In this article, we’ll explore the elusive concept of bandhas in Ashtanga yoga. It seems that Ashtangis never get tired of trying to suss out exactly what bandhas are. My own understanding of bandhas has certainly evolved over the life of my practice. So, in our recent research survey project on the experience of Ashtanga practitioners, we asked about the concept of bandhas. Let’s take a look at what we learned.
But before we get into the data, let’s start with some definitions. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes three bandhas. Those are mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandara bandha. In the text, bandhas are described in relation to pranayama practice. But, in Ashtanga yoga, we integrate an idea of bandhas in our asana practice as well. In asana practice, we primarily work with mula and uddiyana bandhas. Jalandara bandha is used most often in more formal pranayama practice.
But what is a bandha?
If we go back to the text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika again, the word bandha is translated as lock. And what are we locking? Prana. But, if you read the descriptions of the bandhas in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, you’ll also notice that each definition describes a physical action. So what are bandhas? Are they physical, something energetic, both, or something else entirely? These were the questions that we posed to survey participants about the bandhas in Ashtanga yoga.
Awareness of bandhas in Ashtanga practice
The first question we asked survey participants was: What percent of your practice time are you aware of bandhas? Interestingly, awareness of bandhas was fairly evenly spread out among the four choices. Roughly a quarter of survey respondents said they were aware of bandhas in Ashtanga either 0-25%, 26-50%, 51-75%, or 76-100% of their practice time. A few also acknowledged that they didn’t know how often they were aware of bandhas. Or, they indicated that they weren’t sure what bandhas were.
What do Ashtangis think bandhas are?
And that brings us to our next question. What do Ashtangis think bandhas are? A majority of respondents (76%) either agreed or strongly agreed that one concept of bandhas in Ashtanga was physical. A smaller majority (71%) agreed or strongly agreed that bandhas were also energetic. Slightly more than half (62%) of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed that bandhas were an object of concentration. Finally, a few people (15%) indicated they thought bandhas were something else. There was a small effect of number of years of practice on how practitioners conceptualized bandhas in Ashtanga. Generally, those with more years of practice were more likely to understand bandhas as something other than just physical.
My own sense of this outcome is that the understanding and experience of bandhas is a process. We are usually introduced to bandhas as physical actions we should maintain throughout our practice. Unfortunately, this can lead us to equate bandhas to these physical actions. But these physical actions are simply the first step in stimulating the energetic areas of mula and uddiyana. As our practice grows we start understanding the more subtle aspects of bandhas.
We can also fall into the trap of looking for a particular outcome from doing these physical contractions rather than patiently waiting for the qualitative aspects, which arise from consistently focusing, both physically and mentally, on these areas of our body. What you understand bandhas to be when you start, changes over time. Perhaps you start to feel things such as lightness and groundedness in your practice. Perhaps you feel a relaxed effort that you associate with the bandhas. Ultimately, you may experience them in additional ways. The point is to not make them a fixed thing.