Every now and then I mention something about shtula and sukshma: specifically, that yoga is all about moving from the shtula (the gross or surface level of things) to the sukshma (the subtle layers below the surface). In the beginning, especially for us in the Western world, yoga is very much about the outward appearance of different postures. We try to make our bodies match the shapes of demonstrated ideal postures, and either revel or cringe at what we find in doing so. Then, as we become more familiar with the postures, we start to pay closer attention to how they feel from the inside.
This is when the fun really begins. We start to notice not only how different postures affect the way our muscles, organs, and bones feel, but also how they affect our moods, our energy levels, and even our thoughts. It's when we start to take note of this internal work that we can begin to refine the postures of yoga from the inside out. The adjustments we make to our postures move along the path from the shtula to the sukshma.
Are you still with me? Good.
A long time ago, when I had first contact with yoga, somebody somewhere mentioned some things about mula bandha. This, among other strange terms, had approximately 2.7 seconds of impact in my brain before flying onward and upward to someone better ready to receive them. Fortunately for me, mother yoga is persistently generous in her teachings. I probably heard mula bandha an estimated 10,972 times before it finally started to stick. What happened?
I'm not shy about the fact that I have a strangely curvy back with an interesting personality that asserts itself at select inopportune times. Sometime last fall, those "assertions" became persistent in the form of nearly constant pain and/or stiffness in the lower lumbar and sacro-iliac region (i.e. my lower back). I almost went into full crisis mode when my pain was not only not lessened by my personal yoga practice, but was actually made worse so often that I found myself restricting my practice to just a handful of pain-free poses. Yikes!!!
This drove me to retreat to that place deep inside where we can quietly and discreetly question ourselves and even those things that we love too dearly to question in other, more conspicuous parts of our minds (shtula to sukshma, anyone?). It's here that thoughts, events, ideas, and memories bounce to and fro like so many pong balls; colliding and morphing in ways that occasionally provide universe-altering paradigm shifts. That is, if we're paying attention.
People kept telling me, "Oh, you have low back pain? You need to strengthen your core, strengthen your core, strengthen your core.”
Okay. So I incorporate more "core" strengthening exercises into my practice. But nothing much changes. But, wait a minute. What kind of core muscles should we be talking about here? Aren't we always moving from the shtula to the sukshma? But, of course! We shouldn't be so concerned about more superficial muscles, rather we really want to get to the deep core. Didn't somebody say something back there about mula bandha?
Ding, ding, ding! That's right folks, we have a winner, or at least one winner out of many, in the "Make My Back Stop Hurting" sweepstakes! It took awhile, but I finally got the newsflash that mula bandha (along with the other major bandhas that we'll look at later) is very, very, very important. And so, the million dollar question is: what is mula bandha anyway?
Mula bandha is one of 3 major energetic locks or alignment points taught in many systems of yoga today. Mula is a Sanskrit term that connotes "root," "beginning," "foundation," or "source." Bandha refers to a "lock," "bondage," or "joining together." Thus, the term mula bandha is often translated as the "root lock."
There is often much confusion and shameful, adolescent giggling over where exactly in the body this bandha can be found. Apparently, some very famous traditional gurus of yoga would stick a thumb right where the sun don't shine, ostensibly to check if one had mula bandha engaged - and if one didn't already, then one certainly would in that instant and for some time thereafter. However, America being America and lawsuits being, well, threatening, that practice didn't make it to this side of the new world. I must say, I’m glad for that.
Instead, teachers of yoga just had to get a little more specific with descriptive words in order to help students find the ever-elusive root lock. So, when we say mula bandha we start with a general feeling of a lifting upward in the floor of the pelvis. From there, we can get even more specific and say that mula bandha is located in the area between the anus and the genitals, a.k.a. the perineum, or for the more street savvy among us, the "taint." What can I say? Gotta include everyone here, right?
And if the words don’t land, pictures certainly do! So, check out this handy little diagram marking the site of the perineal body for more precision in our practice. You’re welcome.
So now that we have an abundantly clear idea of the area of the body with which we are concerned, we can begin to develop a relationship with it. Fortunately, our free video of the week is here to help out! Here’s Sara Crawford presenting to you the practice of Virasana (Hero’s Pose) and its cousin, Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero’s Pose). Hero’s Pose is one of the easiest poses in which to locate our friendly mula bandha, as I’ll explain below. So set yourself up in the pose with Sara’s expert guidance in the video, and then prepare for an adventure into the universe of your root lock!
*Uh-oh, this free video of the week expired! To get unlimited, 24/7 access, just click one of the links in the preview and become a MOJO Member today.*
Got your Hero’s Pose solid? Good. Let’s rock our mula bandha!
1. You'll need either a firm yoga block, a thick book, or a stack of books.
2. Sit in virasana, hero's pose (check the free video for your setup). Be meticulous about how you set yourself in this seat, as always. You should be high enough on props so that you feel no pain in your knees, not even in the slightest!
3. Arrange yourself so that your sitting bones feel evenly grounded. Close your eyes.
4. Feel the area between your sitting bones. Is it resting on the the surface beneath you? Lift that area up using your attention. Feel and see an arc formed from one sitting bone to the other, like a rainbow. Notice how it relates to your breath: is it easier to find on an inhalation or an exhalation? How long can you maintain it without clenching elsewhere or creating tension?
Now, the real work is to take this in to your personal practice. Apparently, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said that if you're not going to the bathroom or birthing a baby, you should have mula bandha. Hmm. That's a lot. So, perhaps we’ll just start with baby steps - sitting like I just described to you for a minute or two every day, then working up to finding it in different asanas. Eventually, you'll take time in every posture you visit to find mula bandha, and before you know it, that root lock will be showing up all over the place in your daily life.
As an even more sukshma-esque thought, because mula bandha is believed to contain our energy, just imagine what this level of awareness could do for how you feel, how you carry yourself through the world, and how your yoga practice translates into every other aspect of your life. Whoa! This lock just might hold the key you need to change more than just your asana. So, get to know your mula bandha a little better for now, and then you can move up to discover mula bandha's partner in containment: uddiyana bandha.
In the meantime, for those of you who want to challenge your awareness of mula bandha and find great help in its engagement, take it to the mat with our featured premium video of the week for MOJO Members only: Kassandra Reinhardt’s Eight Angle Pose Tutorial. Arm balances in general are great poses in which to utilize your mula bandha as the foundation of the core strength that will help you fly higher! So, MOJO Members, just login to see this one at the top of your Member Home Page this week. And of course, if you’re not a MOJO Member yet, check out this preview and start your MOJO Membership today to get the rest of this terrific tutorial on Astavakrasana, or Eight Angle Pose.
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