The ancient art of directing energy.
by Rolf Sovik
Mula bandha, the root lock, is an important yoga practice, but one that is often tucked into the back pages of yoga manuals. The Sanskrit word mula refers to the root of a plant or tree. As in English, root can also mean the foot or base of an object, or the origin of a thing (the root of the problem). Here, mula indicates the base of the torso, the perineum, and it is associated with the muladhara chakra, lowest of the energy centers along the spine.
The word bandha has many meanings, some contradictory. For example, the word has been translated as “fetter, block, check, obstruct, restrain, lock.” In this sense bandha is described as the damming up of a river. But it also translates as “bond, connect, put together, unite, combine, join.” In this sense bandha is described as bridging over a river. How are these dissimilar meanings reconciled? If we examine the practice of mula bandha, perhaps the answer will reveal itself.
Mula bandha accompanies both pranayama and meditation, and it provides continuity when breathing practices are completed and meditation begins. Svatmarama, author of the authoritative Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga), states: “There is no doubt that by practicing mula bandha . . . total perfection is attained.” This is an impressive claim. But can it be taken seriously, or is it an exaggeration employed to encourage us to learn the practice?
Let’s look at the system of energy that supports the body/mind, because this will give perspective to Svatmarama’s assertion. The chief axis of prana is the spinal column, which rises from the perineum to the base of the skull. Within this axis is said to be a central channel of energy (nadi) called sushumna. Two other passages of energy, known as ida and pingala, are described as twining upward along the spine from its base, ending in the left and right nostrils respectively. In ordinary life these two nadis dominate a complex, hierarchical network of energy pathways. When one or the other is active, it influences and colors the functioning of the entire system.
The Upanishads liken prana to a bird tied to its perch, fettered by ida and pingala. It lives out its days going back and forth from one to the other, never finding freedom. Yoga adepts state that it is possible to restrain the involuntary alternations of ida and pingala and to unite these two separate streams of energy. This is the literal meaning of hatha yoga—the yoga in which ha (the right breath) and tha (the left breath) are joined. When these streams are united, prana is freed to ascend through the central channel of the spinal column to its ultimate goal at the crown of the head, the sahasrara chakra. The initial stage of this process is called the awakening of sushumna. Practices for attaining such an awakening are said to bring about perfection, and that is at least one source of Svatmarama’s praise for mula bandha.
Restraining the Outward Flow
Yoga adepts describe three practices used to restrain the outward flow of energy and unite it with the upward flow of sushumna. In uddiyana bandha, the stomach lock, the breath is exhaled and the abdomen is sucked in toward the spine. This activates energy at the navel center. In jalandhara bandha, the chin lock, the chin is drawn down to the base of the throat, forcefully blocking the normal passage of energy through ida and pingala there. The third practice is mula bandha, in which muscles are tightly contracted at the center of the perineum. Contraction of these muscles is said to affect the nervous, circulatory, respiratory, and endocrine systems, and most important, the system of internal energy, or prana.
Svatmarama maintains a certain mystery about all three of these practices. He implies that in order to achieve their full effects they must be completed in a precise yogic manner (taught through the grace of one’s teacher) and not as mere physical manipulations. He states that the full sadhana, or practice routine, associated with these techniques should be kept secret, “just like precious stones, and not be talked about to anyone, just as one does not tell others about his intimate relations with his wife.” As with many such remonstrances, he cautions teachers and students alike that advanced practices are meant for qualified aspirants who have completed preliminary stages of training and maintain a direct relationship with their spiritual guide. Nonetheless, preliminary versions of mula bandha are suitable for all students and have beneficial effects for health as well as self-awareness.
Muscles and Structures of the Lower Pelvis
Formed like a bowl, the pelvic girdle consists of three fused bones—the ilium, the ischium, and the pubis. The pelvis is open at the bottom (the pelvic outlet), and at the base of this opening is an area of the body called the perineum. Viewed from above, the perineum is shaped like a diamond. The coccyx (the base of the spine) lies at the rear of the diamond, while the front of the diamond is the pubic symphysis, the joint between the two pubic bones. The left and right corners of the diamond are the two sit bones.
Mula bandha is associated with the center of the perineum. In men, mula bandha results from contractions of the muscles surrounding the perineal body, which lies midway between the anus and the genitals. Some texts suggest that by applying light pressure beneath this area (sitting on a soft, rolled sock or a specially designed cushion) contraction can be stimulated. Postures in which pressure is applied by sitting on the heel of one foot have also been described. For women, the contraction of mula bandha is said to be felt not at the perineal body, but at the area surrounding the base of the cervix. As in men, a soft cushion at the center of the perineum is said to stimulate the lock.
Practically speaking, attention might be focused on the back, the front, or the middle of the perineum—or on more than one area at a time. To practice mula bandha you must learn to activate the perineum at its center.
Since it is often difficult to isolate the contractions in this area, developing awareness of mula bandha is a matter of daily practice. It should not be rushed, because working slowly and gradually allows muscles to strengthen at the same time that mental discrimination is developing. An obstacle to practice is that the muscles of the perineum tend to work together, and frequently when one contracts they all contract. In addition, it is quite easy to inadvertently tense respiratory muscles along with the perineal muscles, and unnecessary sympathetic tension may occur in other areas of the body as well. It takes careful attention and regular practice to sort this out.
The first task is to develop the simple ability to contract and relax the perineal muscles. To begin, sit in any erect, meditative posture—preferably a cross-legged seated pose. Close your eyes; rest your body; and relax your breath, feeling the sides of the rib cage expand and contract while releasing tension from the upper abdomen. Breathing freely, and without coordinating the breath with your muscle contractions, squeeze the entire perineal region—front, middle, and back—inward and upward. Keep the breath as steady and smooth as possible, without pausing. Press in slowly, and when the contraction is complete, release it slowly. In this exercise you are not trying to discriminate between individual areas, but to strengthen all the muscles of the perineal region while increasing awareness of them. Repeat this exercise 25 times.
Next, contract all the muscles of the perineum and hold to your comfortable capacity. While the tension is being maintained, continue to breathe slowly and smoothly. Sense the area around the anus, then move to the central contraction at the perineal body or cervix, and finally examine the contraction in the urogenital area. Tighten each area as you focus on it, feeling the sensations there. Then release the entire contraction slowly, and relax.
Now coordinate contractions of the entire perineum with the breath. Inhaling, contract the perineum, and exhaling slowly release the tension. Time the contractions so that they coincide with the breath. Jerkiness or loss of control can be gradually reduced over time. During this practice, begin to focus on the central region of the perineum, giving special attention to sensations that will be associated with mula bandha. Repeat this exercise 25 times.
Finally, when you are ready, center your attention on the center of the perineum, and contract the muscles there tightly with minimal involvement of the anal and urogenital areas. This is the initial version of mula bandha, and it will take some time to accomplish it. There is no hurry, and it is better to prolong the practice rather than rush it.
Once the contraction can be held without affecting the breath, other sympathetic muscle tensions are relaxed, and you will be able to comfortably hold mula bandha for some time. Then it can be employed during pranayama exercises and meditation.
The Role of Mula Bandha
At the beginning of this article we puzzled over two meanings for the word bandha. One translation characterized bandha as a lock to dam the flow of energy, and another depicted it as a bridge to unite energies. As you do the practices described here you may find that these seemingly contradictory meanings now make internal sense. Mula bandha has the effect of restraining energy at the perineum; in this sense it is stabilizing and calming. It also has the effect of gently enhancing the energy of concentration. It is as if a radio dial has been adjusted properly so that the voice of consciousness can speak more clearly.
A variety of physical benefits have been attributed to mula bandha. It has been suggested that through this practice unstable menstrual periods can be regulated, respiration rate lowered, heart rate and blood pressure reduced, sympathetic arousal calmed, digestion improved, and urogenital functioning harmonized. These effects are noted by adepts in yoga, but there seems as yet to have been little scientific research to investigate them. More important for yogis, through the practice of mula bandha the direction of the downward-moving energies located in the root chakra and the upward-moving energies located at the heart chakra are said to be reversed and the energies united. This internal union leads to the expansion of awareness.
At the least, with regular practice of mula bandha you will become more certain of the place where muscle contractions converge. This is the location of the muladhara chakra, the root from which energy is said to permeate the human body and mind. When this energy is calm and secure, life itself is more relaxed.
Rolf Sovik, PsyD, is the author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation. He is the president of the Himalayan Institute and serves as the director of the Institute’s branch center in Buffalo, New York.