Excerpted from Teaching Yoga, Chapter 4 sidebar on “MULA BANDHA AND UDDIYANA BANDHA”
Earlier we looked at the cultivation of pada bandha, the energetic awakening of the feet through the stirrup-like effect of contracting the tibialis posterior and peroneus longus muscles on the lower leg. The fascial attachments of these two muscles interweave with those of the hip adductors, which have origins in and around the ischial tuberosities (the sitting bones). The sitting bones are the lateral aspects of the perineum, with the pubic symphysis at the front and the coccyx at the back. The front half of this diamond is the urogenital triangle, a landmark for the urogenital diaphragm, a hammock-like layer that is created by three sets of muscles: transverse perineal (connecting the two sitting bones), bulbospongiosus (surrounding the vagina or bulb of the penis), and ischiocavernosus (connecting the ischium to the clitoris or covering the penile crura) (Aldous 2004, 41). Contracting this set of muscles awakens the levator ani muscle, another hammock-like layer composed of the coccygeus, iliococcygeus, and the pubococcygeus muscles. When these muscles contract, they pull the entire pelvic floor up and naturally stimulate the awakening of core abdominal muscles with attachments at the pubis (including the TA and RA). This is the muscular action of mula bandha, which creates a feeling of grounded levity in the asana practice, supports the pelvis organs, creates an upward movement of energy, and stimulates uddiyana bandha. With practice, mula bandha can be accessed directly (i.e., independently of pada bandha) and steadily maintained throughout asana practice.
Uddiyana bandha is among the most misunderstood aspects of practice, owing in part to very different definitions and instructions from different traditions and teachers. In its basic form, uddiyana bandha involves pulling the entire abdominal region strongly back toward the spine and then up toward the breastbone when completely empty of breath. Its engagement is part of specific pranayama and kriya practices, not asana practice, yet many teachers instruct students to engage it while doing asanas. In asana practice we want the breath to flow smoothly, continuously, and fully, which requires the full, natural functioning of the diaphragm. However, uddiyana bandha prevents the diaphragm from expanding naturally, thus severely restricting the inhalation of breath.
The confusion about uddiyana bandha arises from a very different breath-related muscular action in the lower abdomen that we do want to cultivate in asana practice. With each and every complete exhale the major abdominal muscles naturally contract (primarily the TAs but also the obliques and the RA). When this occurs along with mula bandha, the very light, subtle engagement of these abdominal muscles can accentuate, deepen, and give more stability and ease to the body in many (but not all) asanas and asana transitions. Indeed, in some asanas we want the belly to be quite relaxed in order for the spine, pelvis, and breath to move appropriately for those asanas. We can refer to this as “uddiyana bandha light” to distinguish it from the full form of uddiyana bandha done in pranayama.
Mula bandha and uddiyana bandha are tools that can be variously engaged to support different energetic actions in the practice. In no situation do we want to grip the belly as in full uddiyana bandha, which restricts the breath in asana practice. Nor do we want to create tightness in the pelvic floor. Rather, mula bandha and uddiyana bandha are best cultivated as light and steady energetic lifting actions that draw energy up and into the core of the body while allowing that energy to radiate out and fuel the practice. The balance of these qualities comes with practice, and with time is increasingly subtle yet pervasive in its effects.