Mula bandha (the root lock in yoga) is a way of using your pelvic floor muscles to bring your practice together in nearly every way. It will help you protect your back from injury when doing backward bends, and make your inversions and arm balances easier to get into and maintain. The right practice of mula bandha makes the body light, cohesive, and easier to control. If you add a practice of pranayama and meditation, mula bandha can also be a way to affect a shift in your energy, mind, and emotions. It is the fulcrum of practice, one of the key pillars to your practice.
Yet, this ‘root lock’ is a source of ongoing confusion and even poetic debate. The one and only Ashtanga Vinyasa guru, Pattabhi Jois advised his students to “squeeze your anus”, yet most teachers agree that mula bandha is really closer to the perineum or cervix. (squeezing one’s anus is called ‘Ashwini Mudra’). A quick scan on the internet will show you that most articles do not make the distinction between male and female anatomy. It is common to simply give the men’s version of things, but badly. Mula bandha is also confused with another separate practice of squeezing the urethra which is called ‘vajroli mudra’. Each one of these techniques, mula bandha, ashwini mudra, and vajroli mudra are all distinct and have their own reasons for application. Let’s begin with mula bandha because it really is the most important of all.
Firstly, mula bandha, at a purely physical level, is the activation of the lower abdomen (transverse abdominus) and pelvic floor muscles. It adds intra-abdominal pressure and aids in extending the spine by reducing the curves of the back.
The specific spot of the ‘mula’ (root) is different in men and women- in men mula bandha begins at the perineum, while women’s mula bandha begins at the cervix! Mula bandha instruction, when semi-accurate- is to ‘lift’ the perineum or cervix, yet it is this instruction which, when given by itself, will not give satisfying results! Speaking as a man, it is somewhat difficult to independently “lift the perineum” and from what my female friends tell me, it’s similar for women. I tried for years, based on inadequate instruction to “lift the perineum” to find mula bandha but it was a hit-or-miss affair, and nearly impossible to keep throughout a practice.
Using the Transverse Abdominus to help mula bandha
What is needed, yet not often explained, is to coordinate gently pulling the navel back while engaging the pelvic floor. Specifically this is the part between your belly button and your pubic bone and is the action of the transverse abdominus (TvA) muscle.
The TvA is a deep band of core muscle which wraps around the belly and stabilizes the spine like a corset, cinching in your waist. This is what you would contract if you are zipping up a really tight pair of jeans. It is what you feel contracting in your lower navel when you cough.
The TvA has a huge role in the strength of your pelvic floor and forms a connection with the pelvic floor. The two work synergistically- if you want to get more pull in the pelvic floor, use the TvA. If you want to get more activation of the TvA, pull up your pelvic floor. This clearly shows us that we need a strong TvA if we want to have a good mula bandha. Besides, developing the transverse abdominus muscle will help flatten your stomach and look slightly taller and more aligned.
What the Transverse Abdominus is not
When asked to pull the navel back, it is common for people to round the back. But this is not the TvA- rather this is the action of the ‘rectus abdominus’, a more superficial muscle that we think of as our ‘six pack’ muscles. This sheath of muscle pulls the back into flexion (rounded back) and/or the pelvis into a tuck (posterior tilt). In contrast, the TvA does not move your pelvis or rib cage at all when it contracts- it firms up your abdomen like a corset. In short, if your pelvis moves or your spine rounds, you are using the ‘rectus abdominus’ not the transverse abdominus.
Finding the TvA
The easiest way to find your TvA is to lay on your stomach so you feel your lower navel make contact with the floor. Practice exhaling and lifting the space between the belly button and the pubic bone clear the floor. Keep your as straight as possible. As you do so, keep the contraction, or go slowly to really feel the pelvic floor rise at the same time. You will notice that the area above (superior to) the perineum (in men) or the cervix (in women) will lift. It is the combination of the lower navel firming in with the contraction of the pelvic floor which forms a mula bandha that makes it possible to use in a flowing yoga practice.
The Pelvic Floor Triangle
In addition to the strength you cultivate in your pelvic floor and TvA, it is best to balance this work with stretching. The principle to remember is ‘length before strength’. What this means is that if you want to contract a muscle to build strength, it needs to have range to move. In this case, to get the contraction you want in the pelvic floor, it is helpful to learn to release it and stretch it.
It is helpful to visualize your pelvic floor as a kite-shaped sling or triangle connecting your tailbone to pubic bones and between the two sitting bones. This can be stretched by moving your legs, tailbone, pubic bone, and sitting bones in different configurations as well as sending your breath to this area.
The Pelvic Floor and the ‘Deep Front Line’
A super interesting connection to explore is how you can work deeply into your body through the connective tissue along your ‘Deep Front Line’ – probably the most important line of fascia and muscle connecting from your feet to your head. Through this line you can feel how your pelvic floor is connected up as far as your tongue, and as far down as your feet. It is the main soft tissue support for your core axial alignment and core stability and is associated with all the ‘UP’ actions in yoga such as lifting your arches of your feet, lifting mula bandha, and raising the crown of the head.
The Deep Front Line connects from your feet, the back of the calves, the inner legs (adductors), the psoas muscle, the transverse abdominus, the diaphragm and tongue. This means that you can deeply affect the pelvic floor through many channels, including stretching and strengthening the feet, inner legs, transverse abdominus, diaphragm, and tongue.
Yogis who work deeply will find this line with many years of practice. You can see here how Sri Krishnamacharaya, the main guru of the Vinyasa and Ashtanga-Vinyasa lineages of hatha yoga, practices using uddiyana bandha (the navel lift) and positions of the tongue.
First, relax your pelvic floor
Start by relaxing the pelvic floor. For many people, it may already be gripped and blocking off a free flow of energy. Try this technique- it is quite easy, yet very helpful. Lay on the floor with your knees bent. Inhale as you press the hips to a bridge and hold your breath for a moment. Keep your hips up and exhale to completion and then slowly lower your hips to the floor. Once your hips have touched the floor, breathe in slowly and completely and pay attention to your pelvic floor muscles. You will probably feel them relax more than you have felt in a long while.
Stretch the pelvic floor triangle
Two yoga asana that work well to feel into, and stretch the pelvic triangle is ‘Happy Baby Asana’ and a simple squat. Hold both of these for long enough that you can center your mind, visualize the muscles, and send your breath to expand this area.
Stretching the inner leg connection to the pelvic floor
Lunge one foot forwards and bringing the head down to the inside of the leg or towards the foot, provided that the weight of the foot is evenly distributed (make sure the knee does not press outwards towards over the edge of the foot too far). You can transition from here to keep the one leg straight and stretch the entire inner leg up to the pelvic floor.
Stretching the inner leg connection to the pelvic floor (continued)
In this asana, straighten one leg, while flexing the knee of the other and putting the foot behind your hip. Sit on the floor the best you can and move your legs into an “L” shape. Walk your hands forwards on a diagonal line between the straight leg and the bent knee. You will feel this in both the hamstring of the straight leg, as well as the adductor muscles of the folded leg.
The second, common ‘baddha konasana’ is done by bringing the feet together closely in front of the pelvis. Practice lowering the knees towards the floor. Variations can be performed by either opening the soles of the feet towards the sky or closing them together. This asana will often be felt in the back more than the inner legs, depending on one’s range of motion and flexibility.
Putting mula bandha into more advanced yoga practice
A developed mula bandha will make all the difference in your yoga. It will make it easier to hold your balance in inversions and arm balances, and protect your back in backward bends. There is also so much more to say about how mula bandha affects the flow of energy by lifting it and in doing so, cultivate the energy required for the chakras to open. It will reveal itself progressively through stages as you practice