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What are Bandhas?

In yoga, think of bandhas as physical and subtle ‘locks’ that protect and channel your prana (life energy) in the right direction. Typically, you feel energized and recharged after practicing them.

So when your yoga instructor asks you to ‘apply the locks or bandhas,’ you essentially lock the flow of energy in at specific points in the body for a few seconds. Once you release it, you feel the energy gush into your system, filling you with vitality and rejuvenation.

How Bandhas Work

Physically, a bandha is applied by pulling in and tightening a specific sphincter, a ring-like muscle that opens or closes a passage in the body by contracting or relaxing. There are 60 sphincter muscles in the body. You’re probably most familiar with the one that controls the clearance of food from the esophagus into the stomach and the one that regulates the release of waste from your body.

For the three main bandhas in yoga, three sphincter muscles are involved, the anal sphincter for applying mula bandha, the naval sphincter for uddiyana bandha, and the upper esophageal sphincter for jalandhar bandha. When we apply these three bandhas at once, they combine to form the Maha Bandha.

Applying the Bandhas

Apply bandhas only after completing a round of pranayama. We do this because you must pull in the sphincter and hold your breath, which may be very complicated to perform while doing other asana. Here’s your step-by-step guide to applying the four bandhas.

  1. Sit in Vajrasana comfortably and relaxed. We recommend Vajrasana pose as it ensures your spine is erect and the prana moves through the channels smoothly and without obstruction.
  2. Make fists with both hands, placing the thumbs inside the fists.
  3. Bring the closed fists together and place them against each other tight.
  4. Turn over the fists and place them near your groin.
  5. Holding this position, take a deep breath in and straighten the spine.
  6. Holding your breath, pull in the anal sphincter first, applying mula bandha (root lock), followed by pulling in or sucking in the naval up and applying uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock), then drop your chin to touch the top of the sternum for jalandhara bandha (chin lock).

    For you to understand better, when we say you need to pull in the anal sphincter muscle, it is very similar to how you will tighten your pelvic floor muscles and anal sphincter when you need to go pee but find the washroom occupied.
  7. After a few seconds, when you feel complete, raise your head (this will release the jalandhara bandha) and gently breathe out.
  8. While breathing out, slowly release the naval and then the anal sphincter.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

  • While applying mulabandha, do not over-tense the pelvic floor muscles. It must be pulled in gently.
  • If you find your upper body is vibrating, slow down.
  • Do the bandhas on a floor only and not on unsteady ground.
  • Practice bandhas when your stomach is empty.
  • You do not breathe while applying uddiyana and Jalandhar bandha.
  • Do not hold your breath for too long. It should be long enough that your breathing capacity is exercised and yet not so long that you start coughing or your face begins to turn red.

Benefits of Bandhas

As a practice, Bandhas give almost instantaneous results in terms of how alive and energized you feel after their release. But let’s read about some of the other tangible and subtle benefits too!

  • Stimulation of all the essential glands and organs in the body in the three regions with each bandha.
  • When mula bandha is applied, it works the pelvic floor muscles. According to an Indian study, women with ‘symptomatic mild pelvic organ prolapse in the yoga group were offered Mulabandha yoga therapy along with other conventional treatment modalities, while the control group was only on conventional treatment.’ Women who practiced mula bandha reported lower pelvic floor distress and severity of symptoms.
  • When uddiyana bandha is applied, it activates the digestive organs, liver, and spleen, and improves their vitality.
  • When jalandhar bandha is applied, it works on the organs of maintenance and sustenance, like the lungs and heart, and energizes them.
  • Bandhas also regularize and improve blood circulation in the body, by bringing it almost to a pause for a few seconds when the locks are applied.
  • Bandhas are known to stimulate and activate the chakras or main energy centers. These chakras are also emotion centers. When the prana is flowing in the upward direction through these chakras, we experience positive emotions from the activation of these chakras. But if the prana is flowing in the downward direction, we experience negative emotions or feel low on energy.

    So when chakras are activated, they also have us experience the positive emotions associated with each chakra. When the chakras are regularly activated and cleansed with bandhas, the prana flow becomes smoother and more robust, thus giving you more vitality and strength.  Clearing of energy blockages and activated chakras also indicate lower stress, more harmony, and inner peace.

There are five types of prana or energy, and bandhas work on activating and strengthening all five types of pranas. These pranas are

  1. Apana vayu, the energy which governs the function of removal of waste from the body through sweating, urination, etc.
  2. Samana vayu, which governs metabolism and digestion.
  3. Prana vayu, the energy behind the heart pumping blood into the body.
  4. Vyana vayu, which is the energy you need for circulation and movement.
  5. Udana vayu which is the energy you need for moving the eyes, lips, or cognition.
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