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 5 years ago I understood 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 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.
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 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 mula 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, mula 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 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 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, 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, 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. 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 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 find that 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 which would most likely be a result of the transverse abdominis (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 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. 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 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 mulha 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.
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David summarizes research which evaluates physical effort needed to do common standing yoga postures and how that effort compares to walking.