What Is Mula Bandha? Closing the Lower Gate In Ashtanga Yoga
If you've been anywhere near an Ashtanga Yoga shala, you've probably heard about the elusive feature called mula bandha. The inner forms of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are powerful tools to help you develop awareness while deepening into practice. Mula bandha is one of the most mysterious, and fundamental aspects of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice.
What is a Bandha?
Mula bandha is a puzzle that often confuses Ashtanga Yoga practitioners. The key is to bring awareness-- along with the breath-- to the pelvic floor. With the breath deepening as a result of this aspirant sound, we then link the breath to the body in the low belly. Very gently invite the lowest muscles of the low belly toward the back of the body, in effect tucking the tail slightly. At the same time, the area of skin behind the genitals, the perineum, lifts up into the core of the body.
The effect should be a firm, yet subtle contraction that acts as a reference point as you breathe more and more deeply. This movement, or event, is called mula bandha. The combination of these 2 movements creates an extraordinarily strong unit, which governs how efficiently we move and breath. Practice breathing from this place.
You might have heard of this as the "root lock." The stronger the breath, the stronger the “lock” (although I hate this translation--I think of it more as a "binding".) Another way to imagine this "lock" is like the locks on a canal--they govern the flow to allow a passage. While a canal lock governs the flow of water to allow ships to pass, mula bandha governs the flow of prana to allow consciousness to expand.
You might be familiar with this sensation from other physical activities that require strength and grace, such as skiing or dancing. Whenever you see someone performing acts of great skill with ease, they are tapping in to this powerful organizing force.
What is Mula Bandha?
There are 2 ways to start approaching mula bandha. We're looking for the middle way: not too tight, not too loose. To start you may find it helpful to exaggerate the movement, in essence tightening the muscles as if you were preventing a trip to the toilet. Gradually you can soften this contraction. Mula bandha arises spontaneously as a result of complete and conscious relaxation, combined with alignment and awareness of the breath. Eventually the movement becomes more and more subtle until the energy of release is just as strong as the energy of tightening, creating the perfect balance of opposites. Practice of this movement can give lightness and ease to your posture.
Mula bandha arises spontaneously as a result of complete and conscious relaxation, combined with alignment and awareness of the breath.
Closing the Lower Gate
Imagine the very lowest point of the torso as a 4 petaled lotus. Practice moving each of the petals in the 4 directions. Notice what happens to the spine and pelvis as you shift the front petal forward, the back petal backward, and then each of the side petals to their respective sides. Find the center point, and lift it straight up as the sides fall down around the center point. Continue the lifting quality so that it travels all the way up the spine, through the throat and palette until it joins with the spaciousness just behind and above the eyes.
Let the lungs expand against the ribcage on the inhale. As you exhale, try to keep the ribcage expanding. Keep the seed of the inhale as you exhale, and vice versa. On inhaling, the tendency is to float up, forgetting about the roots. During inhale, make an effort to stay grounded and in contact with the pelvic floor. As you exhale, the tendency is to collapse the heart. Here the instruction is to remember to be uplifted and light. So keep lightness in the exhale, and ground in the inhale. We look for the seed of one trait in its opposite pole. This is the essence of yoga.
When to Apply Mula Bandha
It is traditionally taught that mula bandha should be held always! That means, 24 hours a day, forever. Continuous awareness of mula bandha will help you maintain alignment, throughout the day. Awareness of this dynamic can give you strength and courage.
Here are 3 resources to help you discover this elusive yogic technique.
A more technical video describing the mechanics of mula bandha by another Ashtanga Yoga teacher