Mula bandha is a somewhat common technique in modern yoga. It is generally accepted that this technique, which means 'root lock', is a contraction of the muscles of the pelvic floor. Some interpret this to be the perineum, the anus, or a combination of the muscles in the pelvis. The anatomical specifics of how and when to do mula bandha are not the goal of this article. Today we are looking at where the practice comes from, and perhaps why it was developed.
The instruction of mula bandha dates back to the early days of Hathayoga, around the 12-13th centuries CE. At this time, Hathayoga was gradually forming out of the tantric beliefs of Buddhism and Shaivism. Alchemy, the attempt to forge new substances, was widely accepted, and the spiritual seekers began practicing an 'inner alchemy' where the magic happens inside the body of the yogi.
According to this alchemical belief, the inner elements of a person could be forged to create immortality, divinity or great power. As Shaivism (the worship of Shiva) became more prominent in Hathayogic teaching, the concept was related specifically to the awakening of kundalini, a latent power of pure consciousness. The way that kundalini is awakened is by manipulating the 'winds' of the body, some of which naturally go up while others go down.
In Hathayoga, mula bandha is specifically intended to take the downward-moving 'wind', called apana, and push it upward. Once the apana wind is turned upward, it is fanned with the abdomen to heat it. Then it combines with the upward wind, called prana. The combination creates an inferno that awakens and raises kundalini. Below is an excerpt from the Hathapradipika, perhaps the best known text on Hathayoga:
As you can see, mula bandha is specifically intended to turn apana upward, where a whole series of events follows. This description of mula bandha is present in almost all the texts of Hathayoga. Here is one other, from the Goraksasataka, translated by James Mallinson. I include it because it is pretty elaborate and well-explained:
This explanation continues to the modern day, though it is rarely incorporated in common yoga posture classes that remove esoteric or spiritual overtones. For obvious reasons, a simple muscular contraction is far easier to teach and understand than a detailed metaphysical system of bodily winds and latent spiritual energy. Nonetheless, Swami Sivananda and his students like Vishnudevananda explain mula bandha similar to the older Hathayogic way.
Iyengar, in Light On Yoga, foregoes the apana-kundalini approach and explains mula bandha a little differently. He initially explains the bandhas as closing off "safety valves", which is reminiscent of the old way. But he goes on to interpret the term mula bandha as follows: mula means 'source', and bandha is 'restraint'. So mula bandha is the restraint of the mind, intellect and ego. This recalls Patanjali's famous definition of yoga at the beginning of the Yoga Sutras. Here is what Iyengar writes in Light On Yoga:
We don't think it's a stretch to say that this is a reinterpretation of the meaning of mula bandha. Separately, in modern practice and teaching mula bandha is sometimes taught as a physically stabilizing technique, again quite different from its original iteration.
What does it all mean?
Like so many things in yoga, the purpose of the practices can change so that they become unrecognizable. Does that make them less effective, useful or valuable? Perhaps. We think it is worth asking ourselves why we do what we do. What are the underlying reasons?
Personally speaking, we do not hold the belief that our bodies are populated by 'winds', as was apparently the belief for some time during the development of Hathayoga. We attribute our 'digestive fire' not to actual fire but to hydrochloric acid in the stomach. And we attribute urination and excretion not to downward-moving apana wind but to peristaltic movement of the intestines and contraction of the sphincters. Do these beliefs make something like mula bandha anachronistic? We think that they do.
Standing postures are rare in Hatha yoga. Most asanas are seated, lying down or upside down. (Of course, by Hatha yoga I am referring to pre-modern practices and texts. This was before practices of health and exercise made their way into yoga in the 19-20th centuries.) One of the few exceptions is Vrikshasana, the Tree Posture, which appeared relatively late, probably the 18th century in the Gheranda Samhita. Earlier texts including the Hathapradipika don't contain any standing postures.
Over the last few months I’ve been compiling materials to research the forgotten women of yoga. Through work in Kolkata, I came to know of a few names of women, some quite famous, who today are completely forgotten. The questions started piling up— why do so many women do yoga when it was thrust into the modern age largely (at least publicly) by men.
Through gathering texts and doing interviews, the layers of complexity grew.
One unanticipated layer is the talk of beauty when it comes to women and yoga. This isn't found in posture manuals for men, and isn’t about “radiance” or something that could be referenced in Haṭha texts. This is talk of things like “perfect breasts” and “thin waists”.
This made me think of my own journey in the yoga studio so far. The "no food is good food" was certainly a part of the community. I remember being complimented the most in class when I was incredibly sick with pneumonia and hadn't been able to keep any food but applesauce down.
Around that same time I was also injured. My hamstring was tearing but I was locking out my standing bow. (Worth it? No.)
Since then I stopped wanting to be injured and took up weight training. When my new trainer gave me 15 pushups as a warm up I balked! I couldn’t do one, yet I was one of the strongest at my yoga studio.
I have since gained 15lbs. And with it, the strength to run many miles, move hundreds of pounds, do pull-ups, (more than 15) pushups and most importantly, have the strength to stay injury free.
Since talking about injuries in yoga studios around the world, we've gotten a variety of responses. Some burst into tears and ask, “So it shouldn’t hurt? I’ve spent a decade thinking it was supposed to.” Some just shake their heads, acknowledge how obvious it is that a "healing" practice shouldn’t injure the body. Others though, respond with the predictable, yet disappointing response of, “Well I’m not injured. You weren’t doing it right.” Denial is powerful.
All of this combined has me thinking. Are we trying to be healthy or beautiful? Who is deciding this? Do we actually know what we’re doing?
We often get the question, "What do you think about using props?" In general, blocks or other supportive props can be helpful when practicing postures. Straps on the other hand, can take us in the wrong direction. Here are the reasons why.
A posture is a series of muscular engagements and relaxations. Getting your body to make the shape of a posture is not the goal. Rather, using the muscles of the body effectively will give us the benefits we strive for.
When we use straps or "bind" in a pose, we usually end up using the opposite muscles of what the posture calls for.
For example, in Dancer Pose (pictured above), we need to engage the muscles in the back to create a backbend. If we use a strap, we end up pulling on the strap to lift our leg up and backbend. When we do that though, we engage the wrong muscles. Pulling on a strap will engage a combination of the triceps, abs, chest, lats, most of which must be relaxed in a backbend.
Straps can also encourage us to achieve a posture. It is definitely exciting to practice new postures, and goal setting is helpful for creating longevity in practice. But seeking to achieve a difficult physical pose is a delicate situation for the ego. If we teach our body to work well and difficult poses become accessible, that is one thing. If we look for ways to get into a pose that short circuit the strength and control necessary to do the pose, that is very different.
It is important to realize we can always practice the elements of a posture even if the full posture is not accessible.
A position like Dancer Pose incorporates balance and backward bending. Balance can be practiced in many different postures. Backbends can also be practiced in a variety of ways.
Rather than using tools to make us think we are getting closer to a pose like Dancer, practice the elements of the posture as effectively as possible. This will be beneficial and take our practice in the right direction both mentally and physically.
Over the years, we have come up with what we call perfect postures. We consider postures perfect, when they follow these three rules:
Let's look at these criteria in more detail.
THE CORRECT MUSCLES HAVE TO ENGAGE
In many of the postures we practice, it is easy to get the wrong muscles involved. Standing Head to Knee (with the arms) is a perfect example. Standing Head to Knee should be a balancing forward bend of the spine. However, with the arms, it's almost inevitable that the arms engage to hold the leg up and pull the upper body closer to the leg. Also, the back often engages to prevent us from collapsing all the way forward. Both of these actions will not take us in the direction of the pose for the following reasons:
1) The arms do not bend the spine forward, that's the job of the rectus abdominis.
2) A forward bend of the spine requires abdominal engagement and back relaxation. If our back is engaging, this is the opposite of the pose.
This brings us to the first perfect pose, Standing Head to Knee with No Arms. While it is incredibly difficult, any attempt to balance on one leg, lift the other and round the spine will take us in the right direction because the correct muscles have to engage.
NO EXTREME RANGE OF MOTION IN THE BODY
The second rule for a perfect posture is no extreme range of motion. In some ways, postures with small ranges of motion are easy to find. On the other hand, yoga postures can easily incorporate extreme ranges of motion without us realizing it. This is something we have to be careful of.
Our next two perfect poses are Full Locust and Locust. In addition to the other criteria, they do not ask for any extreme range of motion.
WITHOUT THE STRENGTH TO DO THE POSTURE, NOTHING HAPPENS
The last rule that makes a posture perfect relates to what happens when we don't have the strength to execute the posture. In some postures, if we don't have the strength or control, we can get ourselves into a sticky situation. Examples of this could be a position that puts a lot of stress on a joint or a pose that lengthens a muscle too far. In a perfect posture, if you don't have the strength to do the posture, nothing happens! It is perfectly safe for this reason.
The final two perfect postures are Palmstand and Torso Lift. Anyone who has tried Palmstand for the first time will likely remember the feeling of "Nothing is happening!" While it is difficult to lift the hips and legs up, it's completely safe. Without the strength, we simply remain sitting. The same principle applies to Torso Lift. Without abdominal strength, nothing happens.
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
Last month we wrote about the common shoulder injury Shoulder Impingement. The other common injury to the shoulder happens in the front, where the short head of the biceps muscle attaches to the shoulder blade, a biceps tendon strain. This injury is most common in Ashtanga Vinyasa and subsequent 'flowing' yoga styles that incorporate a lot of Sun Salutations and chaturangas. The shoulder can't do this action very well, and the biceps become strained before too long.
To understand this injury, we have to talk about shoulder mechanics and the muscles that move the arm.
PECTORALIS MAJOR & ADDUCTION
One of the biggest and most powerful muscles of the shoulder is the pectoralis major, commonly known as the 'pecs' or just the 'chest muscle', pictured to the left. It connects the arm (humerus) directly to the middle of the chest. Its main function is to pull the arm toward the chest in an action called adduction.
Try it: hold your arm out to the side (as pictured below, labeled adduction), then bring your arm toward the center, so you end up with your arm pointing forward. As you do this, you will feel your 'pec' engage. When you apply this motion to something like a pushup, the arms need to be away from the body, so the pushup motion will be pulling the arm inward toward the chest. Simply put, this means keeping your elbows away from the body. This is the safest way to do any pushup motion.
BICEPS & FLEXION
In contrast, if we start with our arms down by the sides and lift them up until they point forward, this is called flexion (pictured above, labeled flexion). When we lift the arm like this, the pec doesn't get activated much, so the work is done by much smaller muscles like the anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder cap) and the biceps. The biceps cross two joints; they bend the elbow and also flex the shoulder. But they don't have the power to move the body's entire weight.
When we do pushups or chaturangas with the elbows close to the sides of the body, we are essentially moving the shoulder in flexion. This is not a powerful nor particularly healthy way to move so much weight. When we do this repeatedly, the bicep tendon (usually the short head at the attachment with the coracoid process of the shoulder blade) will often be damaged. This manifests as pain or soreness in the front of the shoulder.
There is a common belief that keeping the elbows close to the body uses the triceps more than if the elbows were wider. This is not true for the simple reason that the triceps straighten the elbow, and the elbow is doing a similar action in both versions. The big impact is on the shoulder and what muscle group you use when doing a pushup or chaturanga motion.
There is nothing inherently wrong with keeping the elbows close to the body and flexing the shoulder. The problems arise when we do this with our entire body weight and do it repetitively. This is how injury usually happens. Consider making the elbows wider, which will strengthen the huge pectoralis major muscle as well as be safer for the smaller muscles of the shoulder.
Happy, healthy practicing!
We're about halfway through the Ghosh 2020 challenge! Each day we've been posting a concept related to the physical practice. Occasionally, we've asked you to respond to questions about how these postures function in the body. This challenge is all about being clear about the goals of the practice and how they're accomplished. With this in mind, we'd like to address a common misconception about breathing.
When we breathe in the chest (like in Standing Deep Breathing), the abdominal muscles are relaxed.
This seems to confuse a lot of people who are used to hearing "suck the stomach in" or something like it in this exercise. When we inhale into the chest, we use the intercostal muscles between the ribs and not the abdomen. (More on that here.) The abdomen does appear to come in, but this is directly a result of the chest lifting. There is no action in the abdominal muscles on the inhale.
Muscles only have the ability to pull. They cannot push.
When a muscle engages, it pulls its two attachment points closer together. So, no action in the abdomen can push the ribs up. (In fact, engaging the rectus abdominis will keep us from affectively breathing in the chest, because it will pull our ribs down.)
In chest breathing, we have a second set of intercostal muscles that exhale. However, it is true that the transverse abdominis can help us exhale, especially if we are exhaling forcefully.
When you practice chest breathing, relax your abdomen. On the inhale, any muscular effort in the abdomen will hinder you.
Samadhi is an important concept in yoga. It is the highest of the 8 'limbs' in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the highest of the 6 'limbs' of the Maitri Upanishad. Even with such a distinguished position as the culmination of yogic practice, it is a difficult concept to understand. Often samadhi is described as 'absorption', 'meditation', or 'contemplation'. I think it is much clearer to think of it as 'transparency of mind'.
One of difficulties with samadhi is the same as will arise with any other word. Most words have multiple meanings, and it can be a challenge to pinpoint the correct one. Samadhi is often used in a more general sense meaning 'concentration'. So we often see it used in contemplative, yogic and spiritual texts without a super technical purpose. Often it just means concentration.
But in yoga texts around 0-500 CE, samadhi took on a more specific, technical meaning. It was placed atop of the pyramid of meditative practice, above the older, better-known dhyana, which was until then a more common term for meditation.
THE COLOR OF THE MIND
To understand the value of samadhi, first we must understand the nature of the mind. As a thinking and perceiving tool, the mind is always interpreting what it sees and combining it with what it has experienced in the past. This interaction of the present with our memory is what gives us our 'reality'. But it is dependent on our past experience and the beliefs it has created. So we are not actually experiencing the world as it truly is but interpreting it through the lens of our own history.
The mind is like stained glass. We can see the world on the other side, but it is distorted and colored by our own experience, history and memory. The practice of yoga is largely committed to reducing the 'color' of the mind, working toward removing the distortions of our perception and the impact of the mind's own tendencies on our interaction with the world.
A TRANSPARENT JEWEL
Samadhi is the ultimate expression of mental transparency, where the mind no longer interprets the world through a 'colored' filter. As it says in the Yoga Sutras, "the mind becomes just like a transparent jewel, taking the form of whatever object is placed before it" (YS 1.41). This means that there is no distortion whatsoever caused by the mind, and we can experience each object exactly as it is without our own interpretation. Similarly, samadhi is described later in the sutras as the state when "the mind is devoid of its own reflective nature" (3.3).
This is a difficult state to achieve, as the tendency of the mind is mostly toward interpretation. Meditative practices are largely aimed at solving this problem by encouraging a 'one-pointed' mind. This reduces the tendency of the mind to think, interpret and color our perceptions. The culmination, samadhi, is when we cease to interpret the world, make the mind transparent, and experience the world as it is.
A while back, Calcutta Yoga by Jerome Armstrong was available on this site. The limited run sold out quickly and as it did, the book was picked up by Pan MacMillan Publishing. The wait for the new and improved version is over! Calcutta Yoga comes out soon and you can order it here.
Calcutta Yoga is the story of Buddha Bose, Bishnu Ghosh, Yogananda. Heavily researched, the book chronicles yoga in Calcutta in the early 1900s and follows it as it spreads beyond Bengal and into the world.
Where one story bled into the next, Jerome followed through leaving no stone unturned. This book is the culmination of years of effort and a worldwide quest to get to the bottom of the history of Calcutta Yoga.
For now, the book will be out as a hardcover in India, and available as an ebook worldwide.
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
Two common injuries in yoga happen in the shoulder. One is in the front of the shoulder---the biceps tendon---which we will address next time. The other is in the top of the shoulder, called impingement. It happens when the arm lifts up high; the arm bone can bump against the edge of the shoulder blade, called the acromion, and damage the tendon there.
HOW THIS CAN HAPPEN
In yoga, this happens most often when we force the arms overhead. Think of any time you link your hands together and then try to straighten your arms using force. As pictured below, it happens in Half Moon Backbend, Half Moon Sidebend, Balancing Stick and Half Tortoise, among others. (It also happens in Downward Facing Dog.) When we force our arms to straighten overhead, we usually use the triceps, a muscle mainly of the elbow, to compel movement in the shoulder. This is where we get into trouble and impingement can happen. You will feel a 'pinching' sensation in the top and outside of your shoulder. This is the bones bumping into each other, damaging the soft tissue.
If the shoulders become injured this way, they will be painful whenever lifting the arms sideways, and the breathing exercise pictured at the top will cause pain.
HOW TO HELP
The simplest and most effective way to avoid this injury is to not link your hands together. Just place them side by side without interlacing the fingers. Interlacing the fingers and forcing the arms straight overhead is the easiest way to create the injury.
Or don't lift your arms overhead (pictured below left). Most postures can be done quite effectively without the arms overhead. All of the positions pictured above don't require the arms to get the primary benefit.
Alternatively, you can lift your arms forward and up (pictured below) instead of out to the side. This will help the shoulder blades move into the proper position and keep the shoulders healthy.
In the breathing exercise, pictured at the top, you can keep your elbows lower, not lifting them higher than the shoulders. This will prevent further irritation of this area.
To build strength in the area, postures like Full Locust will help (pictured below right). By pulling the shoulders back and together, we build strength in the back of the shoulder to help stabilize and balance the joint.
The moral of the story is that we should be aware and careful when lifting the arms overhead, especially if we are gripping the hands together and straightening with force. If there is a 'pinching' sensation in the top of the shoulder, back off immediately. There is nothing there to 'stretch', and it is likely that we are impinging our supraspinatus tendon. Try adjusting your approach to the posture and using your shoulders a little differently.
Happy, healthy practicing.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- Understanding Chair Posture
- Lock the Knee History
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Origins of Standing Bow
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- Through Bishnu's Eyes
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice