Jalandhara bandha, anatomically speaking
Just like the other two bandhas that you might be familiar with, mula bandha and uddiyana bandha, jalandhara bandha is ultimately energetic, not just a physical action. But, there is a physical action to initiate or create that energetic quality. So, anatomically, what are we doing when we engage jalandhara bandha?
Jalandhara bandha is usually translated as the chin-lock. But, what does that mean? One translation of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes it this way: “contracting the throat, hold the chin firmly against the chest. This is called jalandhara bandha…” (A.G. Mohan translation [chapter 3, verse 70]).
From that translation you can maybe get the idea that our physical action in jalandhara bandha is flexing the neck. But simply flexing the neck isn’t quite enough to create the intention of jalandhara bandha if we have the idea that we are trying to reach our chin to our chest, ideally somewhere close to the sternal notch in between the two ends of our collarbones. The additional piece that often has to happen is that the chest has to lift up to the chin as much as we reach the chin to the chest.
So, anatomically what happens to bring the chest up to the chin? What we would be talking about here is returning the torso to extension, or possibly even a bit of hyperextension. While most of us don’t have much difficulty flexing the neck, it is fairly common for the upper back to be tight and for the torso to be stuck in a bit of a flexed position, from all that sitting we do! That flexed torso brings the chest down as well.
Muscular restrictions to jalandhara bandha position
Restrictors for the action of placing the head and chest in jalandhara position include the muscles that extend the head at the neck, but they also include the muscles that restrict bringing the rib cage up to the chin.
Muscles that might restrict the jalandhara bandha position include:
- Splenius capitis
- Splenius cervicis
- Upper trapezius
- Pectoralis minor
- Tight abdominals, especially rectus abdominis, could keep the whole torso flexed
You could even trace difficulty with the position of jalandhara bandha all the way to the hamstrings. Tight hamstrings could keep the pelvis pulled under, which could in turn create tension in abdominals to keep yourself sitting upright. That tension in the abdominals will make it difficult to sit upright enough to bring the chest up towards the chin. Finally those tight muscles on the back of the neck can interfere with comfortably bringing the chin to the chest, including the upper trapezius.
What muscles contract to bring our chin to our chest or lift our chest to our chin?
- Anterior scalenes
- The breath itself will lift the chest (through the action of the diaphragm and intercostals) as the breath expands the lungs and the rib cage expands and lifts on the inhale
- The deep paraspinal muscles like multifidus would contribute to spinal extension
- The erector spinae muscles would also contribute to spinal extension
Why would we use jalandhara bandha?
When we create the intention of jalandhara bandha, we are compressing the visceral compartment of the neck. This compartment contains important structures in the endocrine system (thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus), the respiratory system (larynx and trachea), and the digestive system (the pharynx). In the commentary, Hatha Yoga Pradipika relates jalandhara bandha to control of the endocrine system, especially the parathyroid glands, thyroid gland, and the pituitary gland. Remember that the endocrine system is our system of chemical messengers called hormones that help regulate everything from growth to sleep to our response to fear.
In the image below you can see these structures, the thyroid and parathyroid glands, which would be found in front of the throat.
While it’s not hard to imagine that there would be some effect on the endocrine system when we compress the glands that release hormones by using the jalandhara position, specifically what effect jalandhara bandha has on the endocrine system has not yet been reported by any research, so that remains unknown.
Jalandhara bandha is primarily used with pranayama practice, generally when doing a breath retention, because the position puts pressure on the trachea and can help us hold our breath. But, in asana we’re not holding the breath, so how are we using jalandhara bandha in asana?
Interestingly the muscles that bring our chin to our chest are also secondary respiratory muscles which are responsible for lifting the rib cage and collarbones up to make more space in the rib cage for air when we are taxing the primary muscles of respiration (the diaphragm and external intercostals). The secondary respiratory muscles might be called into action if we are doing any kind of athletic activity, like running, hiking up a steep trail, riding a bike, etc.
So what if the idea that we are bringing our chin to our chest for jalandhara bandha is backwards? What if the intention all along was actually as much about lifting the chest to our chin? This would provide more space for breath when we breathe without retentions and it would provide potentially more space to retain our inhale when we are doing a pranayama technique that includes holding the breath after the inhale.
We occasionally have the option to use jalandhara bandha in asana. Some examples are in a simple baddha konasana (without a forward fold), padmasana, and dandasana. We could also approach this bandha in shoulderstand, plow, and karnapidasana. I would suggest that the idea that jalandhara bandha can be a part of these postures is a great cue for us that the primary intention in these poses is about controlling breathing. These postures are an especially good opportunity to return our attention and intention to the subtler aspects of yoga in the midst of our asana practice: namely, breath control and concentration.
Energetically, what are we trying to create with jalandhara bandha?
In our yoga practice generally, and when we incorporate jalandhara bandha, we are trying to steady the nervous system, to control the flow of prana. Commentary from Krishnamacharya, via A.G. Mohan’s notes in his translation of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, describes it this way:
“The word jalandhara is from jala meaning liquid and dhara meaning to hold. The implication of the word liquid is that it has a tendency to spread. The reference is not to liquid, but to all sensations and sensory inputs, which spread from the sense in the head, and from there, into the body. Since the head holds all the sensations, the head itself is called jalandhara. The word bandh, as noted earlier, means to bind. Thus, this bandha helps to bind the essence of all the sensations.”
We could consider then that the intention of jalandhara bandha supports our path in Yoga by helping us regulate our breathing, which in turn helps our concentration as we focus on our breathing as the object of our meditation, and then perhaps helps steer our attention more inward in the direction of pratyahara. This seems to be what Krishnamacharya is referring to when he says “Thus, this bandha helps to bind the essence of all the sensations”.