughts that get into the way of just being present are signals from your body telling you something is up. But it’s also true that your body is perfectly fine by itself and doesn’t need to constantly give you an update. Question is: Can you pull your mind out of your body and just be focused on your medtation object? Bandhas help you to do just that. It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into this, but popular medtation techniques use an energy lifting effect through Bandhas as a preparation for meditation. And I find it helps me personally a lot to start my meditation either by doing it after pranayama practice or by lifting the energy for a couple of minutes.
The most important Bandhas that get mentioned in many yoga books are those stabilizing the spine. This makes sense since the spine harbours our central nervous system, extending directly from our brain. A stable, strong, yet flexible spine that is fully functional in any position and can move freely and safely creates the base for an enjoyable and healthy life.
The Bandhas that support a strong spine are:
Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor suggest that "Mula Bandha is key to enhancing an asana practice because all poses ground through the seed-point of Mulabandha (…). It is the „core of the core of all integrated movement.“
John Scott underlies the importance of using the "Armpit Bandha and Groin Bandha" in one's asana practice, creating lenght, space and a proper activity in the muscles of that area.
In their book „Applied Anatomy & Physiology of Yoga“ (2005) the authors Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss define various further Bandhas in all major joint complexes.
I found that in my exploration of advancing in my yoga practice, healing injury and just generally feeling great in my body, working on creating these Bandhas has proven to be invaluable.
Practically, these Bandhas involve getting control over the whole range of movement of any major joint complex, and in any direction of movement (full flexion, extension, rotation adduction, abduction etc.).
The Bandhas for each joint complex are called:
For one more distinction, each Bandha can be applied with a co-activation of opposing muscles that is:
It again would go beyond the scope of this article to get into detail, but I regulary challenge my students in yoga class to get into any pose with as little passive placing of limbs (e.g. using your hands to pull your leg and foot towards you and placing it on the straight leg in half lotus) and to actively move from the core as much as possible, and maintain a soft engagement from the core to the end of each limb, i.e. fingertip or toe.
The question is: What is the next step for you individually?
Are you just starting out, then first connect to the right muscles and master their proper contraction. The longer you practice, the more subtle the effect that you can create by will. And I assume that in 10 / 20 / 30 years I will still be learning nuances of how to apply the concept of Bandhas in my practice.
For now, I suggest two things you do in your next practice:
1. Next time you stand on your mat, don’t just start with the movements. First find your focus, then your (maybe imagined) Bandha, then your breath. Stay present with it for a moment. Then move from the Bandha and don’t let go of it, let the outer form appear but don’t strive for it, allow your body to follow the rhythm and presence that comes from staying connected to the idea of Bandha. And see how you feel with this approach.
2. I encourage you to always start looking for the opposing force in any posture you do. Especially in postures that we are really struggling with, we often get stuck in one particular pattern. So instead of trying harder to work the things that don’t seem to get you anywhere, find clues in your posture and find the missing piece.
Here are some ideas of opposing forces:
Always keep joy in your heart no matter what you do, and see how your practice evolves from there.
And have fun with it!