In the ancient scripture of the Yoga Sutras, written by the revered sage Patanjali, an sana, posture, is described as embodying both sthira, steadiness, and sukha, comfort. There are many methods in yoga by which to establish, at a muscular level, steadiness and comfort in our practice. These functional concerns are also the crux of Western physiological research. Inevitably they all must address the questions of:
What puts our muscles into their best anatomical advantage?What needs to be relaxed and strengthened to provide optimum alignment?
By first opening and then strengthening the muscles of the pelvic floor, we can build a strong physical foundation on which to anchor a physiologically safe practice. This broadening and strengthening, relaxing and steadying of the foundation is accomplished through a unique movement known in yoga as mulabandha.
What mulabandha does structurally
While there are various techniques for practicing mulabandha, for the general purposes of this article, mulabandha is best described as a subtle lifting or arching up of the perineal floor into the core of the body. This is accomplished by a contraction of the muscles of the pelvic. The lift is accompanied by slow, steady, and continuous breathing (dirgha and ujjayi pranayama). In addition, when you lift your sternum and bring a soft smile to your face, the effect of the perineal lift extends through your esophagus and into the soft palatte at the back of the roof of your mouth.
Imagine yourself standing. Can you visualize how the arch of your foot carries the entire weight of your body and distributes it through the ball and heel down into the ground? In a similar way, as the weight of our torso is pulled down by gravity, the domed “arching up” of the perineal floor gives an equal and opposite lift through the central structure. As a result, your ankle, knee, and hip joints subtly realign. Your upper and lower leg bones move slightly into a more efficient weight-bearing position above the feet.
This alignment enables your body weight to flow more easily through the pelvic bones and hip joints down into the arch of the foot, and back into the ground. Because the weight-bearing is directed more finely into the bones, muscles, and ligaments, we instantly reduce stress and its associated anxieties. Because we use less energy, we feel less fatigued. We actually can smile and experience more joy in our practice!
In addition, when the perineal floor lifts, it stimulates the core abdominal muscles to also lift and hold. This lift enables the chest and upper back to more easily lengthen. As a result of this “inner lift,” the back of the neck elongates, causing the crown to lengthen. The integrative effect is a subtle repositioning and alignment of the entire skeletal structure. As a result we feel stronger, we move easier and we can hold our position longer without strain.
Because of the unique way in which it unites many different branches of the musculoskeletal system, mulabandha enables the core muscles of the neck, shoulders, back, chest, abdomen, sides, hips, groin, and buttocks to be firmly “rooted” all the way down into the pelvic floor. Paradoxically, we feel more “grounded” even as we feel lighter.
With practice, this perineal “rooting” strengthens your core and enables your entire body to move into, hold, and move out of a wide range of positions with greater freedom, easier alignment, and more safety. When your body feels safe and open, you naturally relax, you breathe easy, and you feel uplifted physically, emotionally, and energetically. As a result, you experience more happiness in your body.
Our intention in this approach, then, is to empower our core to be comfortable, strong, and mobile through establishing stable support via a strong foundation. When we shift our emphasis from imitating postures to “coming from core,” we feel an ease of movement and stability that even others recognize. We let go of unnecessary contractions and receive enhanced benefits. We learn to support ourselves from the “ground up” and the “inside out.” We move in our bodies and our lives with more grace, power, and ease.
If we are not confident in having a strong and stable foundation in our body, the insecurity will motivate us to seek
external forms of stability. We do this by contracting muscles “at a distance” from the center of our body. In Western physiology this occurrence is referred to as “distal support.”
For example, if we squeeze the buttocks and legs firmly together in the Cobra, Bhujangasana, we may feel solid, but this distal support is actually a rigid contraction. It is an unnecessary movement in relation to fulfilling the core
musculoskeletal purpose of the posture, which is to actively strengthen the back and passively lengthen the front of the torso. By using only distal support, the breath and brain will feel constricted, the lower body unnecessarily tense, and the energy disconnected between the upper and lower halves of the body. If the distal support of the leg and buttock squeeze is released and our core remains unengaged, we will feel weak and wobbly.
Through regular use of mulabandha, we learn that the protective tension and rigidity can be transformed into internal strength and lift. This enables us to reduce unnecessary injuries, release trapped energy, and live in our body with more joy. With mulabandha to anchor your own power, you can create safety during a long sustained stretch, strengthen your trunk, and redistribute precious energy from contraction into conscious awareness. Once you have that core strength in place, you can choose the patterns of distal support that enhance your aims.
Range of engagement
Mulabandha is not an “all or nothing” technique. It can be held as a gentle intention, a fully energized perineal lift, or somewhere between. For example, in the Child Pose a light lift of mulabandha will assist the body in feeling safe. In everyday walking, a “20 percent” mulabandha gives relief to the knees and spring to the step. In a standing backbend, a fully engaged mulabandha, firmly held for the duration of the posture, gives firm safety and structural support.
Mulabandha can be consistently lifted through the holding time of a posture or rhythmically engaged and relaxed.
For example, in the final position of the Posterior Stretch, Paschimottanasana, alternating the exhalation and lift of mulabandha with the inhalation and release of mulabandha assists the body to stretch and soften. (Refer to the individual posture sheets for specific applications.)
The parasympathetic nervous system connects the base of the spine (the sacrum) with the base of the brain (the medulla or “reptilian-survival” brain), the midbrain (frontal lobes and “thinking brain”), and the crown of the head (referred to in sacred traditions as the “spiritual dome” or “crown of creation”). This neurological system controls the vegetative functions (e.g. digestion, elimination) of the body and networks certain glandular secretions with organs.
Through learning to isolate movement of the perineal floor, both relaxing and lifting it, we actually articulate the sacrum and its associated neurological pathways. By directly palpating this “root” of our neurological intelligence, as in any massage, we relax, comfort, and assist the perineum in releasing long held tensions. The master glands in the brain (pituitary and pineal) receive the neurological information that all is well, and they rebalance the body chemistry.
This sense of well-being is instantaneously transmitted to the entire organism by the endocrine and nervous systems working together. The parts of the body that usually clench in fear (anal sphincter, genitals, internal organs, belly, and buttocks) relax. Our respiratory, cardiovascular, and digestive systems are signaled to relax. As a result, we feel an integrated sense of safety and comfort in our belly. Our emotions also tell us “all is well.”
Owing to inherited social concepts about our bodies, as well as various injuries and traumas that are part of life, almost everyone holds some unconscious tension in the buttocks, belly, perineum, genitals, and anal region. These are usually the oldest tensions in the body, frequently formed at the pre verbal time of our lives. Some practitioners find that as they relate to these intimate parts of their body, they encounter shame, guilt, fear, pride, arrogance, loneliness, numbness, abuse, or even survival anxieties. Others may be physically weak in these places due to hernia, episiotomy, or other medical circumstances.
Therefore, to be willing to let go of even a portion of that protection is a very personal and intimate choice. We can only deeply relax here if we feel it is within our control to feel safe. Some are, and others are not ready to make such a choice. Each practitioner must be sensitive to his or her own needs, and responsive to his or her unique developmental time in order to establish the psychological safety required for this practice. Because many of us have either denied or overemphasized this region of our body for so long, this practice (combined with compassionate awareness, steadfast patience, and relaxed determination) helps balance our energies.
We take steps to release our own bindings only if we feel safe to create our own boundaries. Psychologically, it is a powerful choice and a developmental step to embrace core strength. As Nelson Mandela said:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
our deepest fear is that we are powerful,
Owning our power is one of the great benefits of mulabandha practice. As we experiment with using core strength and
letting go of our old ways of holding ourselves, we realize that it is possible to let go of our habitual methods of safety (tension and numbness, fight or flight, self-sabotage, doing it right, being perfect, looking good) and still survive. We find an inner confidence that lets us face and release our reluctance to embody all that we secretly know ourselves to be.
From domination to self-actualization
To anchor our shift in awareness from external authority to internal guidance we need to be aware of our fear-based contractions. Reliance on external things, ideas, and images for our well-being keeps us rigid in our body. This in turn limits our choices and our creative expressions.
Turning to internal guidance allows us to apply yoga at a much deeper level. We can use the teachers and the teachings as resources rather than rules. The compulsion to have perfect images to replicate loses its hypnotic power over us. Instead of working to please the teacher we can focus on realizing the union of our soul with Spirit, which pleases us and brings lasting joy. This internal trust enables us to more readily self-source our creative response to the moment-to-moment flow of life. We learn to stand up for ourselves, to take responsibility for our choices and actions. Through standing our ground with core strength rather than being dug in with contracted distal support, we are able to contain and express our own Self in a more relaxed and powerful way.
The regular use of mulabandha can assist us in recognizing the need for personal boundaries that support us in taking steps to move toward our own creative expression. This practice enables us to start from a healthy base from the very first posture. As we practice, sourced and energized from core, we don’t have to be super mobile, super strong, or super flexible to receive the benefits yoga has to offer.
This approach does not take away what you know. It helps you to recognize what is no longer needed, release it, and build on what already nurtures you in your life.
May you find this practice uplifting, peaceful, and a worthy friend for life.
About the author
Christopher Ken Baxter is a founding member of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and is one of the original developers of Kripalu Yoga. Out of his 30 years of experience with yoga, he has developed AtmaYoga, a form of yoga that has its origin in core strength of body and spirit. For more information on AtmaYoga and the many offerings of AtmaYoga Educational Services, visit www.atmayoga.com, call 413-528-6408, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org