March 13, 2012

Bandhas: The Pilates Point of View. ~ Mariska Breland

If you’ve taken a yoga class, you may have heard teachers using the term bandhas.

They want you to engage them. Or hold them. Bandhas have magical powers. They will enable you to float effortlessly into inversions. They may enable you to survive on a diet of air or live forever (possibly an exaggeration). As a yoga student, I heard a lot about the bandhas. But instead of making my practice easier, my peaceful yogic mind kept drifting, wondering what the hell everyone was talking about?

To quote Yoga-Age.com:

“Bandhas bound/bind back the dissipative energy and as such they are the embodied aspect of pratyhara…pratyhara…acts similarly as a powerful vehicle for tapas (increasing the spiritual fire) and is its energetic counterpoint as our energy is no longer dissipated nor distracted into dualistic externalizations.”

Yeah, my brain just exploded a little there, too.

Michelle Ryan of Florence Yoga in Navasana

In fact, before Pilates training, I didn’t get anything about the bandhas other than that they had really cool names, names that would work well for an Indian princess or an exotic dog. There are three classic bandhas: mula, uddiyana, and jalandhara.

So, for you yogis out there, what does Pilates say about the bandhas? 

Not a thing. That’s right, kids, we don’t use concepts like energy locks in Pilates.  What we talk about are muscles, bones, connective tissue, and the proper stabilization of each before movement happens. However, we use these bandhas, too, and we learn (and teach) them from a 21st century, straightforward, exercise science P.O.V., which makes it a whole lot easier to understand them.

Take away the esoteric, the mysterious, the ancient teaching of yoga, and what you have is stabilization.

From the top down:

Jalandhar bandha

To engage this bandha, you need to contract the muscles of the neck and to press the chin firmly on to the depression at the end of the throat (the jugular notch).

Jalandhar bandha is studied in Padmasan or any other asana specified for Dhyana Process.

Hmmm, I’m definitely confused. What I do understand is that getting into this position involves head ramping, and that’s easy to do. Imagine you are balancing a book on your head. Depending on who you are, that book might be Twilight, Game of Thrones, or French existentialism. The book is not important. Stop worrying about the book.

Without dropping the book on the floor, move your entire head backwards a couple of inches. It sort of creates a double chin. Got one? Awesome. Jalandhar bandha. Check.

What’s the point? In yoga: this bandha necessary in Kumbhaka.

Clearly, that is outside of the scope of this lesson. In Pilates (or in life), this motion puts your head and neck in alignment.

Next is uddiyana bandha.

Photo: Alex Pearson

This is the abdominal lock. I’m a Pilates instructor; I love uddiyana bandha. I teach it all day long. I call it engaging the transverse abdominus. Actually, I usually just say: pull your belly button toward your spine, draw your abs in and up. Pull them in more. More than that. Hold them there. Hold. 

The transverse abdominus is perhaps the most important abdominal muscle. It is the deepest (i.e. closest) to your spine, and its action is to compress the abdomen. When you engage it, you stabilize your lumbar spine (the site of back pain for an estimated 80% of Westerners at some point in their lives). You also take the multifidi along for the ride. Those tiny muscles run between vertebra and also stabilize the spine during movement.

Make them strong, stabilize them before you move, and reduce your risk for back pain and injury. Plus, pulling your abs in makes your stomach flat. And who doesn’t want a flat stomach?

Mula bandha is sometimes called the root lock. It is said to be the source of kundalini energy. It’s the most magical of all of the bandhas (or so we hear). Physically, it’s the central tendon of the pelvic floor. We all know the pelvic floor is magical.

In Pilates, we talk about the pelvic floor. It’s essentially a sling that provides support for the pelvic organs and helps to stabilize the pelvis. When you engage the transverse abdominus, the pelvic floor also engages (and vice versus). Everything’s connected.

David Kyle, a yogi who is considered the Mula Bandha King, shows off what control of these bandhas can do. Impressive huh? I’ve seen a Fuse Pilates student float into and out of a handstand that easily, and she says that when she hasn’t been in our core-focused classes in a while, she loses it.

Although I haven’t learned that (yet), I did figure out how to engage my bandhas. I’m doing it right now, actually. I’m not flying, but I am sitting taller (and my abs look amazing).

Mariska Breland is the founder of the Fuse Pilates Method and co-owner of the Fuse Pilates Playground in DC’s Dupont Circle. Mariska has a savant-level ability to remember exercises and the anatomy knowledge and creativity to design new ones. With more than 1,500 hours of training under her belt, and over twice that in front of a class teaching, she knows why an exercise will work and how to make it and you work better, smarter, or harder. Beyond fitness, Mariska received a 2006 holistic health coaching certification through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (part of Columbia University’s continuing education curriculum) where she studied with Drs. Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, Barry Sears, and dozens of other leaders in the alternative health field. A former award-winning writer and creative director, Mariska puts those skills to good use as a frequent guest writer for fitness and lifestyle blogs.


Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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