In your yoga classes or training, you have probably heard about the bandhas. Many yoga teachers regularly use the phrase ‘activate your bandhas in their instructions. But often bandhas are not explained properly and there is a lot of confusion about them. Read on to understand what the bandhas are, what it actually means to activate the bandhas, and what the purpose of the bandhas is.
There are six sphincters in our digestive system. A sphincter is a ring of muscle surrounding and serving to guard or close an opening. Three of these six sphincters can be contracted in order to create the bandhas or the locks.
When all three sphincters are closed, we create Maha bandha
Closing these sphincters creates physical and energetic locks in the body. These closing gestures lock the vital energies (pranas) in a specific region of the body. These energy locks are called Bandhas. These locks are essential components in the practice of pranayama.
Breathing is the most important function of prana. Prana governs inhaling and exhaling, thereby giving energy to all physical and mental activity. The only correct way to manipulate prana is breath. In advanced stages, pranayama techniques can be used. Pranayama can literally be translated as the expansion of life force. This should be done in a controlled way with the right intentions and under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
What is often called ‘pranayama’ is actually preparatory pranayama or breathing exercises. The difference between breathing exercises and pranayama is, that pranayama is really a practice for advanced practitioners, and involves the use of internal and external retentions (antar and bahaya kumbhaka) and (!) the yogic locks, bandhas.
Even though there are very beneficial, in some cases, bandhas can alleviate your condition or illness. You should not attempt to apply the bandhas if one of the following conditions applies to you:
When the bandhas are applied they activate muscles and stimulate the organs and the glands in the respective region. For example, application of mula bandha activates the pelvic floor muscles and stimulates the reproduction organs. It tones them and improves 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 reducing the severity of symptoms and improving quality of life in patients with mild degree of prolapse. 
Bandhas also stimulate the chakras by locking the energy around them. As the prana is always moving the bandha increases this flow around the chakras. When chakras are stimulated they spread the pranas more efficiently throughout the body. This results in physical and mental well being.
To understand the effects of bandhas it is essential to understand the five major pranas.
Now, generally, people say prana is energy. Right and wrong! Not all energies are the same. Like there is energy in food, there is energy in the battery. But they are different types of energy. You can not replace food with batteries for your energy source.
Prana means life force or vital energy. These are the forces or energies which we need to do our life activities. Now, what are life activities? How do you know if someone is alive? You know because they breathe, move, speak, think. Right? So these activities are called life activities. And 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.
By applying bandhas we improve the functioning of these pranas in the body. When prana flows properly it optimizes the function, regeneration and the healing of the physical body.
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 asks you to hold the 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, some tips for learning to apply these energy locks:
Mula Bandha can be applied with internal or external breath retention. To apply mula bandha with internal retention,
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.
This can be practiced 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.
To apply uddiyana bandha,
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 the breath in this position longer than you can do so comfortably without inhaling. It is common to cough a bit when learning uddiyana bandha.
*Note this bandha can only be applied with external retention. It is not possible to perform this bandha after inhaling (internal retention).
Jalandhara bandha can be applied during internal as well as external retention.
To apply jalandhara bandha with internal retention,
When all three locks are applied in external retention it is called maha bandha. This is a very powerful lock as all the three locks are applied in the external retention. This should be practiced only after good control over the first three locks.
It is not possible to apply the bandha during an asana unless you are also holding your breath. What mostly the teachers want to say is that activate your muscles, don’t hang while you are doing the asana. Activating the muscles during asanas gives better control and stability. But that is just activation of the muscle not application of 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.
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.
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.
The bandhas are used to stimulate prana and chakras. Since this requires a deep understanding of the astral body and proper body control is necessary before you start using them. With the appropriate intention, this serves to progress on the yogic path. Practicing the bandhas should be done with caution, as misconceptions on the bandhas can be misleading to beginners. Always start practicing with the guidance of an experienced teacher!
Reading suggestion: Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha – Swami Saraswati Satyananda
Ram is Founding Director of the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams India and The Netherlands. Within the last 10 years, the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams have become renowned internationally for their professional yoga teacher training courses in India and Europe, and have up to present trained over 4000 yoga teachers from all over the world. Ram is the lead teacher of the 200-hour yoga teacher training course in India and the Netherlands and the author of the extensive book: Hatha Yoga for Teachers and Practitioners – A Comprehensive Guide for Holistic Sequencing.