The Three Bandhas
In the Yogataravali Sutras it is said: “Jalandhara bandha, uddiyana bandha and moola bandha are situated in the throat, abdomen and perineum respectively. If their duration can be increased then where is the fear of death? By the practice of these three bandhas the dormant kundalini awakens and enters into the sushumna. The breath becomes still (kumbhaka). With the performance of these three bandhas the rechaka (exhalation) and pooraka (inhalation) ceases to function. With this the senses become purified and kevala (enlightenment) takes place. I pray for that vidya (knowledge) residing in kevala kumbhaka.” (YS, 5,6,8) The word bandha (which should not to be confused with the words bandh, baddha and bandhana, which have similar meanings) may be defined in several ways. A Sanskrit dictionary definition runs as follows: ‘binding, tying a bond, tie, chain, fetter, a ligature, to catch, hold captive, arrest, imprison, fix, fasten, hold back, restrain, stop, shut, close, to redirect, check, obstruct, clot and lock.’ Bandha may also be defined analogously and is likened to the ‘damming of a river’, ‘building a bridge’ or ‘building over the sea’. This can be interpreted as meaning that a bandha is a vehicle to traverse the ocean of samsara, worldly existence, and to reach the other shore of enlightenment. The bandha group consists of moola, uddiyana and
The fourth, maha bandha, is a combination of these three. How is it that a group of only four practices is considered equal to or of greater importance than the hundreds of asana, pranayama and mudra practices and their variations? Traditionally, the fact that the spiritual aspirant was introduced to bandhas secretly and only after he had mastered the execution of many, often complex, asanas, pranayamas and mudras shows that the practice of bandhas was highly respected by yogic practitioners.
Seen physically, moola bandha is the conscious, wilful contraction of the perineum or cervix, uddiyana bandha of the solar plexus and jalandhara bandha of the throat.
The concept of lock
In most modern yogic literature bandha is defined simply as a ‘lock’. However, the true meaning of bandha is essentially paradoxical, for it is said that by locking or contracting certain muscles on the physical level a subtle process of ‘unlocking’ goes on simultaneously on mental and pranic levels. Most modern muscle relaxation therapies advocate that by the total, systematic contraction and relaxation of muscles all over the body, one regains complete physical and mental relaxation. The underlying rationale of such a theory is that in order to remove physical and mental tension it is more effective to first learn to exaggerate the tension already existing in the body by wilfully and selectively contracting all of its muscles.
Bandhas work in a similar way, simultaneously affecting the physical, pranic, mental, psychic and causal bodies. They have far reaching effects because they are associated with energy centres in the spine and brain. Therefore, bandhas are more dynamic, explosive and immediate in effect than simple contractions of muscle in the arms or legs.
The mechanics of bandhas
Bandhas involve the contraction or squeezing of muscles. As there are three bandhas, there are three main muscle groups involved: perineal muscles, abdominal muscles and cervical (neck) muscles. Contraction of these muscles affects the nervous, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine and energy systems. When a muscle is contracted a nerve impulse is relayed to the brain, triggering other neuronal circuits and nervous centres. This in turn affects our state of conscious ness. In response to this stimulation the brain adjusts its firing patterns. For example:
Moola bandha (perineal contraction) stimulates both the sensory-motor and the autonomic nervous systems in the pelvic region. When moola bandha is performed, pelvic stimulation activates parasympathetic fibres emerging from the pelvic spinal cord. Parasympathetic fibres emerge from the cervical (neck) and sacral (pelvic) areas only, while sympathetic fibres emerge from the thoracic (upper back) and lumbar (lower back) areas. The performance of bandhas has been experimentally shown to enforce all parasympathetic activities in the body which includes a decrease in: heart rate, respiration and blood pressure (only in an individual with normal blood pressure), and a general sense of rest and relaxation. Sympathetic nervous stimulation also occurs in moola bandha but at a subdued level. The overall effect of stimulating both parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems is to rebalance these two major components of nervous activity in the body. This has very definite repercussions on the hypothalamus (responsible for the complete endocrine system) which relays its information to the whole limbic (emotional) system and the cerebral cortex (outer layer of the brain).
Uddiyana bandha (abdominal contraction) compresses the digestive organs, adrenal glands, kidneys, and most important the solar plexus. This ‘brain-in-the-stomach’ is squeezed and in return a flood of energy is generated in the abdomen and chest. The energy has healing qualities and is experienced consciously as beneficial, enhancing our sense of wellbeing. Uddiyana bandha tones the sympathetic nervous system, encouraging it to work more efficiently. It also enables us to gain control over the sympathetic nervous system so that it does not function in inappropriate situations, thus avoiding the effects of stress and anxiety in psychosomatic disease.
Jalandhara bandha (throat compression) stretches the neck, pulling the spinal cord and thus the brain. This has subtle effects on the pituitary and pineal glands while the forward flexion (in jalandhara bandha the chin is placed on the chest) affects the thyroid, parathyroid and thymus glands. At the same time it stimulates the parasympathetic spinal area in the medulla oblongata (situated at the bottom of the brain and the top of the spinal cord) regulating heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, etc. Finally, jalandhara bandha also compresses the carotid sinuses which help in lowering the blood pressure. By reducing sympathetic tone, one achieves a sense of rest, relaxation and general wellbeing.
The performance of bandhas leads to a general massaging effect of the muscles and internal organs. Increased blood supply to these areas aids in general purification of the body. Bandhas affect the endocrine glands. As these glands are intimately related to the chakras, it is a natural consequence that the bandhas also affect the chakras. When stimulated, the chakras influence every aspect of the organism, revitalizing it with life-sustaining energy.
The physical effects of bandhas The performance of bandhas in conjunction with pranayama (breath and energy control) affects the whole body as follows: They harmonize the efficient functioning of the endocrine system: jalandhara directly influences the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, thymus; uddiyana bandha directly influences the adrenals and pancreas; moola bandha directly influences the gonads and the perineal body/ cervix (which are said to be vestigial endocrine glands). All bandhas have an indirect effect on the pituitary, pineal and brain.
. As a result of the direct effect that bandhas have on the endocrine glands, certain biorhythms in the body are also regulated. For example, both moola bandha and uddiyana bandha are extremely useful in stabilizing menstrual periods. All bandhas, when performed correctly, lower respiration rate, inducing calmness and relaxation.² Blood pressure is decreased.
Heart rate is lessened.
Alpha brainwave production, an index of profound relaxation, is increased, indicating slowing of nervous activity.
Sympathetic activity in the body is decreased, a further index of relaxation.
. Confused and/or crossed neuronal circuits in the brain are reordered, in effect ‘retraining the brain’. The digestive system is toned, massaged and revitalized via pressure on the internal organs. Harmony in the activity of the urogenital system occurs as a result of reflex action via the nervous system. The pranic effects of bandhas Each bandha is associated with the stimulation of a specific focus of prana. Bandhas are said to be mutually related to certain nerve plexes in the spine, the endocrine glands; as well as pranic energy centres known as chakras. For each nerve plexus and endocrine gland on the physical level there exists a corresponding chakra on the pranic level as follows: mooladhara – sacral/coccygeal plexus; swadhisthana – prostatic exus; mani – solar plexus; anahata – cardiac plexus; vishuddhi- pharyngeal/laryngeal plexus; for ajna and sahasrara, the pineal/pituitary/hypothalamic complex. Of the six chakras in the spine, the bandhas are directly associated with the active stimulation of three chakras as follows: moola bandha, mooladhara chakra; uddiyana bandha, manipura chakra; jalandhara bandha, vishuddhi chakra. Each of these physical and pranic locations is related neurologically to a specific counterpart in the spinal cord and brain, and therefore the psyche. Contraction at the physical level activates and awakens hitherto dormant faculties in the brain and mind, usually present in only the most evolved mind. Mastery of the bandhas, therefore, leads to the fullest realization of our potential.
The physical, endocrinological and neurological aspects of bandhas can be understood when we appreciate the fact that the body is a complex yet well organized field of various energy systems, based on one fundamental energy principle called prana. Though they have vast physical repercussions of a positive nature, their main effect is on the body’s energy systems at the pranic level. According to many esoteric philosophies the downward flow of prana (apana) represents the part which leads man’s consciousness to the lower, more earthy elements: e.g., satisfaction of instinctual desire, overindulgence, lethargy, apathy, laziness and so on. According to these philosophies, it is believed that man’s essential nature is godlike and that in order to reunite or realize the ‘first cause’ he must redirect his consciousness. Here the role of bandhas, and especially moola bandha, is to block the descending movement of consciousness and redirect it upwards.
A useful analogy to aid our understanding of bandhas is to liken them to the locking, stopping, obstructing and redirecting power of a dam wall. Energy (physical, mental and psychic) is centralized and focused at the site of contraction so that it can be redirected for useful work as desired by the controller. These areas are infused with a fresh, vital force capable of checking imbalances in the body systems.
To further understand bandhas we must extend our view so as to see them not only as locks, but also as removers of locks or blockages, in the form of physical and mental impurities. According to the scriptures there are granthis or psychic knots, located at mooladhara, anahata and ajna chakras. Granthis represent blockages in man’s awareness of himself at the different levels of consciousness; they obscure the true image of man’s essential nature. Tradi tionally, bandhas were prescribed as one of the most effective means of untying these knots or blockages, existing as tension, anxieties, repressions and unresolved conflicts, thereby allowing us to rediscover our true nature.
The force generated from the bandhas may be likened to that of increased pressure in a tube. Imagine a piece of tubing resting vertically to the ground. This tube represents sushumna nadi (the main pranic energy channel which runs up the spine).
- Moola bandha represents the sealing of the lowest portion of the tube, thus preventing the downward motion of prana. It stimulates energy mooladhara, awakening kundalini shakti.
- Jalandhara bandha seals off the top portion the tube. Prana is now locked within this tube. 3. Uddiyana bandha completes maha bandha. It further increases pranic pressure by stimulating the solar plexus (manipura chakra), filling and expanding the closed tube.
Thus, when maha bandha is performed, prana is compressed in sushumna. The locks prevent its downward and upward movement at the same time stimulating energy. Release of the bandhas flushes prana through the whole body, and as prana is by nature vital, life-giving energy, the body is relaxed, toned and rejuvenated. The granthis can then be pierced and untied, expanding consciousness.
Bandhas and consciousness
According to yogic scripture, control of muscles and nerves controls the breath. Control of breath controls consciousness. Bandhas are a means of extending control over athing and are thus a means to extend our knowledge and control over consciousness.
Breathing rate and depth is said to be affected by: states. of consciousness, disease, atmospheric conditions, thoughts, exercise and emotions. Research has shown that in states of tension and fear, respiration becomes short and shallow, while in states of relaxation, people take long, deep breaths.
When bandhas are performed in conjunction with pranayama, contraction of the muscles takes place simult aneously with kumbhaka (internal or external breath retention). The physical lock or contraction is applied and at the same time the breath is also arrested or immobilized. As a consequence the consciousness is also arrested, stopping the flow between the polar opposites of inhalation and exhalation, birth and death, joy and sorrow, gain and loss.
Through the perfection of bandhas the yogi is able to lock himself into the ‘eternal now’ devoid of the dualities of existence, motion and change. His consciousness is unfettered by the modifications of thought enabling him to merge into the field of unified consciousness. As such, the bandhas induce pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and are preliminary techniques for meditation.
We find then that bandhas induce five different kinds of ‘retention’ or immobility; retention of muscles, breath, senses, thought and consciousness. Once retention of consciousness is achieved, the yogi is prepared for the next stage of his spiritual rebirth, the awakening of kundalini. The bandhas act as triggering mechanisms for the activation of this powerful force residing at the base of the spine.
Technically speaking, kundalini yoga is comprised of any technique that leads to kundalini awakening. Bandhas fall into this category and thus may be classified as techniques of kundalini and kriya yoga, as systematized by Swami Satyananda Saraswati of Bihar School of Yoga, Munger.
Of the four bandhas, we aim to focus our attention solely on moola bandha, regarded by many adepts as the most important of the bandhas. Without it, kundalini, dormant in the mooladhara chakra, will remain asleep eternally. Little has ever been written on this eminent yogic practice, depriving it of the respect and understanding which it so richly deserves.