Yoga - Inner anchoring
by Shameem Akthar
Bandhas or energy locks are powerful yoga techniques. they lock the energies within the mind, check them from wandering, ultimately promising spiritual liberation
As you progress in yoga practice, personal evolution becomes subtle. The stamina required is of a different kind. Nothing challenges this more than the cluster of bandhas or energy locks in yoga. Though some of us get obsessed with physical contortions and challenges that asanas pose to our muscles, progress is marked by inner qualifications that cannot be bandied about. Bandhas fine-tune these inner strengths.
Though these are ostensibly physical exercises, bandhas are locks which prevent us from frittering away mental energies needed for spiritual advancement. They discipline the recalcitrant mind and improve upon the discipline fostered by asana and pranayam practices. All yogic treatises are unanimous about their potency. Hatha Yoga Pradipika praises Uddiyana Bandha (abdominal contraction) as leading to liberation directly. Maha Bandha, which combines the three major locks of the throat (Jalandhara), abdomen and perineum (Moolabandha) is said to confer great siddhis and cut one loose from the bonds of death. Moolabandha, the texts promise, confers total perfection. Because of the tremendous self-control that these practices spawned in their practitioners, ancient seers were always rather secretive about disseminating these practices and chose their disciples carefully to prevent any misuse.
On a gross level, the three major locks can be seen to prevent the different forms of life forces, which pervade our body, from escaping. The throat lock prevents the upward swing of energies, the stomach lock prevents the downward drag, while the Moolabandha is said to unite the prana and apana (two types of life forces in chest and torso), so that the two different manifestations of life force, Siva and Shakti, unite in the practitioner. A lot of psychic language is used in discussing this explosive union. Some of it is deliberate. As mentioned above, the teachers were careful that this practice, though easy to explain, was never misused and deliberately chosen to obfuscate.
Today, however, the contraction of perinea and cervical (for women) muscles discussed at length by our seers is prescribed as a therapy by western medicine for sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, vaginal laxity and incontinence. These are not practised with breath sequencing or retention. But clearly, their impact, even shorn of spiritual potency, can be life-transformative because of the freedom these practices confer in such areas of physical weaknesses. On a purely physical level, bandhas work out the inner muscles, which we never strain and which for the most part function autonomously. Orchestrating an awareness of these and exercising these strengthens the muscles for a lifetime.
On a psychological level, these practices empower the will power and increase confidence. Just as pranayam works by strengthening our inhibition response, the bandhas muscle our will power. Yoga, defined so aptly as a movement contrary to the movement of the mind, is best attained through the bandhas. As you retain the breath and hold your bandhas, you will find yourself resisting the urge to release both the breath and bandhas. This very act of concentration will, as the yogic treatises so sensitively noted, make you first tremble, then break out in sweat, because of the tremendous demand they place upon your mental stamina. The inner muscles quiver and beg for release, as does your breath. You resist it first with a certain amount of straining. As you advance in its practice, the straining is replaced with a soothing calmness and an appreciation of the futility of mental strain. When this mind-body leap is made, you will sense for yourself the advancement in practice. Will power grows as the mind learns to resist the natural urge to gasp for breath, on release of the tautly held inner muscles. I often tell my students that if asana is school-level education, and pranayam progresses you to graduation, bandhas can be termed as the doctorate level in yoga practice.
The stomach or abdominal lock, Uddiyana Bandha, like the rest of the bandhas, ignites the body’s agni or metabolic fire, which peaks. The mind is at once alert and rested. It is said that a regular practice of bandhas decreases the need for animal cravings, including food.
Respiratory capacity is promoted and ageing is reversed. The throat lock massages the powerful thyroid and parathyroid glands based there. A slight shift in the thyroid flow can make a vast difference in our temperaments, swinging us either as perfected angels or demented monsters. This lock manages the thyroid gland flow, involved with the metabolism. The parathyroid glands are involved with calcium and magnesium absorption, both needed for tissue health and regeneration. Again, the seers were not far off the mark in identifying the glands whose secretions contributed to metabolism, oxidative damage in our body and therefore ageing and vitality.
On a spiritual level, this also implied redirecting the sexual energies towards a higher spiritual purpose such as self-realisation. Advanced practice of bandhas is tied to breathing sequences and breath retention, to be practised under proper guidance. The yoga texts speak of nectar (amrit), which flows from sustained practices of the bandhas. The Bihar School of Yoga, with its scientific and comprehensive texts on tantric yoga, also explains this as the controlled flow of vital hormones, released from their intrinsic sporadic squirts. At the spiritual level, the nada and bindu are said to meet so the gross self consummates with the cosmic spirit. On a purely physical level this consummation manifests as conquering over ‘death, old age and sickness’.
Sit in a meditative pose, eyes shut. Focus on your breath, passing in and out of the nostril. Now constrict the anal muscles. Relax and repeat constriction. Do it as many times as it is comfortable. Don't tense yourself. Don't hold your breath or tighten the muscles while concentrating. This just serves to make the attempts short and incomplete. This lock prevents age-related incontinence. It is also therapeutic in excretory system malfunctions. However avoid it if there are rectal tears. Spiritually, it helps to conserve inner energies, redirecting them for spiritual purposes.