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Yoga for the Core: Bandhas (Energy Locks) 101

The BandhasThis week I’m focusing on the core in my yoga classes. Say the word “core” to a yoga teacher (especially a power vinyasa yoga instructor) and it’s likely that that word “bandhas” will come out of his or her mouth. The bandhas translate to “the locks” in yoga’s mother tongue, Sanskrit. When we engage these three points in the body, we can control the flow of energy. Yoga texts say that true mastery of yoga, inside and out, requires the engagement of the bandhas. They not only help your physical practice, but keeping them engaged will also improve your mental practice. Engaging the bhandas also keeps you safe on the mat.

Overall, the core is the body’s great stabilizer. A strong, engaged core with Ujayii breath can make your poses stronger and safer. Turning on the bandhas during class will make you steady, strong, and purposeful during classes. I have noticed that I can flow much more fluidly if these centers are turned on.

Here are the three main bandhas:

1. Mula bandha, literally the root lock. Engaging mula bandha during practice keeps energy (prana) inside, letting it circulate and increase within you. To activate it, pull up on your pelvic floor. Men may be better able to locate it by thinking of contracting the area between the anus and the testes. Both sexes can find it by emulating what you do when you really have to urinate but have to hold it in.

2. Uddiyana Bandha. Uddiyana means to rise up or to fly up. This makes sense if you think of the belly flying up and in. In class, I often say to button your belly button to your spine to engage udiyana bandha.  This will tone your abs, increase stability, and improve digestion. To find full uddiyana bandha, read Lauren Imparato’s MindBodyGreen article on the bandhas. I will point out that the full version of the pose makes it impossible to take breath in smoothly, which we definitely want to do throughout practice. So a light engagement of the core pulling back toward the spine is more what you’re looking for in vinyasa yoga, not a full uddiyana bandha. Read Mark Stephen’s post on the bandhas for a more detailed anatomical discussion of this lock.

3. Jalandhara Bandha. Different schools of yoga have different ideas about this lock. My power vinyasa teachers explained it as a tightening of the muscles at the base of the throat. When teaching this in class, I name these as the same muscles you use to whisper. I also lead students in pretending to fog up a mirror–that’s the sort of textured, heated breath that is created when you activate jalandhara banda. In my training, breathing through the slightly constricted throat of jalandhara banda was used to create Ujayii, or triumphant breath. This is the resonant breath that you hear more advanced students practicing in flowing vinyasa classes.

With all that said, my Kundalini yoga teachers define this lock as a lifting of the heart, while pulling the chin back and up. That does wonders to bring your thoracic and cervical spine into alignment, and in Kundalini they say this improves energy flow as well.

Finally, other schools of yoga teach jalandhara bandha as a double-chin-ish move, where you pull the chin back into the throat. (See Yoga Journal on this verion of Jalandhara Bandha.)

In my vinyasa classes, I teach students to engage mula bandha, create a light uddiyana bandha, and do the first version of jalandhara bandha. All together, these energy locks create a sort of “air bag” on the inside of the body, keeping you steady and protected. I recommend Yoga Anatomy for more detailed scientific information on how the bandhas interact with respiration to create this air bag effect.

I look forward to practicing the bandhas with you this week as we practice jump-switches and balancing postures in my yoga classes!

<photo: via injuryfreeyogapractice.com>