Anatomy Focus – how do we engage moola bandha?

Hmmm, where to start?! Moola bandha is a vast subject, much debated and discussed in the yoga world at every level, from its purely physical uses to its energetic functions and beyond. It even has its own well-known book written all about it. When you’re new to yoga it can be a difficult concept to get your head around. This article aims to introduce the idea of moola bandha and provide some starting hints and tips on how and why to start to use it, with a particular focus on its ability to help us feel grounded.

What is moola bandha?
Moola bandha is one of the yoga locks or ‘bandhas’ and translates as ‘the root lock’. It is associated with engaging muscles found in the pelvic floor area.  The other two locks that are most commonly spoken about are uddiyana bandha (the ‘flying-up’ lock, an engagement of the deep transverse abdominals) and jalandhara bandha (the ‘chin lock’, engaged by drawing the chin to chest and often used in meditation practices). Each one has its own functions and, together, they are said to seal the body’s energy in, allowing us to use it effectively to carry us through our yoga practice.

Moola bandha is, along with uddiyana bandha, linked to developing core strength deep within the lower abdominal region of the body. By engaging both these locks together (it is actually very difficult to engage either one in isolation; the muscle groups tend to naturally work together), we switch on what I like to call our ‘central powerhouse’. On a physical level, when you see yogis and gymnasts seemingly ‘float’ up into headstand or handstand, much of the strength and grace required for this comes from an intimate knowledge of their inner body and effective use of their uddiyana and moolha bandhas. (As an aside, we will spend some time looking at this in my up-coming August workshop.)

However, as well as creating a deep core strength and helping to develop a light, ‘floating’ sensation in your practice, moola bandha is conversely also associated with feeling grounded. Esoterically, it is located in the same position as  the base chakra, muladhara, which is associated with grounding and the element of earth. Regular practice of moola bandha is said to be calming, and has also been linked with reducing anxiety and depression.

How do you engage moolha bandha?
To engage moola bandha, a great beginning point is to contract the muscles that you would use to stop yourself peeing if you were desperate for the loo. Now, advance warning here, it’s impossible to talk about moola bandha without getting a bit ‘over-familiar’ and be warned that doing an internet images search for it at work could lead to an embarrassing situation! This can put off those new to yoga, who already worry it might be full of weird mumbo-jumbo and odd cult-ish goings-on. But I promise you, stick with it, and you too will marvel at its amazing benefits with practice and perseverance in time.

So, for men, you need to draw up on the perineal muscles located between the anus and testes. For women, you need to draw up on the perineal muscles located behind the cervix. At first the anus muscles will probably contract too, but with practice you can drop this secondary engagement and it becomes a more subtle, focused action. Imagine the perineum (the skin between the sexual organs and the anus) as being a flat muscle like your diaphragm, drawing upwards as you contract to form a kind of ‘umbrella’ shape.

What are the physical benefits of moola bandha?
When used in your asana (posture) practice, use of moola and uddiyana bandhas will help support postures from your central powerhouse, easing the stress on limbs and making the body feel less heavy. You will find a strength and lightness forming at your centre, which can help to carry you through tough postures like the virabhadrasanas (warriors) or arm balances. Yes, it takes practice, and at first you’ll probably be too busy working out where to put your hands and feet to think about it, but taking a few minutes each day to practise engaging the moola bandha muscles will build your awareness over time and allow you to gradually bring it into your yoga practice until eventually it almost happens without you thinking about it. Like any other muscles, it takes time and dedication to tone them and build muscle memory – and for pregnant ladies and new mums, it’s great for toning the pelvic floor!

How can moola bandha help with grounding and calming the mind?
To explore the calming effects of moola bandha, try the following breathing exercise:

Find a comfortable seated position, ideally a variation of crossed-legs (this can be lotus if you can hold this comfortably for at least five minutes). If possible, have your sit-bones connected with the floor rather than sitting on a block – leaning your back against a wall can help here. However, if it’s too uncomfortable without a cushion or block then that’s fine, just make sure the sit-bones are connecting fully with the support that you’re using.

Close your eyes and visualise your spinal column, with the tailbone and sit-bones descending downwards to connect with the earth or block beneath you. Gently switch on moola bandha by drawing up on the perineal muscles as described in this article. Don’t over-exert here; it should be quite a gentle, subtle action. Keeping moola bandha switched on, take your awareness to your breath and lengthen the inhales and exhales, breathing through the nose.

Imagine that when you breathe in you draw energy from the earth up the spine (this upward energy is called ‘prana’). Feel your torso grow with the pranic flow and feel the neck extend and the crown of your head ascend. Keeping moola bandha switched on, as you exhale, imagine the downward flow of this energy back down the spine (this downward flow of energy is called ‘apana’), and feel the sit-bones fully connect with the floor or prop beneath you.  Keep this slow breathing practice going, really imagining the upward and downward flow of energy up and down the spine as you inhale and exhale.

Over your breathing practice, try and lengthen the exhales as much as possible, focusing more and more on that sinking, grounding feeling, but without losing the upward extension through the body on the inhales to avoid slumping. By keeping moola bandha switched on throughout the breathing session, even during the exhales, you may feel a deep sense of mental calm, clarity and inner balance descend. And if you don’t feel that, don’t berate yourself – these things take time, and know that by doing the practice you are toning the pelvic floor muscles and gradually building awareness. Enjoy… 🙂

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