By Karen Kinnard, E-RYT
Bandhas are a mystery to most yoga practitioners and mastering them can be a lifelong endeavor. As with all of yoga, consistent practice over a long period of time will reap the benefits. This article gives some definitions of bandhas, how to do them and some of their amazing benefits. It also describes some of the hundreds of mudras you can practice. Mudras also have a subtle effect on the body/mind. Read on and enjoy this exploration into these practices.
A couple definitions of bandhas:
- These are neuromuscular locks and gestures. Bandhas are safely locked during the process of breath-holding Kumbhaka. Bandhas and Mudras are advanced techniques in Hatha Yoga and are used mainly for culturing of emotions. They also help the aspirants to still the mind.
- Several types of muscular contractions, called bandhas (pronounced buhn duh, and meaning to lock) are used in Hatha yoga, both in pranayama breathing and asana practice. The three most important are: root lock: Mula Bandha; the chin lock: Jalandhara Bandha (meaning water pipe); and the stomach lock: Uddiyana Bandha (meaning upward).
There are 3 main types of bandhas in yoga asana practice:
What is it? The simple answer is – chin lock. How to do it properly? There are a couple of different ways and probably more ways depending on what teacher you talk to. Basically, when practicing this, you need to sit upright with good posture, your legs are either straight out in front of you (as in ashtanga yoga’s dandasana – staff pose) hands pressed into the floor beneath your shoulders (with shoulders pulled down and in); and the chin pressed into the upper the spot at the top of center of your collar bones.
This bandha is at first performed in the ashtanga primary series practice by restricting the ujjayi breath so that the chin is pressed into the top center of the collar bones.
Only at more advanced levels do students learn to incorporate retention, or breath holding, into pranayama. At this point Jalandhara Bandha, the chin lock, is introduced. Retention is said to be important because “it super-injects prana into the system,” says Karunananda, and “builds up tremendous vitality.” Students are also sometimes invited to incorporate healing visualizations into this practice. “As you inhale you can visualize that you’re drawing into yourself unlimited quantities of prana–pure, healing, cosmic, divine energy,” Swami Karunananda says.
“You can picture any form of natural energy that appeals to you. Then on the exhalation, visualize all the toxins, all the impurities, all the problems leaving with the breath.” (Integral Yoga – Satchidinanda) (from an article in Yoga Journal: Prescriptions for Pranayama; YJ profiles the pranayama practices of six yoga traditions and finds differences ranging from the subtle to the profound. By Claudia Cummins)
Benefits: This bandha presses on the thyroid and parathyroid glands in the throat, thus benefiting the glands by bringing in more blood flow. These glands regulate the body’s metabolism. Metabolism is basically the body’s way of regulating everything: weight, body temperature, hunger, thirst, hormones, growth and development (thus its reputation for increasing longevity), regulates bone calcification, helps to balance the nervous system functioning. Problems with the thyroid can be detected if you have fatigue, mysterious weight gain or loss, muscle and joint pain, weakness in certain muscles, issues with skin or hair.
Your mood is also affected by the thyroid gland. Anxiety, depression or unsettled emotions can manifest just by this gland not functioning up to par. (so do this bandha and get some organic iodine in your diet too as this is missing from our diets).
What is it? In this bandha, breath is expelled fully and the abdomen is pulled in and up into the cavity of the rib cage – this completely deflates the diaphragm. Then the air is slowly pulled back in, and fully, to the diaphragm.
- Strengthens the abdominal muscles and diaphragm
- Massages abdominal viscera, the solar plexus, and the heart and lungs
- Increases gastric fire; improves digestion, assimilation, and elimination; and purifies the digestive tract of toxins
- Stimulates blood circulation in the abdomen and blood flow to the brain
- Stimulates and lifts the energy of the lower belly (apana vayu), to unite it with the energies localized in the navel (samana vayu) and heart (prana vayu)
Mula bandha is said to cut through brahma granthi, the energetic knot of our resistance to change, which lies in muladhara chakra. On the physical level, practicing mula bandha creates attentiveness in the supportive musculature of the pelvis. This increases the stability of the pelvis, and, since the pelvis is the seat of the spine, its stability creates a safe environment for spinal movement. Thus, mula bandha strengthens—and teaches the importance of—the solid foundation that should underlie any movement.
Mula bandha also lifts and compresses the bowel and lower abdominal region. This creates a solid foundation, a platform under the breath that makes it possible to increase or decrease the pressure inside the torso and facilitate movement. This bandha creates lightness and fluidity; when it is properly applied, the body is less earth-bound and more mobile.
Through gradual refinement, mula bandha becomes less muscular and more subtle, energetic, and etheric. This movement from outside to inside, from mundane to rarefied, from unconsciousness to enlightenment, is the basic pattern of transcendental yogic awakening. On an energetic level, mula bandha allows us to feel, restrain, and then direct our energies toward enlightenment. Finally, when practicing mula bandha on the highest level, the yogi sees the Divine in all with equanimity and detachment.
There are subtle benefits for practicing both bandhas and mudras in your yoga and meditation practices. Both tools give us a focus for our minds, just like the breath in our practices. This brings us into the present moment and we begin to become more aware of subtleties in our bodies and in our minds.
When practiced over a long period of time, these subtle sparks of awareness become a pathway and then a river of consciousness that expands and permeates all of our lives. You will begin to notice how you interact with everything and everyone, from the point of view of an observer. When you begin to connect with the you who is the observer, then you can begin the true yoga. We all have these moments and maybe many of them, but how many and for how much of your day are you experiencing this level of awareness?
Again, this comes with practice, grows with practice and someday, over a lifetime a practice, may become who you are all of the time. Your truest version of your self.
The word mudra means “seal”. From Yoga Journal: “our fingers and toes (as well as our hands and feet) are charged with divine power, which, when intelligently accessed and properly applied, can intensify the transformative power of the practice.
Mudras:Yoga in Your Hands by Gertrude Hirschi, pp 13-14
- Posture should be symmetrical
- Exhale vigorously several times prior to practicing mudra – making room!
- Always lengthen the pause after inhaling and after exhaling by several seconds. Don’t force it, allow it to happen as you focus on your breathing.
- When practicing to calm yourself, slow your breathing.
- When practicing to refresh yourself, intensify your breathing
- Optimal breath quality is slow, deep, rhythmic, flowing, and fine.
At the beginning of a mudra meditation, exhale vigorously several times and then let the breath become deeper and slower. You now have three possibilities:
- First: Focus on your hands and fingers, perceive the gentle pressure where they touch each other;
- Second: While inhaling, you can press the fingertips together a bit more and let go of the pressure when exhaling;
- Third: You can do it the other way around and apply a bit more pressure while exhaling and let go of the pressure when inhaling.
Every variation has its own special effect. The first centers, creates inner equilibrium and builds up strength in general. The second variation strengthens the will and refreshes. The third calms and relaxes.
Mudras can be consciously practiced to balance the chakras, can be used with color, to rejuvenate yourself, and to heal just about anything. Mudras action begins at the subtle energy level, which heals emotionally, then acts on the physical body. Practice mudras for 3-12 minutes for a hand mudra concentrating on an affirmation, releasing negativity and feeling the energy connection the mudra enables in the body/mind.
Other ways to practice:
- Practice a meditation for each finger
- Practice specific mudras. There are many resources for finding out specific mudras. Many books, YouTube videos, meditation audios, I’ve provided a few resources below, but it’s also fun to google what you want specifically and research them yourself. Don’t be afraid to try them – you can’t do them wrong – even if it’s not expert, you’ll derive benefits.
- Create your own mudras. After you have practiced concentrating on mudras that you’ve found, and begin to notice the subtle effects and differences between them, you can experiment with some of your own. Trust your intuition to guide you.
Some of the most common mudras
-(you may not even realize they’re mudras, they’re so common)!
- Gyana Mudra: OK – the term “okay” made with the hands is a mudra! Depending on how you hold the other three fingers and where on the fingers your thumb and forefinger touch – will determine what the focus of these mudras are for:
- rest both hands face up on your lap (on either knee), touch the tips of thumb and forefinger together – the other 3 fingers are held closely together.
- place your mental focus on your breath; then place your focus on the center of your head, repeating a mantra will help to keep your mind steady (see article on mantras)
- benefits of performing this mudra include better mental focus and creativity, thus also helping you to perform all of daily life with greater ease
- Anjali Mudra: Namaste, prayer position. This mudra is so common, we probably don’t even realize we’re practicing a mudra. All people, regardless of religion, have practiced this mudra.
How to perform this mudra: place the fingers of both hands together and place palms together in front of your heart, thumbs touching your sternum, fingers pointing upward. Focus on your heart.
Benefits of performing anjali mudra: (below – from the webpage: https://www.thedailymeditation.com/anjali-mudra-position-benefits-and-meaning)
- Anjali mudra massively relieves anxiety.
- Bringing the palms together in the Anjali Mudra connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
- The Anjali Mudra connects the practitioner with spirituality / god / divinity.
- The mudra promotes respect for oneself and others.
- It is a useful mudra for entering into a meditative state.
- The mudra is a natural remedy for beating stress.
- Prana Mudra or the Peace sign: Prana mudra — the name is self explanatory – prana is the life force energy. So if you want to enhance your life force, practice this mudra! It is also known as a healing mudra. It helps to relieve fatigue, anxiety, and helps the immune system. Practicing this mudra regularly will help make these subtle changes more permanent. I’ve noticed when making a change to improve my own health and wellbeing, that I notice changes with a week, but the changes are dramatically improved if I stick to it for 8 weeks.
Are bandhas and mudras necessary to practice yoga?
When you first begin practicing yoga it’s not necessary. To continue practicing and reap the benefits of a yoga practice the bandhas are necessary. When I began practicing 30 years ago, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still practiced and grew steadily in awareness. In hindsight, this could have been easier had I known about these two tools.
It only took me a few months after adding bandhas into my yoga practice, that I began to notice I my strength increasing dramatically. I’ve run track, lifted weights and practiced yoga for a long time, so I know the increased strength was a direct result. Try it for yourself!