In yoga classes or training, you have probably heard about the bandhas, the internal energy locks. Many yoga teachers regularly use the phrase ‘activate your bandhas’ in their instructions but, it isn't often explained further. Read on to understand what the bandhas are, what it actually means to activate the bandhas, and the purpose the bandhas serve.
‘Bandha’ in Sanskrit means ‘lock.’ The purpose of a bandha is to ‘lock’ the energy flow in and to, a specific part of the body temporarily. When the ‘lock’ is released, the energy flows more vigorously through the body. This promotes overall health and vitality.
On a physical level, a bandha or ‘lock’ is created when a sphincter and specific muscles in relation to it are contracted. A sphincter is a ring-shaped muscle within the body that relaxes or tightens. This action opens or closes a passage in the body. An example would be within the digestive system where a sphincter regulates the passage of food from the esophagus to the stomach, through the intestines, and out the anus. There are over sixty sphincters in the human body.
There are six sphincters in the digestive system. Three of these six sphincters can be contracted in order to create the bandhas or locks:
- Anal sphincter to create Mula Bandha
- Sphincter of oddi to create Uddiyana Bandha
- Upper esophageal sphincter to create Jalandhara Bandha
The combination of these three individual locks forms the fourth bandha, Maha Bandha, also called ‘the great lock.’
How to Apply the Four Bandhas?
Even though many teachers ask students to apply bandhas during the asana class, traditionally bandhas were only applied during the practice of pranayama. It is actually not possible to apply bandhas while doing asana because in asana you are breathing and when applying bandhas you are holding your breath. So you can only apply bandhas if you are holding your breath in the asana. But does the teacher ever ask you to hold your breath?
The locks can be uncomfortable in the beginning and it takes some practice to feel at ease with the locks. Before getting started, find a steady and comfortable sitting position with your spine elongated. Here are some tips for learning to apply these energy locks:
How to Practice Mula Bandha
Mula Bandha can be applied with internal or external breath retention.
To apply Mula Bandha with internal retention:
- Feel supported first; seated and comfortable.
- Imagine you have to urinate and have a bowel movement but you cannot at this moment. The effort of holding in your urine and stool automatically engages your pelvic floor muscles.
- Feel that sensation and get comfortable with activating those muscles
- To begin the bandha, inhale for 4 counts and
- Now hold the muscles gently for 8 to 12 counts.
- Release the pelvic floor and exhale.
Cautions for Mula Bandha
- It is important to remember that you should not overuse or over-contract the pelvic floor muscles.
- A gentle squeeze is enough.
- Your upper body should be calm and steady.
How to Practice Uddiyana Bandha
This can be practised in either a sitting or a standing position. While standing, place your hands firmly on the thighs, keep the legs apart, and bend your trunk slightly forward.
- Feel supported first; seated and comfortable.
- First, empty the lungs & belly by controlled exhalation. Breath out till there is no air left in your belly.
- When the lungs & belly are completely empty, suck the navel in and up. Imagine you are sucking up noodles through your lips. By doing this, the diaphragm rises naturally into the thoracic cavity and the abdomen rests against the back of the body, high in the thoracic cavity
- Now hold your breath and the abdomen gently for 8 to 12 counts.
- Release the abdomen and breathe out.
Cautions for Uddiyana Bandha
- This must be practised on an empty stomach.
- Remember that during the retention of this lock you are not breathing. You are doing Bahaya Kumbhak, external retention (holding the breath out of the body).
- Do not attempt to hold your breath in this position longer than you can do so comfortably without inhaling. It is common to cough a bit when learning
- Note this bandha can only be applied with external retention. It is not possible to perform this bandha after inhaling (internal retention).
How to Practice Jalandhara Bandha
To apply Jalandhara Bandha with internal retention,:
- Feel supported first; seated and comfortable.
- Inhale to fill the lungs to about two-thirds full.
- Retain the breath
- Drop the chin to the chest while lifting the sternum toward the chin and then exhale
- If you swallow your saliva, this helps to feel into the bandha.
- Inhale for 4 counts with the tongue flat against the roof of the mouth.
- Release the breath and bring the chin to the original position.
- Exhale and release the bandha
How to Practice Maha Bandha
When all three locks are applied in external retention it is called Maha Bandha. This is a very powerful lock as all three locks are applied in the external retention.
Cautions for Maha Bandha
This should be practised only when comfortable with the above three individual locks.
Benefits of Bandhas
When the bandhas are applied they activate muscle tissue, and stimulate the organs and the glands of the respective region. For example, the application of Mula Bandha activates the pelvic floor muscles. It tones them and improves their functioning. A scientific study conducted in 2017 with 50 women suffering from symptomatic mild pelvic organ prolapse has shown that a regular practice of Mula Bandha during a three-month period helped reduce the severity of symptoms and improve quality of life in patients with a mild degree of prolapse. 
Bandhas also stimulate the chakras by locking the energy around them. When chakras are stimulated by using bandhas, prana circulates more efficiently throughout the body resulting in improved physical and mental vitality.
But first things first: To understand the effects of bandhas it is essential to understand the five major pranas.
Read more: A Complete Guide to the Seven Chakras
What are the Five Pranas?
Generally, prana is understood as energy. Right and wrong! Not all energies are the same. Like there is energy in food, there is energy in the battery but these are different types of energy. You cannot replace food with batteries as a means of a human energy source.
Prana means life force or vital energy. These are the forces or energies which we need to carry out life activities. What can we term as life activities? How do you know if someone is alive or not? You know because they breathe, move, speak, think. Right? So, these activities are called life activities. The energy or the force we need to do these activities is called prana. There are five major pranas that provide energy for five different kinds of life activities.
- Apana – the force required for excretion, like sweating, urinating, etc.
- Samana – the force required for digestion and metabolism.
- Prana – the force required for the heart to pump.
- Vyana – the force required circulation and movement.
- Udana – the force required for upper body actions like talking, thinking, eye movement, etc.
By applying bandhas, we improve the functioning of these pranas in the body. When prana flows properly it optimizes the function, regeneration, and healing of the bodily systems which means optimizing physical and mental health.
What Happens During a Bandha?
Bandhas and Prana - The Energy Body or Astral body
You may be wondering why bandhas are used in the first place. Traditionally bandhas are meant to manipulate prana, life force, within the astral (energy) body. As the physical and astral body are linked and we are more used to manipulating our physical body, we use muscle contractions to create both a physical and energetic lock.
So, bandhas are a way to lock energy and of manipulating prana life force.
Prana governs inhaling and exhaling, thereby giving energy to all physical and mental activity. The correct way to manipulate prana is through the breath. This is what happens in advanced pranayama techniques. Pranayama can literally be translated as the expansion of life force. Breath control, retention, and locks are utilized to manipulate the prana and our body’s ability to retain more prana. As our ability to retain more life force increases, so does our holistic health and vitality. However, remember that proper (advanced) pranayama should be only practiSed in a controlled way with the right intentions and under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
Yoga Asanas and Functional Bandhas
Bandhas have a physical aspect and an energetic aspect. Even though bandhas were traditionally practised for their energetic benefits, the muscular activation they promote can be useful in asana practice.
Before we understand how the principles of bandhas can be useful in asana practice, there is one important point that we can’t skip: You can’t apply bandhas when you move and breathe!
Therefore, technically, it’s impossible to apply bandhas in asana practice.
Activating certain sphincters muscles during certain asanas or movements gives better control and stability but that is actually just an activation of the muscle and not the application of bandhas.
A better way to refer to this activation (if we must use the word bandha) is to call it a ‘functional bandha’.
Mula Bandha and the Pelvic Floor
Mula means base, foundation. Imagine a diamond shape made up of anus, genitals, and perineum. These muscles are part of the pelvic floor. When these muscles are activated, there is a lifting action.
Pelvic floor muscles are the support system of the internal organs. The pelvic floor muscles together with the respiratory diaphragm above, create the bottom and top of our abdominal cavity. A term often used in yoga is the perineum. However, the muscles of the perineum form the most superficial layer and do not contribute to stabilizing the pelvic floor. The muscle group doing so is the levator ani group, which means "elevators of the anus".
When we engage the levator ani group, the contraction is not limited to the pelvic floor muscles. There is also a corresponding contraction in the lower abdomen. It also helps to stabilize the SI joint and the spine. Therefore, activating the pelvic floor is useful to create more stability and control and is often referred to as "activating Muladhara Bandha".
Uddiyana Bandha and the Psoas
Uddiyana means “flying up.” There is a lift of the diaphragm and strong activation of deeply seated abdominal muscles.
The muscular activation of moving the belly button toward the spine and upward toward the rib cage (as is the action of Uddiyana Bandha) triggers the activation of our psoas. The psoas in turn is a muscle that helps us control our center of gravity.
Now if we think about lifting the legs up into a headstand with control or hopping into a handstand with control, we can observe a similar (yet less pronounced) activation in our abdominals. Especially in Ashtanga Vinyasa-based classes, you might often hear the cue ‘engage Uddiyana bandha’ for moving your body in space with lightness and control.
When Should you Avoid Bandhas?
Even though they are very beneficial, in some cases, bandhas can aggravate your condition or illness. You should not attempt to apply the bandhas if:
- You are pregnant
- You have blood pressure disorders
- You have any sort of abdomen illness or condition
- You have intestinal disorders or hernia
- You suffer from any heart disease
- You suffer from anxiety or panic attacks
Myths and Truths About the Bandhas
Anyone Can Apply Bandhas
To apply bandhas you need a certain amount of mental and physical control. Traditionally bandhas were only taught to students with good regular practice.
Bandhas Can Only do Good but No Harm
Like any other exercise when not done properly, bandhas can also give adverse effects. There they should be learned and practiced under the proper supervision of a competent teacher.
You Need to Use Force to Apply Bandhas
Actually, once you understand bandhas become very subtle and gentle. You should not feel any extra stress when applying them. If you are using too much force and extra muscle contraction, chances are that you are doing them incorrectly.
When performed correctly, bandhas can use prana and chakras to benefit the body and mind. This makes the bandhas a useful tool to gain optimal health and vitality. There are physical and energetic aspects to bandhas and so it is very important that they are practiced under the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable teacher. Practicing the bandhas should always be done with caution and patience.
Reading suggestion: Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha - Swami Saraswati Satyananda