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Re-Thinking the Bandhas of Yoga

in Practice, YogaDork Ed

crow-NEWby Jenni Rawlings

How many of us have been told to engage our bandhas, or internal locks, for our entire yoga practice? First of all, it doesn’t seem like anyone is able to truly sustain these illusive muscular contractions the whole time they’re on the mat, but second of all, is this even a biomechanically wise feat to ask us to do? Most people don’t actually contract the correct musculature when they try to engage their bandhas, but even if they did, are we really strengthening our core by tightening our muscles in an arbitrary, non-stop way? Or are we instead interfering with our body’s built-in dynamic system of core stability?

BANDHAS: A REVIEW

In the yoga world, the bandhas are generally described as muscular contractions of the pelvic floor (mula bandha) and lower belly (uddiyana bandha) that we’re meant to hold throughout our entire practice, releasing them only as we arrive at savasana, our final relaxation pose. (Pilates and some other movement systems teach a similar internal lock method sometimes called abdominal “bracing” or “hollowing”.) The reasons usually given for utilizing the bandhas this way are to connect to our deeper core, to protect our spine, and to feel a sense of “lightness” in our poses (especially those tricky arm balances!)

TRAINING THE WRONG MUSCLE IN UDDIYANA BANDHA?

Yogis often contract the wrong musculature when they attempt to engage uddiyana bandha. Instead of firing the transverse abdominus (TvA), the abdominal muscle that truly stabilizes our core and is the correct muscle of uddiyana bandha, most yogis unknowingly contract their rectus abdominus, which is our most superficial “six-pack” muscle and doesn’t offer us any core stabilization benefits at all.

Transverse Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Transverse Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Let’s take a brief look at the difference between these two important muscles. When the rectus abdominus contracts, it rounds your spine (spinal flexion) and/or tucks your pelvis (posterior tilt). As I explained in my “Core Strength Fiction & Facts” article, we used to think that tucking our pelvis meant that we were using our deep core and protecting our spine, but we now know that this belief is biomechanically incorrect, although most yoga classes and even some schools of Pilates still haven’t caught up to this new word on the street.

The Rectus Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

The Rectus Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

In contrast to the rectus abdominus, which loves to tuck your pelvis, the TvA doesn’t move your pelvis or your rib cage at all when it contracts – it simply and magically compresses your abdomen inward like an amazing built-in corset. Due to the way pressures work, this results in a lengthening of the spine and a decompression of the intervertebral discs (those guys that like to bulge and herniate on us when we don’t treat them well). So when your TvA is working in coordination with the other muscles of your deep core, your spine will thank you because it is stabilized and protected.

But due to non-optimal breathing patterns and and poor posture habits (as well as the aforementioned outdated belief that we should all tuck our pelves to protect our back), most people’s TvA is not functioning well in their body, and as a result their superficial rectus abdominus becomes significantly more dominant. 9 times out of 10, even if we know about the difference between these two muscles and are specifically attempting to turn on our TvA, we end up unknowingly using our rectus abdominus instead. Crazy but true!

THE SELF-CHECK: ARE YOU RECTUS DOMINANT?

The more we understand about how our own muscles are currently functioning, the more mindfulness we’ll cultivate in our body. Before we test whether our rectus likes to dominate our TvA, let’s make sure we know how to correctly turn on our TvA in the first place.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Bring your hands around your side waists. Take a full inhale breath, and then exhale and pull your belly button directly inward toward your spine. If the TvA engaged correctly, you’ll feel your side waists underneath your hands compress inward toward your spine and your pelvis and rib cage will not have changed position at all. (Remember – if your pelvis tucked, you did not fire your TvA – make sense?)

How did it go? Did it feel like waking up a muscle that you might not have been using much before?

Now let’s test whether our rectus likes to take over during a very simple movement in which our TvA should be working. Lie on your back again with knees bent and feet on the floor with your pelvis and rib cage in neutral. Slide your shirt up toward your ribs so that your abdomen is visible. In order to successfully watch what your belly is doing, either have a mirror alongside of you or use the camera on your phone or computer. (It won’t work if you lift your head and look at your abdomen directly with your eyes.)

Take an inhale, and on your exhale pull your lower belly directly inward toward your spine to engage your TvA, and then lift your left foot off the floor until the heel is in line with your knee. Hold here and observe your abdomen. If it looks like this (relatively flat), you are successfully using your TvA to stabilize your spine – good job!

belly-flat

But if your abdomen looks like this, with your belly swelling up toward the sky into a shape some of my Restorative Exercise Specialist friends like to call the “bread loaf” (heh heh), your rectus abdominus has taken over and you have lost your core stability. Don’t move onto the next step if you were baking bread in this first exercise. 🙂

belly-bread

If your TvA passed this first step, try the exercise again, but this time, lift both feet off the floor until your heels are in line with the knees. Did your belly remain flat and compressed inward, or did your spine move toward an arch and did your belly swell up like rising bread dough? If you saw the bread loaf here, your TvA is not strong enough to stabilize your spine in this shape, and you should not do this exercise or any “core work” that is stronger than this until your TvA is able to adequately handle these loads.

THE TVA SHOULD PLAY CENTER STAGE

When we’re doing “core work” in yoga, Pilates, or any other movement program, it’s essential that our TvA is working for us if we’re interested in the long-term structural health of our body. Unfortunately, a lot of core work out there is quite strong in nature, and if our TvA is weak or not functioning well (as you may have just discovered is the case with yours), it can’t meet the demand that such core work places on it.

BANDHAS, BANDHAS, ALL THE TIME?

Now that we’re clear on how uddiyana bandha works, we need to address this problematic idea that we should be holding a static, steady engagement of our bandhas throughout our entire yoga practice. Our core is designed to be a dynamic system which responds to our varying movements with an increase or decrease of engagement as needed, naturally. If we consciously “tighten our core” all practice long (or even all day long as many, many of us do), we are overriding our body’s natural reflex-driven response to movement and this will effectively weaken our core over time.

Instead of “perma-gripping” our bandhas, we should learn to relax our non-stop hold over these muscles so that they can function in their natural integrated way with the rest of our core stabilization system. And then at key moments of extra effort during our practice (like holding a strong arm balance, lifting up into a backbend, or jumping back into chaturanga) or similar key moments during during daily life (like picking up a grocery bag or putting your child in her car seat), we should add in a clear and refined bandha engagement to help enhance our neuromuscular connection to our deep core.

One of the foundational goals of yoga is to restore flow and health to the body, and learning to work with the natural function of the core instead of overriding it is a huge step toward that goal. Offering this biomechanical insight into the bandhas and the workings of our core is part of a continued effort to keep the living tradition of yoga updated and relevant with the best information we have available today. As always, feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments!

~

Jenni Rawlings loves to weave her natural interest in anatomy and biomechanics into her yoga teaching. She is grateful to so many teachers who inspire her, most notably amazing biomechanist Katy Bowman. You can find out more about Jenni at www.jennirawlings.com.

~ Article reposted with permission ~

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15 comments… add one
  • Vision_Quest2

    So, how do I keep the rib cage from moving?
    Does it move outward instead of upward (as in pilates)?

  • Breathless in Brooklyn

    I thought this article had some great guidance for helping people identify and awaken the transversus and distinguish it from the rectus, which is the really important takeaway, so what I’m about to say is really minor:

    Modern postural yoga traditions make way too big a deal about the bandhas with way too little idea of what is even being discussed. If you look at most historic texts describing uddiyana bandha, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the practice seems to clearly refer to a retained exhale while spreading and expanding the ribcage, which draws the belly in and up as the diaphragm rises into the low pressure created in the chest cavity. Abdominal engagement (of any kind) is somewhat irrelevant to this action, and very probably obstructs the expansion of the ribcage required.

    So while the action you’re discussing is interesting and very likely valuable to postural practice at times, it’s not uddiyana bandha. As far as I can tell, the whole “bandha” you described was a late addition from Ashtanga yoga either mistaught by American teachers or misunderstood by Jois himself (I never read or heard him describe it with any clarity or source).

    In the traditional uddiyana bandha, you can’t inhale and do the action I just described, much less hold it for an entire Ashtanga primary series. It’s a technique for pranayama and mudra.

    On the one hand, who cares and what’s in a name, but when so many teachers are ascribing physical and esoteric benefits to an action they’re neither accurately describing or teaching, I think it might be time to get a new word for your bandha.

    • Vision_Quest2

      Well, pilates has a phrase for it. It’s called “scoop action”.

      But that doesn’t sound esoteric enough, nor does it sell a lot of yoga books or classes, does it?

      [Big sneer]

    • Foldy & Stuff

      The bandha described here is unrelated to anything taught in the ashtanga tradition. What is taught in the ashtanga tradition lines up with the Pradipika: “Pulling the abdomen back in and making the navel rise is uddiyana bandha. It is the lion which conquers the elephant, death”
      The most popular translation, from Yoga Publications Trust, also includes the following commentary in its Uddiyana Bandha section:
      “Bandhas should be done after asana and pranayama or in combination with either; however, any bandha should be perfected before it is incorporated with asana or pranayama.”

      The established lineages I’ve been exposed to generally consider bandhas as physically accessed energetic locks that benefit in multiple ways, including physically with added stability, lightness, use of upper lung capacity, and improved mental focus.
      With so many people that have little to no exposure to established lineages/traditions teaching based primarily on their own feelings and limited experiences, a decent amount of confusion and misunderstanding is to be expected. The co-opting of terminology and select pieces of tradition third and fourth hand is more rule than exception. This is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect upon the author here… I don’t know anything of her and even if I thought I did, I wouldn’t be qualified to say.
      If you have someone teaching ashtanga who’s asking you to hold uddiyana bandha throughout your practice, I recommend finding another teacher.

  • robin

    Yes, Breathless! I wanted to make basically the same comment.
    This is not really about uddiyana bandha but it’s always a good thing to be able to isolate the transversus from the rectus. I was taught (in direct lineage to krishnamacharya via T.K.V. Desikachar and his student Peter Hersnack) that mula bandha and jalandhara bandha can (not should) be practiced through out asana and pranayama but uddiyana bandha is only practiced in pranayama or mudra or a few select postures. And it’s definetly only during the pause after an exhale. So you need to really be breathing slow with a long break between exhale and inhale. Actually anybody could read this in T.K.V. Desikachar’s books.
    I recently gave a workshop on the bandhas for this exact reason: there is a lot of confusion about what they are and how to practice them. And I think it’s good to open up the conversation and get this cleared up. If we’re going to use the word bandha it would be helpful if we all agreed on what that means. It’s not something really complicated, it just requires some experience with a good teacher and a certain amount of practice.
    But yeah, sounds like this article is more about mula bandha and not uddiyana. Also no mention at all of jalandhara bandha which should be taught before the others, nor of the concept that bandhas work mostly on the subtle body, not just the physical body.

  • Nessie

    Agree with above posts, this is not udiyana bandha, and from my understanding one should not attempt to hold the bandhas through the practice, but with experience and practice certain contractions between the exhale and inhale can be felt which will start giving you clues to where the bandhas come in to play. I was taught that udiyana bhanda occurs at the end of the exhale and mula bhanda at the start of the inhale. The two bandhas are experienced in a wave like pattern and in succession between the exhale and inhale, and form part of the breathe itself. The best places to practice this technique in the primary series are down dog, dandasana and padmasana in the finishing sequence. In these stances you have time and steadiness to focus on breathe and the spine is straight. I have heard from numerous master teachers that it can take decades of practice to even be able to start glimpsing the true nature of bandhas as their makeup occurs on a more subtle plane than simple anatomy. Anatomy is a good start I suppose, but the connections go much further than the muscles. The fascia adjoining other muscles and organs is involved, as well as nervous stimulation. I think it’s good to know that learning the bandhas requires practice and time. I don’t think their essence can be taught in a bandha workshop.

  • Breathless in Brooklyn

    Foldy, I’m glad to hear that the Ashtanga folks you know aren’t teaching the bandhas that way–when I practiced Ashtanga regularly, which was about a decade ago, that was very much in fashion, and Jois himself wasn’t clear on it (given the extent of his English he wasn’t clear on a lot of things, which is understandable). But it was unfair of me to single out a tradition I haven’t been in great contact with recently. And certainly, as this article demonstrates, wherever the trend started, this confusion on the bandhas has since swung far and wide.

    I also appreciate that Foldy gives specific context and expected results for the bandha in terms of lung capacity, stability, etc. In my opinion, this context is too often dropped and is key for helping students understand when and why to use the technique, and when to let it go. The examples robin and Nessie give both contain instructions saying when to do the practice but not why (I realize the “why” wasn’t your intention here, so I’m not singling out just making a convenient example).

    I hear that a lot in teaching and I think it disempowers the student and turns the bandhas into “something strange I do because my teacher says so and I hope it does something good in a way I don’t understand.” And when teachers say, oh this bandha takes decades to fully understand: well, I could say that about any aspect of yoga practice or any practice.

    At best that deliberately mystifies and fetishizes a practice that clearly can be approached on a physical level at least to start. After all, that’s how the Pradipika does it: I may have no clue what “the lion that conquers the elephant, death” means, but I can sure as heck pull my navel toward my spine and get the game started.

    And at worst, context-free, deliberately esoteric teachings can serve as cover for a lack of understanding in the teachers themselves. Which quite frankly seems to be how we ended up here, with someone writing a very clear, articulate and well-thought-out article that actually has nothing to do with the practice in its title.

    • Joy

      It’s good to know that holding your bandhas throughout the practice is not entirely how Ashtanga is supposed to be. This does come as a surprise to me after practicing for the last 8 months and specifically being told I have to hold them throughout my practice. Yes, word for word at my studio the teachers say this at the start of every class. I enjoy Ashtanga , but maybe I should find another studio.

      • Hi Joy! I’m not sure that you need to find another studio – I think it just depends on what your goals for your practice are. Ashtanga is rooted in a strong tradition that isn’t necessarily updated with the newest biomechanics info. You could still practice at that studio, but just understand on your own that contracting your pelvic floor & low belly non-stop for your entire practice isn’t beneficial and you could just opt out of that (instead of holding them continuously, just engage them during key times of extra effort and then let them go). OR if you’re looking for a more anatomically-informed practice, then you might want to try another style. If the “intensity”, sweat, and flow of Ashtanga is part of the draw for you, though, I would offer that it’s pretty tough to find another “intense” flowing yoga practice that is also rooted in anatomy & biomechanics. Thanks so much for reading!!

  • jeff silverstein

    Thanks for the article Jennifer. Lets not confuse Uddiyana, one of the shat karmas, or kriyas with Uddiyana Bandha in Asana. In Asana, isolating the upper TVA from the lower part, and drawing in subtly below the navel allows free movement of the diaphragm. Richard Freeman says Uddiyana Bandha is only a slight suction inward above the pubic bone. You can start by pulling the abdominal wall inwards toward the spine just below the naval, and work on bringing it closer to the pubic bone over time. One must attend to the Bandhas as a practice. The Bandhas are mutually synergistic. Uddiyana Bandha has it’s peak at the end of the exhale, and mula at the top of the inhale. Keeping the essence of the inhale while exhaling, and the exhale while inhaling allows one to attend to this awareness, and will open up the central canal (Sushumna nadi).

  • Interesting! What would you recommend as the best way for students to strengthen a weak transverse abdominus — for example they can’t lift their one leg without ‘baking the bread” as you described?

    • Hi Colleen! There are many different ways to strengthen transverse abdominus, but some common ones you might find in a yoga class are holding plank and side plank and their variations – as long as you’re sure to keep your spine stable as you do them. 🙂

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