EXPLORING THE BANDHAS
Mulabandha provides core strength by supporting and stabilizes the spine. Anyone practicing yoga or undertaking load-bearing physical activities can benefit from knowing how to ‘turn it on’. Graeme Northfield explains…
My own interpretation and application of Mulabandha has been transformative in both my Astanga yoga practice and daily life. Having had spinal problems and chronic back pain for most of my life, it has been a revelation for me to harness and apply the strength giving benefits it offers.
Mulabandha is not just for experienced yoga students. It is not an ‘add-on’ to the practice; it is one of the building blocks in establishing sound mind-body movement patterns and is helpful for beginners commencing their journey on the road of a life-long yoga practice.
So what is Mulabandha? How do we use it in yoga practice? What benefits does it?
Mulabandha and other bandhas are part of a larger grouping called mudras, meaning ‘muscle control’, ‘restraint’, ‘seal’ or ‘lock. Bandha means to ‘bind’ or ‘bond’. The word ‘lock’ is particularly relevant because ‘unlocking’ the power of Mulabandha takes patience, practice and clarity of mind but the time and effort will be rewarded as your yoga practice develops over the years.
There are many bandhas and mudras; the most useful in asana practice and daily activities is Mulabandha. There is some confusion about Mulabandha, partly due to the fact that each yoga system has a slightly different approach and also because it can be difficult to define and apply.
In yoga texts, Mulabandha is usually defined as the activation of the perineum (the soft tissue area between the anus and the genitals) and often refers to the more esoteric nature of controlling energy currents through the body. This can be hard to quantify, so let’s look more at some specific physical applications and the associated benefits.
There are two mudras that are closely related to Mulabandha. They are Ashwini mudra, activated by contracting the sphincter muscles of the anus, and Vajroli mudra, activated by contracting the urethra (similar to the action of stopping the flow, mid-stream, when urinating).
It is possible to isolate and control these two mudras and Mulabandha separately but I have found in my asana practice and daily life, that a gentle contraction of all three at the same time is most beneficial. (By focussing on a contraction of the sphincter muscles, all three can be activated.) This leads to a strengthening of the pelvic-floor muscles and pelvic diaphragm. This is the first stage of Mulabandha.
From here, stage two involves a drawing-in of the lower abdomen using the most internal abdominal wall muscle, the transverse abdominis (TA), along with the lower portion of the obliques.
There are four main abdominal-wall muscles. The innermost three, the transverse abdominis and the internal and external obliques, extend from the hips to the lower ribs and form a girdle-like support system for the spine. The fourth, the rectus abdominis (RA) – known as the ‘six-pack’- runs vertically in the centre of the abdomen.
My experimentation with Mulabandha has led me to a third stage which I suggest is necessary for a complete stabilisation of the spine. This third stage is the contraction of the upper oblique muscles, which is done by drawing the front lower ribs in and down.
There is some confusion concerning the difference between Mulabandha and Uddiyana Bandha. Some people call the drawing in of the lower abdomen Uddiyana Bandha, or a variation of Uddiyana Bandha.
Uddiyana Bandha is actually a complete ‘sucking up’ of the lower and upper abdomen. It is an exercise performed prior to asana work and in various pranayamas and assists in isolating the transverse abdominis and releasing the rectus abdominis, which is helpful when it comes to activating Mulabandha during your practice. Uddiyana Bandha develops elasticity and tones the intercostal muscles and diaphragm, which enhances deep thoracic breathing.
Another well-known bandha is Jalandhara Bandha or chin lock. Mainly applied during pranayama, it involves pressing the chin against the supra-sternal notch.
Mulabandha can be referred to as ‘core strength’. Developing core strength is an essential part of the foundations of yoga practice and as such, it is important to give time to this before moving on to more challenging asanas. Mulabandha should be activated in all movements: forward and back bending, twists, inversions and arm balances etc. Each of these movements creates differing challenges to maintain the Mulabanda
It’s not possible to hold Mulabandha if you are breathing into the belly. When Mulabandha is activated, the TA and obliques set to work, supporting the abdominal organs and giving a bracing effect, forcing the breath to open into the sides and back of the lower ribcage. This becomes apparent in the advanced Side Bridge exercises that follow (particularly the forearm version).
As the breath deepens, it opens the upper ribs. This is a difficult technique for most people who are accustomed to ‘belly breathing’. The posterior section of the lungs is where most of the gas exchange occurs. It is also in this area of the back where we tend to hold tension and feelings that are difficult to acknowledge. Opening the breath into the back helps create space to experience these feelings and begin the process of ‘letting go’. Thoracic breathing strengthens and soothes the nervous system, enhancing the mind/body control.
Mulabandha is one of the key elements for preventing and alleviating back pain. The activation of the core muscles gives grounding or bracing to support the spine and also connects the legs and hips to the upper body allowing a free flow of energy and strength to be transmitted throughout the whole body.
The abdomen is one of the muscle groups where we tend to hold tension unknowingly. With increased awareness, sensitivity and control, we can differentiate between unconscious gripping and conscious controlled activation and relaxation. The amount of activation required depends on the task at hand.
To experience the full benefit of bandha work, we must remember to take the awareness and control of the body and mind that is gained on the yoga mat into our daily lives.
Finally, the importance of working with a neutral spine in conjunction with Mulabandha will be discussed in a further article.