Understanding mula bandha
The bandhas, mula bandha specifically, 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 five years ago I understood them 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 and energetic aspects of the practice of yoga and put it into western terms of anatomy. In the area of bandhas, I am careful not to make it too strongly 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.
The anatomical mula bandha
To discuss mula bandha we need to talk about the pelvic floor. Specifically, some people say when talking about mula bandha we should direct our attention to the perineum and others use the term PC muscles. PC muscles is an abbreviation which stands for the pubococcygeal 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 pubococcygeal muscles with a layer of fascia between.
Contraction of these muscles is often associated with the mula bandha. Great debate comes from whether you should be contracting the middle or the back portion of these tissues. Far be it for me to jump into this one too deeply, other than to say 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, mula bandha is a contraction of the anus.
As it turns out the PC muscles are actually part of the levator ani muscle group, 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 muscles. But that’s just me. In the end, what matters is that you have the experience of what is created, not the technical details.
The gross to subtle of mula bandha
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 mula bandha. In other words, it’s the physical contraction that does two things. First, it creates a conscious mental relationship with mula bandha. And, since it seems that prana follows thoughts, if you’re thinking of a part of your body, you are in essence sending energy there. Second, it is the contraction of the PC muscles which stimulates the energetic center, hence, creating the mula 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 and which ones should be included. 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 of the bowl, are the piriformis muscles.
The spinal relationship
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. (That’s not possible by the way.) If the coccyx, and therefore sacrum, are moving toward the pubic bone, then it means that there is movement at the SI joint and the spine is falling backward above the SI joint.
Were we to let the muscles relax completely, then the opposite would happen. If there was no tension to hold the sacrum in place, the towering column of the spine would start to fall forward and the coccyx would move 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 the pelvis and spine. So we could consider them the root of the spine. Mula = Root.
The abdominal relationship
There is another effect that happens when you contract these muscles. That is, the lowest part of your abdomen also changes in tension. You should be able to feel this yourself quite easily, especially on a strong contraction of the PC muscles. You may want to close your eyes for a moment and do a few contractions 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. That would most likely be a result of the transverse abdominis (the deepest of the oblique muscles) because 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 mula 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. Its most subtle aspect as Prana or life force animates our physical bodies. This feeds us energetically. And, if we take just a small step toward gross, prana presents itself in the form of oxygen molecules. It’s those 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.
The diaphragm and mula bandha
When the diaphragm contracts, it compresses the abdominal contents. Additionally it puts a downward pressure on the pelvic floor. And if it’s unrestricted, that action also pushes the abdomen out. You can give it a go yourself by closing your eyes and take a big breath or two. As you go further to the edges of your inhalation you likely feel more abdomen movement and more pressure going into the pelvic floor.
The diaphragm above is putting pressure on the diaphragm below (PC muscles). The energetic purpose of mula bandha is to prevent the escape of energy, specifically apana 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, which is the gross side of the subtle purpose of mula bandha.
You can read more on the physical and energetic qualities of mula bandha on pages 153-155 (1st ed.) of my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga.