Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What is the best way to explain the action of Mula Bandha to somebody who is new to Ashtanga?

I just started teaching an Ashtanga class once a week at a local studio. For various reasons, I have decided to call it "Vinyasa from the Ground Up" rather than Ashtanga; but the class is very much Ashtanga through and through. Last night, for instance, three people showed up, and I brought the class through the Suryas and standing postures up to Prasarita Padottanasana A and B. I then ended the class with a modified finishing sequence (substituting Bridge for Urdhva Dhanurasana, having a shortened shoulderstand sequence, no headstand, and a simple crossed-leg seated posture in place of padmasana).

Although this is not a mysore class, I plan to teach as closely to mysore style as possible. Which means that I will introduce one or two new postures a class. I think this is a good way to go. It might get a bit challenging as new people arrive later on; maybe when I get to that point, I'll have to get these new people to stop at certain points in the sequence while the rest of the class move on with the postures they have learnt. Hmm... what will these new people do in the meantime? Watch while the "older" students do their postures? I don't know, I'm sure I'll think of something. If you have any suggestions, I'll love to hear them.

What I have done so far (last night was only my second class) is simply bring students through the postures on a purely postural level. I emphasized the breath, drishti and basic alignment, but I did not go into the finer points, like the bandhas. I just thought that somebody who is new to Ashtanga probably already has enough things to contend with, as it is. Perhaps I can talk about the bandhas when the students have come a few more times, and are more comfortable with the sequence.

Talking about the bandhas has always been an interesting topic for me. Different teachers use different descriptions when trying to tell students to engage the bandhas, especially mula bandha. And honestly, I have yet to find a completely satisfactory way of explaining the bandhas, especially mula bandha. Here are a few ways of explaining mula bandha that I have encountered so far:

(1) Squeeze/contract your anus: Guruji is reported to have explained the bandhas in this way. I do not think this is a very helpful explanation. For one, spoken with a certain South Indian accent, "Contract your anus!" is liable to be misheard as "Contact Uranus!" Which would leave the beginning Ashtanga student very bewildered, to say the least ("Wow, who knew that practicing this yoga involves getting in touch with extra-terrestrials?"). 

Joking aside, there are other more practical problems with this explanation. To begin with, strictly speaking, simply contracting the anal sphincter is actually ashwini mudra, not mula bandha. Secondly, anatomically, the action needed to activate mula bandha actually involves a subtle lifting of the perineal muscles; squeezing of the anal sphincter is at most a by-product of this action, and not the action itself.  Moreover, I get the sense that new students tend to overdo the squeezing of the anal sphincter: The result is that other surrounding muscles that do not need to be squeezed or contracted get contracted too, resulting in unnecessary muscular tension and tightness.   

(2) Do the same thing that you would do if you were trying to stop the flow of urine while peeing: This is probably a better way of explaining the bandhas. But--and maybe this is just my body--I have actually tried stopping the flow while urinating, and I am quite sure that while the muscles needed to stop the urine flow are used to engage mula bandha, the actual engagement of mula bandha requires a more subtle action than simply stopping the urine flow. This, at least, is what I feel from my own experience.  

(3) Engage Uddiyana Bandha, and Mula Bandha will tend to follow: Personally, this explanation actually works best for me. I'm not quite sure why, but there's something about gently drawing in that spot about two inches beneath the navel (i.e. engaging Uddiyana Bandha) that also tends to cause me to engage mula bandha almost without being conscious of it. Perhaps it's because I used to practice martial arts, and engaging uddiyana bandha has a lot in common with the actions that are needed in order to access the hara or dantien in Japanese and Chinese martial arts, respectively. Because of this, uddiyana bandha has always been more readily accessible to me than mula bandha. This simultaneous engagement of uddiyana and mula bandhas is most pronounced when one tries to jump back. In order to even try to lift off the mat into Lolasana, one has to engage Uddiyana Bandha (even if one has no idea that one is doing this). This engagement of uddiyana bandha, in turn, also almost automatically causes one to engage mula bandha. Try it; you'll see what I'm saying.   

(4) Do the postures regularly, and you will find yourself naturally engaging the bandhas with time: David Williams is a proponent of this naturalistic approach towards the breath and bandhas. A few years ago, at a workshop, somebody asked him how to breathe during practice. Instead of giving a technical explanation (closing the glottis, Darth Vader sound, etc, etc.), Williams simply said that all one has to do is to keep breathing, and everything else will just fall into place. If I remember correctly, he gave the same response when asked about the bandhas as well: Just breath evenly throughout the practice, and bandha-engagement will come naturally.

These, at any rate, are the explanations of mula bandha that I know about. If you have other explanations, I'll love to hear them. I'm still undecided as to which one I will use when it comes time to explain mula bandha to the students in my class. Maybe I'll use (3), since that is the one that appeals most to me personally. But we'll see.   


  1. HA HA HA , contact Uranus, yeah that woud be like: Wow this kind of yoga is sure very interstellar!.

    Great that 3 people showed up!!! I am so jealous! in a good way of course, you go! this is great news!

    It sounds to me that if you will be adding poses the whole group will do them, and maybe you may need to offer modifications for the recent incomers OOORRR just go all out and start a mysore room... will be good to hear how it develops!

    Like the name by the way.

  2. So you already have advanced students! The people that join your class after these three will have less poses because they were not there for the first day, right? Or if it won't be a Mysore room, then describe/demo the modification like some teachers do in led class.

  3. Thanks Claudia. The idea of going all out and starting a mysore room sounds very intriguing. :-) I'll think about this.

    Thanks sereneflavor. Yes, demo-ing or describing modifications is one way to go as new people join the class. I'll see how things develop, and act accordingly. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Hi Nobel,

    I have been reading your blog for a long time now and very much enjoy your calm, intelligent, views on all things yogic...

    So lucky that you have written this post today - I too teach one class at my local gym... I practice pretty much daily (have been lucky enough to have some amazing teachers like John Scott, David Swenson (with whom I did a teacher training course)and was also lucky enough to get to Mysore to practice with Guruji back in 2004. So, 12 years practice before I dared teach and only then because I was approached by the students at the gym and asked to teach them.

    But back to today - was thinking as I walked my dog along the river - how I wish there was someone I could talk to you about teaching my weekly class, because, you know, I find it really can you preserve and protect the ashtanga tradition in a local gym environment...?? The difficulties I find are that a) most people don't practice more than once a week b) they want a full 90 mins 'work out' c) they cant understand why poses are not immediately accessible to them and work on the principle of 'if at first you dont succeed, try and hide your surprise!!' So, I find it in turn challenging, uplifting, deeply frustrating, bemusing, wonderful!! And what keeps me coming back is handful of students who love it, who do practice more than once, who listen carefully and whose progress is so wonderful to see.

    In terms of bandhas, while I always take care to remind them of their importance at the beginning of each class, It's taken six months for me to start really pushing them a little further with it and the results are really interesting. last week for example, the entire class was devoted to exploring mula bandha. I worked out in advance which postures could really demonstrate it well and in lots of cases we tried the posture without bandhas - so the instruction was, let everything go, go loosey-goosey and see what happens. Then, we tried the opposite to see if we could feel the difference and they said they could...

    So difficult to describe but I guess I go with David Swenson's advice - MulaB is situated in front of the anus and behind the genitals. Locate that area and engage...

    I really hope your class goes well. I shall be sure to keep on reading for updates!

  5. Hi Nobel,
    I did an awkward bandha spiel at the beginning of my class the other day. I was inspired by Kino's audio podcast, "The Magic of Bandha," which describes the symbol of the muladahara chakra-a circle inside a square. Our pelvis forms the square: two sit bones, the pubic bone and tail bone, and then whatever we use to kind of bring these bones together is the moula bandha... Something like this... Kino also uses the analogy of the bandhas as a steering wheel... Here's the link to the podcast: And the steering wheel: Sounds like you have a great little Ashtanga community building up! Good job! I look forward to hearing more.

  6. Hello KateR,
    thank you for sharing your experiences. I have never studied with John Scott or David Swenson, although I have heard tons of great things about them. My primary teachers are PJ Heffernan, Kino MacGregor, Nicki Doane and Eddie Modestini.

    I hear you about the issues and difficulties involved with teaching at a gym. To a certain extent (probably less), the same kinds of issues also arise with teaching at a non-Ashtanga studio. Although in a non-Ashtanga studio setting, (b) might not be such a big problem as it is in a gym setting. I think a bigger issue with teaching an Ashtanga class in a non-Ashtanga setting is what I call "yoga style sampling". People tend to think that trying out as many different styles as possible is better than just sticking to one. They also tend to rely too much on the class and the teacher for practice, and tend not to practice themselves at home; this is not true of every single person, of course, but I have noticed such a tendency over the years of teaching. This, combined with yoga style sampling, results in a set of conditions that are very unfavorable for cultivating a daily Ashtanga practice. And it doesn't help that the studio's brochure/promotional materials actually encourage the student to try out a variety of styles to balance things out. I suppose this may be good advice for the beginning yoga student who is trying to decide what works for him or her. But in the long run, doing one style on Monday, another on Tuesday, and yet another on Wednesday isn't going to get one anywhere in one's practice. At any rate, this is my humble opinion.

    I really like your idea of devoting an entire class to mula bandha, and working out in advance which postures would demonstrate it well, and focusing on those postures. I might just try this myself when it comes time to talk about the bandhas in my class. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for sharing, AYEA. Hmm... I'm actually having a little trouble visualizing the square that you talk about. Maybe I'll go listen to Kino's podcast, and see if I get it. I saw that video where Kino talks about the bandhas as the steering wheel, and really liked her explanation. I'll watch it again, and see if I can get something new out of it. Thanks for the suggestion :-)

  8. Hi Nobel,

    This is a good question...looking forward to reading more of everyone else's thoughts on teaching Mula Bandha. David Keil has some great little exercises to play with that help explain bandhas (both mula and uddiyana) to students, but I don't think I could explain them without a demo...I'll have to suggest that he put those up on youtube!...but he is also a proponent of "breath leads to bandha".
    David does have a really nice anatomical explanation of both bandhas and their relevance to practice up on his website.

    In my own classes, I don't generally mention mula bandha to beginners. I bring it up at some point after students show me that they are making a committment to consistent practice at least 2 or 3 days a week. It just seems like something that is so subtle as to be more confusing than helpful if the other components of the practice (pose, breath, driste) haven't settled in yet.

    Looking forward to reading more about others experience teaching bandhas!

    ...and congrats on the new class!! I always enjoyed your classes even in your less traditional days! ;)

  9. Thanks Christine. I'll look up David Keil's website soon to see what he has to say about the bandhas.

    I also have the feeling that bandhas have the potential to be more confusing than helpful if presented to a student who is new to Ashtanga and/or does not have a consistent practice.

  10. I've read about mula, seen anatomical pictures and descriptions, heard different ways of describing it, etc etc, and I still can only access it in a few poses (or perhaps it's not even mula bandha but a bunch of random muscles I'm squeezing in that general area. I would go with #3.

  11. Hello Yyogini, I like #3 too. I think it was Richard Freeman who said that he only started getting mula bandha after 20 years of practice. So you are in good company :-)