The goal of each asana practice is doing them from the core of your being and extending out, dynamically, through to the periphery of your body. As you stretch, from head to heels, you must find your center and from this center you must extend and expand. ~B.K.S. Iyengar
Yoga is about finding and maintaining balance in mind and body. This practice of balance is lead on and off the mat as it is constantly defined and redefined each and every day. Finding stillness in the chaos, a way to retreat, renew, balance, recover and discover is what the practice of yoga provides. Beginning with awareness, an inward journey becomes about embracing the essence of you. This journey or quest for center is innately connected with who we are and why we are here.
Becoming more aware, turning within, connecting breath to consciousness -- we work from the periphery to the core. To become familiar with and explore the inner-most reality of self, becoming familiar with our physical body is necessary. At our core lies our very existence (Atman). From Sanskrit, Atman translates to "self" or "breath." Atman is the oneness or union of our true identity. In order to find center, we must first look within. Only then do we begin to discover and become aware of our true selves.
(More on getting to Know Your Atman (Self).)
There are many other ways and paths that lead to center; however, the one we will begin to explore today is through the engagement of the three bandhas along the center of the body.
Exploration of the Bandhas
Bandhas are areas of actively engaged muscles lifting against gravity, directing the flow of prana (life force energy) and building up pranic pressure by "sealing" or "locking" energy within the body. Bandhas prevent the outward flow of energy by directing energy inward thus activating the nadis (energy centers) and the energy body.
Bandhas not only affect the body and energy, but build the mind and spiritual centers. Bandhas, when mastered, are believed to accelerate progress in asana, pranayama, mudra and meditation. Bandhas are tools that restore hormonal balance in the body, making you happy and more relaxed throughout the day.
Perineum, at the base of the spine
Beginning from our root, the mula bandha stimulates the pelvic nerves, genital system, endocrine system, excretory system; relieves constipation and depression; and calms the autonomic nervous system and mind.
Come to a seated position. Inhale deeply and lift up while engaging the muscles of the anus. Activating and engaging these pelvic floor muscles brings attention to the space between the pubis (pelvis) and the coccyx (tailbone).
Practice first by inhaling and contracting and releasing the entire pelvic floor region (the same muscles you use to stop urine mid-stream) with each inhale and exhale. Complete a cycle of 10 times (one in and out breath is one cycle). Once you get the hang of this, begin to play with holding the muscular contraction longer. The bandha has to be retained for at least three to four minutes. With further practice, the duration can be increased to five minutes. This practice takes time and continued focused attention.
Abdomen and diaphragm
The uddiyana bandha remedies stomach and abdominal ailments from constipation to indigestion; increases metabolism and quality of breath; tones overworked abdominal organs; balances the adrenals; relieves stress, lethargy and tension; massages the deep internal muscles of the low back; and improves efficiency of the digestive organs.
The utilization of uddiyana bandha can have one of the most transformative affects on your practice. By forcefully moving energy upward, inversions, twists and jumps become easier.
Seated or standing, when first discovering this retention practice, it is easier to learn standing. With feet spread about two feet apart, knees are bent and hands are on the thighs with the elbows straight. Bend the neck and shoulders slightly to the front so the weight of the body is shifted onto the knees through the hands. This reduces the strain on the stomach so the muscles of the stomach can relax.
Inhale deeply. Then gradually, while exhaling, try to shift the muscles of the stomach up and in. Lift the ribs up and relax the stomach muscles. Pull the muscles from within upward. This results in the muscles of the diaphragm being pushed upward. Try to remain firmly in this pose with the breath fully exhaled. When there is an urgent need to inhale, slowly release. Do not exceed two cycles.
The jalandhara bandha compresses the sinuses on the main arteries of the neck, thereby helping to balance the thyroid gland and metabolism; regulates the circulatory and respiratory systems; creates mental relaxation; relieves stress and anger; and connects the body and heart with the mind.
Performed mostly while seated, during pranayama (after puraka and before kumbhaka). Inhale deeply and hold the breath. Place the hands on the knees, lift the shoulders and tilt the body forward slightly, keeping the back straight. The muscles of the front of the neck (sternocleidomastoid and scalene) draw the chin toward the lifted superior portion of the sternum, creating a double chin effect. Hold the breath for as long as comfortable. Raise the head and, with a long exhalation, return to the starting position. Breathing normally, remain in this position for some time.
(More on the yogic practice of pranayama in Yoga and Mental Health: Pranayama, Asana and Mantra for Mood.)
Tying It All Together
When looking around, we rarely look in. Our focus has shifted to things outside of our control, away from the true Self. Re-connecting with Atman is an experience that takes continual practice. Once the bandhas have been engaged, the control and retention of dissipating pranic energy stimulates the vital energy within the body to awaken. Our awareness has now shifted from the external to the internal.
It is said that when all sensory activities cease to have an impact on the mind, the mind itself is freed from the movement of thoughts and objects, torments and desires, which are the primary cause of human suffering. The experience of Self arises when the mind and the five senses are stilled, when the intellect is stilled, and quietude is obtained.
Extension is attention and expansion is awareness...Find center and find your bliss.