Bandhas are used in yoga to keep the body stable but they are also important to increase the flow of blood
If you have been attending yoga for a while or been to a few workshops, it is likely you will have heard the term “bandha” bandied around on occasion. So what is a bandha? In yoga philosophy a bandha is described as an energy lock but put simply, you could compare a “bandha” with a bandage – an invisible bandage. We can use one of the most important bandhas as an example. Mula bandha (mula means “base”) is often described as a gentle lift on the pelvic floor or contraction of the perineum which leads to a firming of the pubic abdomen. There are other, more subtle ways to engage mula bandha (through posture for starters. For example, see above image of lolasana. Ha-mula bandah and nauli – isolation of the rectus abdominus – automatically engage simply with the execution of the pose), but consciously, for most people, a lift and contraction here, will firm the lower abs (transverse abs – muscles of exhalation). However, if you take a sport like weight-lifting for example, you will often see participants wearing a tight, wide belt around this area to support their spine and perhaps in order to avoid hernias. A not-so-invisible bandage!
In the “normal” language of physios
In the language of physios, a “bandha”might simply be considered a co-contraction of the muscles at both sides of a joint. However, on a subtle energetic and cellular level, bandhas are much more than that. In fact, without bandha, yogasana is basically just gymnastics.
Bandhas of the wrist (mani bandha)
If I was going to try boxing, I would be crazy if I didn’t engage my wrists properly before striking a punch. If I didn’t create firmness around the joint, the chances of me breaking or spraining my wrist would be greatly increased. Of course, I could go and buy one of those stretchy support bandages from the chemist first or I could create bandha and use my own muscles and awareness to do it. A slightly different wrist bandha is engaged (or should be engaged) before a handstand, down-dog, plank or other type of arm balance is attempted. In this case, it is necessary to lengthen and broaded the fingers and the palm and imagine you were trying to grab something (the floor perhaps), like a monkey might grip a tree to climb it. Hence a bandha creates strength and stability around a joint and therefore leads to more strength and stability over time.
Bandha Type 1 – Heating or “compressive” (Ha)
The above image depicting mani “wrist” bandha is a “ha” bandha. This creates heat. Because it creates compression, blood and fluid moves away from the joint.
Bandha Type 2 0 Cooling “expansive” (Tha)
The image below depicts another wrist bandha but this version is expansive and cooling. By extending into the fingers and broadening the palm away from the wrist, blood is pulled into the extremities.
Effort & Surrender
Importantly, when we practise yoga, the bandhas should always be clarified. Even if we are not necessarily weight bearing with our hands. For example, in trikonansa (triangle pose), the movement of blood and energy will be greatly increased if we imagine that we are in fact weight-bearing and engage bandha as described above – as if we were about to perform a hand-stand. It is also important to understand the difference between “tension” and “tensioning”. The body should be be firm, not rigid, and the core, relaxed and calm. So “at-tention” rather than tension.
Stiff and sore – how bandhas improve the flow of blood
It may surprise you to know that when lots of people stretch, their stretching is ineffective. Often this is because the muscle they are trying to stretch is in a shortened position. It may feel stiff, sore, tight and tense but will get more so as the stretch reflex switches on – this happens particularly if the stretching is aggressive. It then becomes very difficult to lengthen the muscle because tension limits blood flow. If the whole body is constantly tense, we can see how this might restrict our range of movement. A simple analogy is that if you spread a towel out and dip it into a bath, it will become soaked with water. Squeeze the water out and keep the towel tightly wrung, dip it in again and not much water will be absorbed. Try and stretch it in that position. It’s challenging. The only way to get more water and movement into the towel again is to wring it out and then spread it out again.
Conclusion – How Bandha improves Flow of Blood on a Cellular Level
With the two examples above, you can see that when we create bandha simply by engaging muscles and then releasing them again through the appropriate movement, blood is continually restricted and then released. Therefore this blood is constantly being “pumped” efficiently around the body. This nourishes the joints, muscles and organs and is also believed to be a far more effective pump than the heart. You can feel this when you engage and then relax the hands/wrists in this way – notice the tingly sensations.
All in all, this is like popping the muscles and organs into a washing machine. No wonder we say that the practise of yoga is a massage for the internal body. It’s yet another reason yogis live longer, healthier lives.