Are you breathing correctly? Because I’m not.
Ujayi breath, bandhas, and drishti are the tristana of Ashtanga practice. Focusing on all three at once requires balance, patience, and time. It requires intent.
Ujayi breath, bandhas, and drishti are the tristana of Ashtanga. The what?! NPR tells me that it’s actually impossible to multitask (so I should stop texting while driving), but it’s good to have goals, and as we established, yoga is all about intention. I have been practicing for nearly a year but I wasn’t sure what I should be intending to do (beyond breathing like Darth Vader, feeling my feet, and looking down my nose while trying to stay upright), so I asked my teacher for guidance. She practices, and studies what happens physiologically when we practice. Through her insights, I am about to try to explain what may be happening.
The intention of yoga practice is to settle and quiet the mind so that we can see beyond the veil of thoughts clouding our perception. In Ashtanga, we use the elements of the tristana – ujayi, bandhas, and drishti – to develop the concentration required to do this.
Ujjayi breath, as the movement of energy, imbues us with life force, gives the mind something to focus on at the same time that it warms the body and physiologically oxygenates the blood (think hydraulic physics) by narrowing the glottal muscles in the throat and thus increasing the pressure of the breath in the lungs. Without this intentional, mindful breath, it’s not yoga – it’s just exercise.
Your mind is quieted by drishti or gaze, the fight or flight instinct quelled, as you look down your nose and you settle into your body, developing concentration. Drishti changes the way you are situated in your body as well, making you more cognizant of all the subtle changes as you practice regularly and evolve. The affect is manifold. You feel it physically, mentally, and ultimately spiritually as you seek enlightenment. Even if we do not set out to do it expressly, it’s what we’re all seeking. We may get confused and distracted and discouraged but the tristana helps us focus.
Bandhas aren’t a muscle contraction, but more of a nexus of energy where prana is concentrated within the body. A key. Once you figure out how to use it, this key unlocks pranic energy that may then be tapped and poured into practice, and into the rest of your life off the mat. I only recently figured out how to use mine, and have found that it changes my practice dramatically.
With all three elements of the tristana working together, along with the postures, you retain and channel the prana of your body. The bandhas energetically (at least at this point in my practice) move the energy generated upward. Over time, you start moving the energy up from the base of the spine – the mula or root – and into the body. Then you can dive off the iceberg into the sea of chakras and nadis and energy channels in the Tantric realm, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. Figuring out how to use mula bandha, obviously, is just the beginning.
Not only did it seem to anchor and expand my breath, it facilitated my intent to pour my body over my legs in Paschimattanasana. Hand on hip, leg extended, I could bring my foot higher than my head in Utthita Hasta Padangustasana. Rising into downward dog I could forego pressing into my hands and rolling over my toes as I lifted my bandhas heavenward and my hind end followed, as if my hips had hinges and my brain had a straight channel to the puppeteer in the rafters. Using my bandhas to tap into the energy at the base of my spine changed the sense of my body in space, both physically and mentally. To put it differently, it made me feel powerful, as if I were an instrument of untapped potential and I’d just flicked an “on” switch.
Prana is so much more than breath blazing a pathway between the body and the mind; it is a force. The Sanskrit language is imbued with so many layers of meaning that it’s really impossible to translate it directly into English. Prana means breath, spirit, and life force. So much of what we do is disconnected and scattered that merely the intention of practice is enough to start slowing things down, winding back past, future and subjunctive tense, leaving us grounded in the present. ‘Be here now’ is something I have heard repeated, and which bears repeating. Each asana is part of that repetition, realigning us, each breath sealing prana within the body, prana mudra, bolstering our life force. It’s all mutually reinforcing, reciprocal.
Finding Mula bandha and engaging my core was one of those ‘eureka moments.’ I won’t go so far as to say that I was able to keep it engaged as the sudden alignment pulled my focus away from my breath and into my body while my mind hovered, trying to figure out what had finally clicked and how I could repeat it. It felt more like trying to walk on a balance beam in the wind, balancing and overcorrecting, teetering and repeating. It takes exploration, a commitment to place and time and the practice. The more I do, the more I find I can do – and the more I find I know nothing about anything. Yoga is an intention; activating the bandhas is part of that intention, finding that reserve within your body which functions as a wellspring. The more you engage, the more it gives. It’s beautiful. And I feel grateful that the pieces of me have fallen in such a way that when the bones are read, yoga is in my present tense.
Mula bandha is the foundation or ‘root’ lock at the base of practice; it acts not to trap but rather unlock pranic energy so you can use it, lightening your practice so it becomes less about strength than presence. As you draw in a breath it circles around this nexus and courses outward, imbuing the body with strength, energy and stability, redistributing (or relieving) the stress in the body.
However, engaging mula bandha is complicated. Currently, it feels like sitting on the ocean floor, wearing a weighted dive belt, drawing in measured breaths through the hose connected to your tank of oxygen. This may not the best way to describe it because some people find diving claustrophobic, I’ll grant you. I find it useful to visualize this part of practice as internally clenching a fist of energy and lifting upward somewhere between the cervix and pelvic floor, similar to a Kegel (for men this is apparently more external, situated at the perineum – aka, the “taint”…as in “t’aint one nor the t’other!”). At the end of an inhale, pulling the breath down into the body while drawing your shoulders away from your ears and settling downward closes that fist as you exhale, contracting the abdominal muscles and drawing them toward the spine, simultaneously pushing and pulling something, I don’t know what, into balance.
Now I know that my teacher will read that last bit and think, “She’s working Mula bandha too hard, too much as a muscular contraction.” And she’s right. Using words like ‘clenching’ or ‘fist’ indicates an intensity of effort that is counterproductive. Over time, what begins as a physical muscular effort for me – because I do yoga the way I climb, with more brute strength than finesse – will subtly become more energetic as I learn to hold the energy in more gently. There is an analogy to holding a bird, like the grosbeak I once caught in a horse barn, trying to hold it in your hands so it cannot escape, while being careful not to hold it too tightly and crush it (right now, analogically speaking, I’m killing that bird). The effort I want to be making is mindful and light, not crushing and brutish, and that mindfulness is part of my path.
The really amazing thing about yoga is that there are so many paths and each interpretation is valid in its own right because we’re all wildly different and we’re all reaching for enlightenment in our own way. In the end, according to my teacher, Pattahbi Jois said that yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory, which means, essentially, we can think about this – and discuss it – too much! Just practice regularly and mindfully, with reverence, and what is needed will unfold naturally. Today, I am bogged down in the theory and happy to be here, breathing from my core, trying to explain how to use the breath and the bandhas I’ve only just discovered. I’m feeling really deep into the woo-woo aspect of yoga, sitting at the kitchen table in this sprawling skeleton of a house while the wind howls, cackling about how I’ve arrived at this juncture. Here’s to beginnings and consistency in practice. How old am I, a quarter century? Maybe by next year, I’ll have learned how to breathe.