Mulha Bandha anatomically speaking by David Keil © 2010 (image link)
The bandhas are perhaps the most difficult aspect to grasp in the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. For me personally, I think I know what they are. But then I look back at my little life as an Ashtangi, amazingly at 11 years now, and realize, I thought I knew what they were 10 years ago. Then just 5 years ago I understand them even more differently than I do today. My experience of them has changed over the years and will continue to as I'm guessing your experience of them will.
As an anatomy teacher I do try to bridge the gap between the subtle esoteric aspects of the energetic system and the practice of yoga and put it into western terms of anatomy. In the area of bandhas, I am careful to not too strongly make it into a physical anatomical thing. Instead, I acknowledge that bandhas are both, energetic and physical as is our entire body. We are not just energy, not just emotions, not just spiritual, not just thoughts, not just physical, but all of these at once.
To discuss mulha bandha we talk about the pelvic floor, some people say Perineum and others use the term PC muscles which stands for Pubo-Coccygeal muscles. This web of tissue at the base of our torso container is actually a diaphragm - defined as a ring of tissue. The opening at the base of our bowl shaped pelvis is more or less circular and filled with thin layers of muscles and fascia, creating a trampoline of tissues. Like many other places in the body, the pelvic floor is layered. Technically the perineum lies under the pubo-coccygeal muscles with a layer of fascia between.
Contraction of these muscles is often associated with the mulha bandha. Great debate comes from whether you should be contracting the middle or the back portion of these tissues and far be it from me to jump into this one too deeply, other than to say, Guruji (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) always talked about controlling your anus. The translations that I've seen of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which has an entire chapter on Bandhas and Mudras, often say the same thing. That is, mulha bandha is a contraction of the anus.
As it turns out the PC muscles are actually part of the levator ani... which means elevator of the anus. Technically this would be more closely related to what we're after. Therefore to this anatomist, it makes more technical sense to use PC. But that's just me, in the end, what matters is that you have the experience of what is created, not the technical details.
If the bandha is an energetic component of who we are, what part does the actual muscle have to do with the bandha anyway? Personally I describe the pelvic floor and contraction of it as the pathway toward mulha bandha. In other words, it's the physical contraction that does two things. First, it creates a conscious mental relationship with mulha bandha and it seems that prana follows thoughts, so if you're thinking of a part of your body, you are in essence sending energy there. Second, is the contraction of the PC muscles which stimulates the energetic center. Hence, creating the mulha bandha.
There are of course physical changes that occur when performing a contraction of the pelvic floor muscles. They often fit into the descriptions given of the core muscles. There are debates about what the core muscles are, which ones should be included etc... but the pelvic floor is almost always part of that conversation. Remember that the pelvic floor muscles are at the base of the spine filling the circular like hole at the bottom of our pelvic bowl. The back portion of the bowl is created by the sacrum which links to either side of the pelvis at what we call the SI (sacroiliac) joint. Just off to either side of the sacrum, in essence filling in the sides toward the back or the bowl are the piriformis muscles.
Think of the spine rising up out of the back of the pelvic bowl, towering above its foundation at the pelvis. Almost like balancing a broom upside down in the palm of your hand. Certainly there are other muscles that help stabilize this column as it rises, but at its base, its foundation, are the PC muscles. To see the effect of these muscles in helping balance the spine, imagine for a moment that you tightened your PC muscles so much that it started to make your coccyx touch your pubic bone (not possible by the way). If the coccyx, and therefore sacrum are moving toward the pubic bone it means that there is movement at the SI joint and the spine is falling backwards above the SI joint.
If the muscles let go completely then the opposite would happen. No tension to hold the sacrum in place and the towering column of the spine would start to fall forward and the coccyx would be moving away from the pubis. The point is that the PC muscles help to create stability of the pelvic bowl and the spine that rises from it. Of course, no muscle, or in this case group of muscles, lives in a vacuum. There are other muscles (and ligaments) that help maintain the integrity of the pelvic bowl and the stability of the spine, it's just that these muscles are at the foundation of it. Therefore physically these muscles are about stability and support of pelvis and spine, and perhaps, root the spine, or are at the root of the spine. Mulha = Root.
There is another effect that happens when contracting these muscles. You should be able to feel this yourself quite easily especially on a strong contraction of the PC muscles. This effect is that you should also find that lowest part of your abdomen also changes in tension. You may want to close your eyes for a moment and do a few contraction of these muscles to see what other parts around the area contract. People may experience it slightly differently. Some may even feel a contraction in their lower back as well between the top of the pelvis and ribs which would most likely be a result of the transverse abdominus (the deepest of the oblique muscles) as it connects to the vertebrae in the lumbar.
There is still one more direction to go with this interlinking of subtle and gross aspects of mulha bandha and the pelvic floor. What better force to interlink them with than breath. You might say that breath is the ultimate link between subtle and gross. It's most subtle aspect as Prana or life force animates our physical bodies. This feeds us both energetically and then if we take just the smallest of steps toward gross, prana presents itself in the form of oxygen molecules which nourish and sustain all of our more gross tissues, be they nervous, muscular, or skeletal. Everything in the body relies upon it.
When the diaphragm contracts it compresses the abdominal contents and puts a downward pressure on the pelvic floor and if unrestricted, also pushes the abdomen out. You can give it a go yourself by closing your eyes and take a big breath or two. You should feel the further you go to the edges of your inhalation that there is more and more abdomen moving and pressure into the pelvic floor.
The diaphragm above is putting pressure on the diaphragm below (PC). The energetic purpose of mulha bandha is to prevent the escape of energy, specifically prana vayu or downward flowing energy. By contracting the pelvic floor muscles you prevent the downward movement of these muscles when breathing. You are literally stopping a downward physical force. The gross side of the subtle purpose of mulha bandha.
I'd love to follow this thread and tell you all about the muscle that is most likely associated with uddhiyana bandha and the effects on breathing there but it would be off topic. You'll just have to demand another guest post from this yogi bent on anatomy.
Finding your Anatomical Uddhiyana by David Keil 2010
In the last piece about mulha bandha and its relationship to the pelvic floor muscles I eluded to the muscle that might be most associated with uddhiyana bandha. Well, here we are continuing down the path to try and bridge the subtle and gross of our bodies as best we can.
I should mention that although this is one of those places where anatomy and energy seem to overlap, I wholeheartedly believe bandhas to be energetic with an anatomical component. After all, I consider myself a yogi first, anatomist second. However, There are physical parts that can help us understand and relate to these more subtle aspects of our anatomy. For mulha bandha it was the pelvic floor, for uddhiyana... well, let's talk about this for a minute.
I often ask the question, how would you know if someone was engaging or using their bandhas? The answer in some form or fashion is that you see the results. You see the qualities created by mulha and uddhiyana in the individual as they move and practice. What are the qualities? mulha is the root lock, which means one would observe a grounded quality to the asana being performed. Uddhiyana on the other hand means upward flying and is often observed as an overall ease and particularly a lightness in the practice. The very famous, floating aspect in advanced practitioners is a sign of bandha use and control.
This is not to say that there is no muscular effort, there most definitely is. One must also have strength to make these movements happen but to look effortless seems to require the use of the subtle aspects of our being.
I know I've been keeping some of you in suspense about what physical part of the body is related to uddhiyana, but some of you have probably guessed already (especially if you recognize the image to the right). If you haven't, it's the psoas muscle. I've already written a short article on the psoas posted on the website. For our purposes today I want to tie the workings of mulha and uddhiyana together.
There are three muscles that one could associate with the word psoas. First is the very small psoas minor muscle. Second, is the psoas major. Third is the Iliacus muscle which when combined with the psoas major is known as the Iliopsoas. The psoas minor is somewhat disregarded as it a small muscle with a long tendon, meaning it's not very powerful. In addition it's said to be absent in approximately half the population.
It is the function of the iliopsoas (the combination of iliacus and psoas major) as the strongest hip flexor of the body that brings everyone's attention to it. This movement of hip flexion is essential to us as humans as it is what takes us forward in our daily life. It is the primary muscle for walking. Although you could simplify walking as flexing the femur so that one foot goes in front of the other, it's certainly much more complex than that, and requires many other muscles to carry out this complicated and coordinated action.
What we're essentially doing is both controlling and moving our center of gravity forward in space and we're balancing it on those two long sticks we call legs. Our physical center of gravity is near the top of our sacrum. It's only slightly different for men or women, but not so much that we need to go into it in this article. As we transition into other types of movements, especially if you think of graceful dancers, or powerful changes in direction like football players, what we essentially do is control the center of gravity in our body.
The psoas is perfectly positioned to make this happen. It is a two-sided muscle, each side a more or less tapering tube-shaped piece of muscle falling on either side of our center of gravity. What this means, is that it is going to be intrinsically linked with the control of this area of the body.
When one jumps back, forward, or lifts up into a handstand they are essentially controlling their center of gravity over, or in relation to, their foundation (in this case hands). I hate to over-simplify it, but it's having a connection to ones center physically and energetically. Awareness of the psoas, and attempted use of it, seems to trigger the resultant effect of uddhiyana bandha, flying upward with control and lightness. If you add this to mulha bandha as we discussed in last months newsletter, we are using mulha to control from below and uddhiyana to control from either side of the center of gravity. We are in a sense surrounding both our energetic center as well as our physical center.
There are many exercises that can encourage a connection to these areas of the body and you've probably done a few if you've been practicing yoga for any length of time. At first, it does take self-inquiry to understand the relationship of both of these bandhas to each other as well as to the practice of yoga. What I've offered is simply a physical anchor for your mind which may help you discover your center of gravity. This is a great place to focus on in your practice. In every anatomy workshop that I do, when I cover the psoas we do simple sun salutations with a focus on that muscle or area of the body. The effect for the students is almost always obvious.
There is of course one more element that should be discussed if you're talking about bandha... and that is breath, without it, there is no prana to control. Perhaps next time we'll discuss that.