Mula Bandha may be the most befuddling, underinstructed technique in the world of yoga. Here, one intrepid reporter gets to the root of things and discovers that Mula Bandha is not just a physical action but a doorway into bliss.
So, once you “get it,” how will the bandhas change your practice? In the Ashtanga tradition, Mula Bandha is so critical to the correct performance of asana that K. Pattabhi Jois, the leader of the tradition, instructs his students to keep Mula Bandha engaged throughout every practice; in fact, he’s often quoted as saying that it should stay engaged 24/7. That’s a metaphorical overstatement, of course, meant to emphasize the importance of Mula Bandha, which when mastered and used correctly has the potential to transform even the most lackluster practice.
Mula Bandha is what helps Ashtanga practitioners find the balance they need to tackle arm balances and inversions, and the strength and control they need for difficult tasks, such as jumping through and jumping back. But the list of the physical benefits to a yoga practice is nearly endless, and Freeman can rattle them off handily: “It’s grounding, so students feel much more stable. They won’t lose balance. Correct movement of limbs becomes more natural. When they do a backbend, they’ll be less likely to compress the spine. They’ll find more space under the belly, which is very convenient for twists.”
“By practicing Mula Bandha, you gain a real sense of the central axis of the body,” says Freeman, a student of Jois. “You learn to move from the lower belly, feeling the pelvic floor and letting it participate in aligning the body. It will help you integrate the movements of the body and give you the sense that you are composed of radiance…One becomes juicier, more intuitive, more sensitive, and more able to express feeling with the entire body through every movement.”
The Inside Line
That inward path, let’s not forget, is the point of yoga. “I think it’s important for people to remember the original context of hatha yoga,” says Pomeda, who was a Vedic monk in the Sarasvati order for 18 years. “This opens up your perspective, puts the practice into a much larger framework. From that reference point, all practices are geared to the awakening of kundalini and the attainment of the highest realization.”
Kundalini is the feminine energy that is classically depicted as a serpent coiled and asleep at the base of the spine, which is also the seat of Mula Bandha. When she awakens, she rises up through the spine to merge with universal consciousness at the crown chakra, found at the top of the head. The bandhas —particularly Mula Bandha and Jalandhara engaged together—can be used to help create the internal pressure necessary to roust her out of her comfy home, where she might otherwise snooze away forever.
And though spiritual life certainly does not end with Mula Bandha, it does, in a sense, begin there. “Engaging Mula Bandha creates a foundation,” Harrigan says. “The root of the tree is important for the entire tree. Likewise, Mula Bandha is important for making asana and pranayama beneficial. Without the bandhas, these exercises have only physical effects.”
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article Bound for Glory By Hillari Dowdle, Asana Instruction by Tim Miller
To learn more about how to integrate Mula Bandha into your daily asana practice, read Mula Bandha in Action.
The topic of the class was on the scripture called Aparoksanubhuti by Shankaracharya, which is a non-dual text that Richard said was one of Guruji’s favorites. This text talks about mula bandha among many other things and I have included the sutra below that Richard spoke at length about.
Mula Bandha – 114
yanmulam sarvabhutanam yanmulam cittabandharam/
mulabandhah sada sevyo yogyo’sau rajayoginam
That which is the root of all existence and on which the cessation of the mind is based is called mulabandha, which should always be served since it is fit for raja-yogis.
Richard says that mula bandha is the cessation of thought so it cannot be something you think or try to do. It is more of a seva, which means service or to attend to and the idea is that mula bandha is treated like a deity and you do seva to the deity at the sacred temple sitting deep within the pelvis. The balancing of energies on the pelvic floor is the way to consecrate the temple and then the goddess serpent Kundalini will stand up when she wants to. The voyeur of the ego prevents the goddess from awakening because you have to invite her as the sacred flame at the root of the pelvic floor so that she inhabits the temple. Mula bandha according to Richard is not a mechanical thing but more like a devotional experience.
Excerpt from Article Richard Freeman and Mula Bandha over Coffee on a Friday Afternoon by Kino MacGregor
In the yoga tradition, the lowly foot paradoxically has an almost transcendent status. Students touch or kiss the feet of beloved teachers as an act of reverence. Similarly, the first phrase of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga invocation, vande gurunam charanaravinde (“I honor the lotus-flower feet of all the gurus”), acknowledges that yoga teachings have stepped down through time on the feet of the learned ones.
This veneration of the foot reflects its importance as the foundation of the temple of the body. Just as the foundation of a temple must be level to support all the structures above, so the feet must be balanced and sturdy to support the legs, spine, arms, and head. If our base is tilted or collapsed, it will be reflected up through the body as distortion or misalignment. As Ida Rolf, the renowned bodyworker and founder of Structural Integration (aka Rolfing), pointed out, “A man’s tracks tell quite a true story. They inform quietly about ankles and knees, but they shout the news about hips and pelvis. If one foot is consistently everted [tilted onto its inner edge], the ankle, the knee, or, perhaps more likely, the entire pelvic basin is rotated.”
Look at the soles of your shoes. Does the inside or the outside of your heel wear down? If there is excessive wear on one side, the foot is shifted off its central axis, likely putting strain on the knee, hip, or lower back. When students consult with me about knee or sacroiliac pain, I often look to their feet for the origins of the distortion.
The balanced wheel as a metaphor for proper posture and pleasant experience dates back to ancient Sanskrit. In the Yoga Sutra, one of the two qualities Patanjali directs practitioners to develop in asana is sukha. Usually translated as “ease,” the word literally means “good space” and once referred to the hub of a chariot wheel that was perfectly tuned and rolled smoothly. Duhkha(“bad space” and, by extension, “suffering”) is when the wheel hub is lopsided and the wheel has a hitch each time it turns. In hatha yoga, when the body is light and spacious, there is sukha; when the body is distorted and hurting, there is duhkha. I often encourage students to “pump up” the arches of their feet, creating inner arches that have “good space” between the bones and the floor.
In hatha yoga, standing poses are the primary tools for building this “good space” and stability in the feet, thereby energizing the legs to support proper posture. So it’s no surprise that the best known approaches to hatha yoga—including Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and Bikram Yoga—use standing poses as their starting place. Standing with equilibrium is the first posture in all these systems. Whether it’s referred to as Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or Samastithi (Equal Standing), this pose is the foundation for all the postures because the neutral standing position teaches us to be fully upright, connected to the ground yet reaching out and up toward the sky.
The ease of our upright posture is determined mainly by alignment of the feet and, more specifically, by “equal standing” through the inner and outer side of each ankle joint. In people who have fallen arches or, as they are commonly called, flat feet, the lack of arch support causes the inner ankle bone (the base of the tibia) to collapse in and down. Once the inner ankle drops, the inner groin at the top of the inner leg often also collapses. In turn, the weakness of the inner thighs leaves the lower back vulnerable to compression.
Commonly, the back body holds much of the charge of our personal history; literally, we store past stress and anxiety behind us. Falsely assuming that what is out of sight is out of mind, we end up with a back body full of tension: tight, unresponsive lower calves, hamstrings, lower back, shoulder blade area, and neck.
A forward bend like Prasarita Padottanasana (Widespread Standing Forward Bend) elongates and gradually breaks apart the accumulated tension in the back body, making available an abundance of previously “shorted-out” energy. If the sole of the foot is elastic and open in forward bends like this one, it can initiate a free flow of energy up the back of the legs, down the spine,
In fact, though we may seldom think of them in this way, the soles of the feet are the beginning of the back of the body.
For students familiar with Mula Bandha (Root Lock), I suggest they think of the lift of the arch as a “Pada Bandha” (pada means “foot” in Sanskrit). Although bandha is usually translated as “lock,” it also implies a “binding” or “harness” that can be used to draw energy upward.
In general, once you cultivate mobility and support in your foot—that is, once Pada Bandha is active—you engage the foot this way throughout almost all postures. In forward bends, twists, and backbends—even in inversions when the feet are both extending into space—you sustain the same lifting action to pull life force in through the feet. Without Pada Bandha, the thighs, hips, and low back lose the intelligence they need to stay active.
As Pada Bandha supports elevation in the ankles, knees, and inner groins, it also supports the lift of the pelvic floor known as Mula Bandha. Although the first chakra of the torso, located at the perineum in the pelvic floor, is traditionally called Muladhara (Root) Chakra, our feet provide even deeper stabilizing root support for the upward moving trunks of our legs. In a sense, we have two root supports, one located in the center of each foot, like a healthy tree in which the root system bifurcates as it descends.
I often teach that the soles of the feet and the pelvic floor mirror each other. Elasticity and postural tone in the feet help determine tone in the pelvic floor. Especially as we age and the weight of the internal organs draws them down inside the abdominal compartment, building good tone and lift in the feet helps tone the perineal muscles and prevent gravity from getting the best of us.
Spread the Joy
Finally, a word about your toes: It’s never too late to learn to spread them. You have muscles in your feet that are designed to spread your toes just as the muscles in your hands spread your fingers. If your toes stay glued together no matter how much you try to spread them, the muscles are probably atrophied from lack of use, and the toes themselves may have lost flexibility.
If you’ve managed to read this far with your shoes on, take them off. Sitting in any way you find comfortable, put the palm of your right hand onto the sole of your left foot. Insert your fingers between the toes. (The ends of the fingers are narrower and will give a gentler stretch than the bases of the fingers.) Bending your fingers onto the tops of your feet, gently squeeze your foot as if it were a sponge, then squeeze your fingers with your toes in the same way. Repeat for a minute or two, then remove your fingers and try spreading your toes again.
Have patience, even if you don’t notice a big difference immediately. Over time, this exercise will begin to wake up your toes.