The Bandhas and The Deep Core.
In yoga class, you’ve probably heard teachers reference the ever mysterious “bandhas”. “Engage your bandhas!” “Lift your pelvic floor!” “Activate the Deep Core!” they (including I) say.
But what exactly does this mean?
This is a very important question because the deep core and bandhas are essential for sustainable practice. The deep core muscles have a place in ancient yoga, innovative bodywork, and modern physical therapy. The concept of inner locks or seals crosses cultures, traditions, movement practices and spans centuries of practice.
Physically, the bandhas protect the spine, promote power, and project energy; leading to lightness and lift in the posture practice. Mentally, they generate a meditative awareness that is broad and spacious - unlike your mind chasing after an achievement or chewing on a problem. Energetically, the bandhas regulate the flows of prana and create an "echo" of connection and communication through the subtle body. Metaphorically, the bandhas create a container; Mythically, they move kundalini upwards through Susumna Nadi to reach supreme consciousness at your crown.
As you can see, the bandhas have infinite layers of meaning, for now, let's discuss them in relationship to the deep core and the physical posture practice.
So what are the Bandhas? What are the Deep Core muscles? Are they the same?
Yes and No.
The Yoga Tradition urges you deeper than just muscles and bones, and while the bandhas correlate to what I’ll call the Deep Core muscles, they are also an energetic experience and subtle body awareness that is more than their physical counterpart.
The word bandha is often translated to lock or seal, however, perhaps a better translation is link. They are points of connection and communication in the body. It's difficult to explain the bandhas because they are an experience. Words can point in the right direction but until you feel it, they are just words. Once you feel it, keep going, because the bandhas are like a treasure chest.
First, let's discuss the physical reality of the deep core then explore the energetic experience of the bandhas.
The deep core are muscles that protect the spine and stabilize complex motion. When people say their “back is out”, often the deep core has failed to fire in the proper order and then the more superficial muscles of the back have locked up or seized. This results in a feeling of being unable to move or stand-up straight. It’s like the gears of a clock or machinery, when they get slightly off, the whole operation shuts down.
The deep core muscles are intended to be endurance muscles – turned on and working for us all the time. Due to poor posture patterns and a history of sitting (vs squatting or sitting on the floor as in Eastern Cultures) it can take years to develop consistent activation of the deep core. However, the time and dedication is well worth it because these muscles create integrity, balance and graceful movement - especially as we age.
Specifically, the Deep Core muscles are the pelvic floor, multifidi, transverse abdominis and deep neck flexors.
Pelvic Floor - these are the muscles at the base of your torso; the bottom of the abdominal basket weave.
Multifidi - the spinal stabilizers that run up the spine like shoelaces.
Transverse abdominis - the corset of support that wraps around your trunk between the ribs and pelvis.
Deep Neck Flexors - spinal stabilizer for your cervical spine, felt in the back center of your throat. Correlation to the upper palate.
Key word here is DEEP. And because they are initially difficult to feel, yoga teachers have gotten in the habit of using boney landmarks - like tailbone, ribs, chin - to direct the action of the deep core muscles. It is important to know that the bones are just landmarks - a way to know you’re going in the right direction. For example, you're giving a friend directions to your house and you say "turn left at the big tree and then my house is the second on the right." The tree is just a landmark, it's a way to get to the house. And the same is true for the boney landmarks. When you hear the direction "scoop your tailbone" - a common cue for Mulabandha - you destination is the engagement of the pelvic floor. Because when the pelvic floor lifts up, there is a simultaneous dropping down of tailbone, sitting bones, and even pubic bone. You receive a grounding energy through the ones, and an uplifting current though the musculature. The is the Root Linking of Mulabandha.
Mulabhanda and the Pelvic Floor.
Mula means “Root” and Bandha is the lock, seal, or link. The Root Link of Mula Bandha correlates to the pelvic floor. The Pelvic Floor is the musculature at the base of your torso. Think of it this way: There is no bone between the lower ribs and the pelvis other than your spine. Yet something holds the organs in place. That “something” is the abdominals. The abdominals are like a basketweave and the Pelvic Floor is the bottom of that basket.
Your pelvic floor is considered a "diaphragm" and has a responsive, springy, trampoline-like quality. It is made up of the levator ani muscles which look like hammocks strung up across the pelvis. With the levator ani group, there are a few muscles, different attachment points and even several directions of movement (which is why you receive confusing and seemingly conflicting instructions on how to engage them!). Here is a table with the levator ani muscles, major attachments and action, plus common yoga cues:
Now, another interesting fact and bonus of the pelvic floor: When you lift the pelvic floor, the multifidi - which are the 6th layer of muscles along your spine - automatically and instantaneously engage. These muscles are so deep that you will never feel them, however, their engagement creates space and support along your spine. The engagement of these deep spinal stabilizers creates a fluidity and grace of movement that translates off the mat.
On the mat, Mulabandha is most commonly associated with lightness and lift. It's the spring from Down Dog to the top of your mat. It's the power that lifts you up in Lolasana. It also provides a stabilizing hug for your lower back when backbending or twisting. It feels like leg-lengthening and spine draping in forward folds. It's the sense of center in balance poses.
With assymetrical leg positions, assymetrical actions bring us back to the middle. This is where we can really feel the "link" connection point of mula bandha. For example, legs in High Lunge, WI, Parsvottonasana.
Here are some exercises to feel Mulabandha:
Core Press - Laying down, lift your knees over your hips. Bring your shins parallel to the floor. Place the heel of your hands at the crease of your hips. Press your hands into your thighs and your thighs into your hands. Lift your pelvic floor up. Draw your low belly down. Draw your front ribs down. Look for a sense of “hollowing out” your abdominals. Hold 3 breaths, repeat 2x.
Utkatasana - press down into your feet to feel the outer hips wrap in and then lift the pelvic floor up. Here is is easy to feel when the tailbone drops down and the low belly/hip points lift. If you have a lot arch in your low back, you've missed the work.
High Lunge - bend back knee and drop the tailbone down like an anchor to feel the spine lift like a sail. Re-straighten the back leg and keep the pelvis neutral.
Bridge - lengthen tailbone towards the knees. Feel the low back grow spacious and then lift from the back of your heart to deepen the backbend.
The awakening of mulabandha is an ever-unfolding process. It brings a deep and subtle grace to the practice. A surreal lightness and effortless lift. Whether you think you're there or think you'll never get there... keep going...
Yoga Body by Judith Lasater
The Art of Vinyasa by Richard Freeman
Teaching Yoga by Mark Stephens
Trainings by Noah Maze, Yogamaze, and Paula Gelbart
And "the playground of my own body" - quote credit to Matt Champoux