Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Finding the master key

I love it when students ask questions in class. It rarely happens — other than when you are giving an individual assist or cue up-close. Kids do all the time and make comments when you teach them yoga. Youngsters are surprisingly intuitive and often ask why they should do something, where they might feel it or why so many poses have animal names. They love to communicate. But in flow and ashtanga classes, it’s a rare occurrence. Afterwards I'll always invite questions, but then the moment has passed.
Recently, I had a particularly intimate class setting during the improvements to the ashtanga studio at YogaHome when we were in a much smaller space, and it brought us all a little closer...

As students worked into Janu Sirsasana b, a seated forward bend where you are sitting on the heel (see below), I was reminding everyone that the heel presses gently into the perineum to encourage them to engage Mula Bandha, the "root lock", and one of my regulars looked up and asked "Should my heel press up my vagina?"

Mmm, not exactly... 

But great question. The short answer is the heel presses gentle into the perineum between the genitals and anus, encouraging a contraction of the pubococcygeus muscle (or PC) to be precise. However, it is hard to isolate the muscles of the pelvic floor at first. 

A little human geography lesson
The pelvic floor is not just one muscle but a hammock-like layer of muscles and connective tissues strung at the bottom of the pelvic girdle to support our organs. So how can we find mula bandha?

Pattabhi Jois (father of the ashtanga practice as we know it) was famed for saying: “squeeze the anus”, an instruction still given in some yoga traditions. While it's true, that action does put you in the right area and direction (drawing in and up from the pelvic floor), and for most students squeezing the anal sphincter will activate the right muscles too, it is far more subtle than that... as dealing with the body’s energy always is. Go ahead, as American yoga teachers like to say, and squeeze your anus right now, as if were about to break wind and of course you are too polite to let rip (and please remember not to in class). You can definitely feel a general lift in and up of the pelvic floor. Now you need to begin to refine your focus.

Location, Location
Bend in one knee, place hands flat
on the ground, lift up, slide
forwards and sit on your heel.

It is different for men and women. Women have three sets of pelvic floor muscles, the anal sphincter at the back known in yoga as ashwini mudra, the urethra at the front (sahajoli mudra) and the muscles around the cervix; men have two sets. Basically, the centre of the pelvic floor is the area we are concerned with here, the perineum located between the genitals and anus. So for men, contracting the perineum is to focus on the muscles between scrotum (genitals — vajroli mudra for men) and anus (ashwini mudra). As Swami Buddhananda says in his book, Moola Bandha the Master Key, "we are just not taught to do that in the way we are taught to isolate and use separate muscles of arms and legs. The pelvic muscles are mainly required for all subconscious and unconscious activity." This lack of conscious nervous control is why you will find it hard to pee and defecate at the same time… Yup, go ahead and try when you next need to!

Why do it? 
The pelvic floor has an important role in keeping sex organs of males and females healthy.
Any mum or pregnant woman will tell you that exercising the pelvic floor muscles should be done several times daily to counteract lasting effects of that downward push of the baby in pregnancy and childbirth and indeed of gravity. But slack pelvic floor muscles can lead to incontinence and sexual dysfunction for males too, and exercising the pelvic floor muscles is much easier and better for you than a prescription of viagra…
Just breathing properly puts pressure on your pelvic floor muscles since the diaphragm moves down as it contracts on the inhale to allow space for the lungs to fill. Regular rhythmic contractions of the pelvic floor will strengthen the muscles around your bladder, vagina or penis, but it has much more far reaching affects, according to some ancient texts such as the Gheranda Samhita, it can help destroy death and decay in the body, and thus hold back the signs of aging. It has even been linked with the expansion of consciousness.

Using mula bandha, or lifting the pelvic floor muscles, also supports and aligns the spine. Mulha means root and in yoga mula bandha is known as the root lock, the root being the base of the spine. Engaging it gently will also help to activate the lower belly muscles, initiating the lift of the next bandha the muscles at the lowest part of the belly or uddiyanah bandha (known as the flying upwards lock). Bandha is often described as a lock or bonding — bonding of movement with the breath and the awareness together, and thinking of it like this helps with understanding the more subtle side of the practice.

There are philosophical reasons for learning to control the pelvic floor muscles. Controlling your energy, being the most important. Prana is the upward energy and Apana the downward flow of energy. Simplistically, imagine a tube as the central channel running from your pelvic floor upwards.

According to ancient philosophies, one of the effects of mula bandha is to block the downward flow of consciousness which could lead to laziness, apathy and overindulgence, to name but a few slothful side affects of too much Apana in the body. So use of the bandhas or locks can be used to remove blockages in your energy channels, or perhaps just little kinks that prevent the natural and full flow of energy through the body.

While exploring the subtle side of the action, it's not a gripping in, but a gentle gathering, like pulling together the edges of a drawstring bag. Or sweeping in a mound of leaves... one of my favourite descriptions read somewhere. You shouldn't tense your shoulders or pull odd faces as you practice mula bandha. But I can't actually tell you what it should feel like in your body — especially if you are male, as I am not! Everyone should feel that for themselves, that is after all that is what yoga is about, becoming aware of different parts of the body, and learning to deal with discomfort, breathing through it and seeing how that makes you feel emotionally, rather than just a physical level.

Anyway, now we are back into the newly decorated, designated upstairs studio at YogaHome, or indeed in any of my classes, please feel free to ask that burning question. Just throw it out there... chances are someone else is wondering the same thing too!
Janu Sirsasana B: Smiling (though not laughing
manically) helps to relax the pelvic floor muscles, so
the right amount of pressure can be applied.