Welcome to March! It may still be chilly here in Kent, but there are undeniable signs of spring quite literally springing up all around!
Spring is the season of rising energy, or prana as we call it in yoga traditions. This is abundantly visible in nature, through fresh buds and blossom on trees, bulbs popping up with beautifully coloured flowers, and animals beginning to procreate.
To me, yoga is about seeking balance and harmony, which includes aligning ourselves with natures rhythms. In this week’s classes, to welcome the new season, we’ve been focusing on uddiyana bandha as a way to harness spring’s upward rising prana.
Prana and Nadis:
“A student of the great Indian poet Kabir once asked him, “Kabir, where is God?” His answer was simple: “He is the breath within the breath.” To understand the profound implications of Kabir’s reply, we need to look beyond the physical components of breath—the oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other molecules that stream in and out with our every inhalation and exhalation. Beyond this breath—yet within it—is prana, the universal vital energy that is quite literally the stuff of life.” From YogaJournal
This vital energy or life-force is present in all living things, and is in a constant state of flow within and around us. A very long time ago, the Tantric yogis mapped out the way in which prana flows within and around the human body in a system of pathways, known as nadis. “The nadis are our energetic irrigation system; in essence, they keep us alive.” (also from YogaJournal)
There are thought to be 72,000 nadis around the human body, although this number is definitely up for debate, and there has recently been thought that the original text to state this number has actually been mis-translated. Possibly verse 72 said that there were 1000 nadis?! In any case, there are a vast number, and they vary in size from gushing torrents to tiny trickles. When they are free-flowing, they deliver vitality and health. When they are blocked, we can experience mental and physical dis-ease.
Note, these nadis are considered to be a part of the subtle body. They are not included in our Western understanding of science as we cannot see them under a microscope. However, in yoga and many other Eastern traditions, they are considered real. In Chinese medicine, for example, they are known as meridians and transport Chi, or Qi, which is the same concept.
We can use physical yoga, such as asana (posture work) and pranayama (breath work) to help keep the nadis flowing freely. Beyond this, we can also aim to harness and direct prana around the body, which is where bandhas come in.
Bandha translates as ‘lock’ or ‘seal’ and I like to consider this to mean the type of lock on a river or canal, rather than a door lock. This is because the bandhas are used to help control the flow of prana, much like a lock controls the flow of a river.
From John Scott in his book Ashtanga Yoga:
“The development of bandha control cultivates and increases prana, and it is from the integration of ujjayi [breathing] and bandha that an internal alchemy is achieved. When this chemistry is working correctly, the asana is revealed from the inner body, and the outer body eventually reflects that which is created within.”
We use three main bandhas in yoga, being mula bandha (the root lock), uddiyana bandha (the upward flying lock) and jalandhara bandha (the throat lock). Here I will just look at uddiyana.
Uddiyana is the most dynamic and visible of the three. Often in class you will hear a teacher (including myself) ask you to ‘draw your naval in and up / towards your spine’. This is a rather gross form of asking you to engage uddiyana. More specifically, this bandha relates to the workings of the diaphragm, ribs and abdominal muscles.
It is easiest to find at the end of an exhalation when the body is empty of breath. At this point in the breath cycle, the diaphragm is relaxed and has moved upwards into the chest area to push the air out of the lungs. This creates more space for the internal organs and therefore makes it easier to draw the abdominal wall, especially in the lower abdomen, inwards and upwards. When comfortable with both ujjayi breathing and uddiyana bandha it is possible to hold the lower belly in this position throughout the full breath cycle. This serves to protect the lower back and internal organs, and also helps to direct prana upwards.
It is the combination of the rooting effect of mula bandha and the upward rising energy of uddyana bandha, which brings the lightness and ‘floatiness’ witnessed in advanced Ashtanga practitioners, such as Patrick Nolan here:
It is also worth mentioning that there is another yoga technique, confusingly known as uddiyana kriya, which is a purification technique and involves breath retention, so therefore cannot be used with the vinyasa (breath-movement system) of Ashtanga. It is like an advanced variation of uddiyana bandha, and involves fully expelling air from the lungs, holding the air out and then, without actually inhaling, making an action of inhalation through the ribs. This draws the entire abdominal region and internal organs upwards into the rib cage cavity, again cultivating this upward rising prana. Nick, my husband, took this pic of me demonstrating uddiyana kriya last week at a lock (symbolically!) on the Wey and Arun Canal in West Sussex … the things I do for you guys (when it’s 4 degrees C!)!
To clarify further the differences between the kriya and bandha, here’s a helpful YouTube video from Kino MacGregor:
I hope you found the above useful, especially at this wonderful time of year! Try it out within your practice and let me know how you get on.
Wishing you abundant rising energy, floatiness and spring-time vitality!
xx Helen xx