Lost in Translation: Is Mulabandha Relevant for Modern Yogis?
There is a famous story told by Jivamukti founder David Life about being instructed in mulabandha (moo-lah-bun-duh) by the late master of twentieth-century yoga Pattabhi Jois. Life and some others were in lotus pose, holding themselves off the ground with their arms; all the while Jois was yelling what Life thought was “contact Uranus.”
As it turns out, the instruction was more physiological than astrophysical. He was instructing them to “contract your anus.”
The story belongs to a rich history of yoga instructions being lost in translation. Jois was attempting to describe mulabandha, an action in which the pelvic floor is engaged and lifted upward. The pelvic floor more than just the anus, but with Jois’ limited knowledge of English and the students' even more limited knowledge of Kannada (a Dravidian language spoken in south India, also Jois’ native language), the instructions did not come through very clearly.
The story belongs to a rich history of yoga instructions being lost in translation.
Lost in Translation
Translation is not an exclusively linguistic process. The context and understanding of a word is shaped by both language and culture. For example, in India a pajama is a kind of loose pant with a drawstring waist. Europeans adopted the name and the style of pant, but would only wear them at night. As a result, pajamas are worn both in India and Europe, but in India they are worn to go shopping and in Europe (and North America) they are worn to bed. Pajama still means "loose-fitting pants," but the context of the word is quite different from one culture to another.
The same can be said of mulabandha. Some of the earliest instructions for mulabandha come from the Gheranda Samhita, a seventeenth-century hatha yoga text. Roughly translated as “locks,” the bandhas are presented as a series of internal hydraulics by which physical and psychic energies may be forcefully channeled within the body.
This internal hydraulic engineering is part of a complex and multifaceted system of breathing techniques and subtle seals (mudras). We are not going to dig too deeply into the alchemical world of mudra and bandha. But in order to understand mulabandha it will be necessary to at least scratch the surface.
According to some of the oldest known texts on hatha yoga practice, we create a substance imagined as the nectar of immortality (amrita) in our brains. This substance drips downward where it is burned up in the fire of time, which resides in the abdomen (solar plexus). What once was the sweetest nectar becomes a kind of poison that keeps us asleep, as we slowly grow older and older. The only path that leads away from aging and eventual death is to reverse the flow of our nectar. This is not only the raison d'être for the system of bandha and mudra, but also for inverted postures.
According to some of the oldest known texts on hatha yoga practice, we create a substance imagined as the nectar of immortality (amrita) in our brains.
The upward-moving nectar is imagined as kundalini, the serpent energy laying dormant at the base of the spine who, when awakened, strikes upward along thesushumna nadi (central channel) and into the brain of the yogi—making them immortal. According to yoga scholar David Gordon White:
The kundalini is poison when she remains asleep in the lower abdomen; she is nectar precisely when she rises up through the medial channel of the subtle body to reunite with Siva, the Absolute, in the yogin’s cranial vault.
What happens when the tools and techniques of these alchemical yogis are exported across the globe, but the metaphysical context remains in India, tucked away in obscure hatha yoga texts? We don’t have to speculate, because this is precisely what has happened over the past century.
It would take far too long to list all the interpretations, methods, and reasons behind teaching mulabandha to modern yogis. While the list that follows is not comprehensive or definitive, we could say that there are generally three main reasons given for practicing mulabandha today:
Heat: It is often stated that holding mulabandha generates internal heat that can be channeled throughout the body. It is imagined like a little furnace in your pelvic floor. But why the pelvic floor? If it is just an isometric contraction to create heat, then why not the buttocks, the jaw, the hands, or any other muscle group?
Structure: The pelvic floor might be considered the foundation of the torso, and as such it should be strong. Weakness in the pelvic floor is considered as a shaky foundation in your "house," dangerous for the whole structure. The problem is that the human body is not a house. It is an organic, moving, breathing integration of interwoven bits and pieces. Rigidity is not a virtue.
Concentration: The idea here is that holding mulabandha is, itself, a form of meditation. By holding the pelvic floor in contraction, you are also holding your mind steady. Teachers will often extrapolate that you are also sealing uro-genital energy within the body, which gives you more energy and makes you more, for lack of a better word, concentrated. Our issue with this position is similar to number one. Why not concentrate holding in the energy of the knees or shoulders?
We have recently heard teachers argue that contemporary yogis have misinterpreted mulabandha and that it is not actually a pelvic floor contraction, but a contraction of the soles of the feet. While this is an interesting interpretation, there is no evidence of any kind that the progenitors of hatha yoga had any notion of strengthening the arches of the feet while referring to mulabandha. In fact, at the time there was no mention even of standing postures. The whole technique of mulabandha was to be practiced sitting down, either while practicing pranayama(breathing), visualization, or meditation.
So why are we practicing mulabandha today? Are we still trying to reverse the flow of amrita and become immortal? Or are we simply practicing it because we were told to practice it?
There are examples of yogic practices that we have decided to exclude from the modern yogic lexicon. In fact, most of the techniques associated with reversing the flow of our energy have been excluded from modern practice.
Most of the techniques associated with reversing the flow of our energy have been excluded from modern practice.
For example, khecari mudra—where you cut the frenulum at the base of the tongue such that you can move the tongue up and behind the soft palette—is almost unheard of today. Vajroli mudra—a sexual technique where one learns to siphon liquids upward using the urethra—is likewise rarely practiced by anyone at all. All the dhauti cleansing practices involving swallowing and regurgitating pieces of fabric are all but gone in modern yoga. Even headstand and shoulderstand are in the process of reconsideration by yogis balancing the revelations of medical research on yoga injuries with the perceived benefits of the practices.
The Physiology of the Pelvic Floor
Perhaps the most important consideration when we think about integrating medieval Indian practices into a modern, globalized lifestyle is that our bodies have changed.
Most of us spend the bulk of the day sitting, and even for those of us who have jobs that don’t require us to sit for the better part of eight to ten hours, we tend to move in small, repetitive ways. Picture yourself sitting, and ask yourself: If you had a tail, would you sit on it, or would it move out behind you?
The tailbone should be out behind you. If it is not, that means your sacrum is being pushed into counter-nutation (tucked). This position shortens the distance between the tailbone and pubic bone. It is important to note that contracting the pelvic floor muscles, including kegal exercises (isometric contractions of the pelvic floor) and mulabandha, also brings the tailbone toward the pubic bone. The action of moving the tailbone toward the pubic bone draws the pelvic floor tighter and begins the process of weakening the gluteal muscles.
Weakened gluteal muscles, contracted pelvic floors, and tucked tailbones tend to produce a flattened lower back and buttock area. This actually goes a long way toward understanding the pop cultural fascination with big bums and the rather curious trend toward buttock implants. Sitting on our tails has made our bums go away, and we simply want what we don’t have.
When we do stand, we tend to be in shoes that pitch us forward with an either slightly lifted heel (most men’s dress shoes and running shoes have heels that are higher than the fronts of the shoes), or a massively lifted heel (some running shoes and definitely high heels). Compensating for being pitched forward, we tend to angle our legs and hips forward and slide our upper bodies back. This compensation creates many postural misalignments, but most notably for the purpose of this article, it slides the pelvis forward, tucks the tailbone under, and tightens up the pelvic floor.
But tight is good, right? NO. TIGHT IS NOT GOOD. Tight is just tight. Tight does not necessarily mean strong! Consider chronically tight neck muscles and ask yourself how they feel and how they function. As yogis, we know that muscles need to be dynamic to be strong. When we are aligned well, the pelvic floor is under a constant load; and if we are moving well (and often), the pelvic floor will become strong and supple without any need for strengthening exercises.
Tight does not necessarily mean strong!
Excessive sitting and poor footwear choices are just the early indicators of a perfect storm of pelvic floor dysfunction. Symptoms like painful urination, constipation, incomplete or unsatisfying bowel movements, lower back and/or pelvic pain, and (for women) painful intercourse, are all signs of pelvic floor dysfunction that could be aggravated by mulabandha.
Add in our lack of squatting—many of us no longer squat to pee and poop, gather the things we need to survive, or to prepare our meals—and we set that storm into full swing. We also tend to have a poor diet (which causes us strain due to constipation, adding even more pressure and tension to an already tight pelvic floor); chronic stress (which can lead to gripping through hip flexors and the pelvic floor, as well as chronic tension from fight-or-flight responses); and poor breathing patterns. It is time to batten down the hatches because this storm just got severe.
With the view that a dysfunctional muscle needs to be isolated and strengthened, it seems the logical first step would be to do a kegel or to practice mulabandha. While this may help for a short while, it is only a treatment for the symptoms. In the long term, this approach makes the condition worse as we tighten an already chronically contracted muscle. We are not addressing the root of the problem.
In his book Pelvic Power, Eric Franklin states that it is difficult to “activate the individual muscles of the pelvic floor without a distinct perception training, and it is an illusion to believe that somebody can activate individual pelvic floor muscles without either excellent anatomical knowledge or else an almost magical body-perception.” Even if we could activate just the pelvic floor and execute a “perfect” mulabandha, it may not have the results we are expecting.
According to biomechanist Katy Bowman, “[A] kegel is a good way to fake it, but the pelvic floor is too small to do the work for the larger slacking muscle groups.” Knowing this, and that mulabandha is essentially a marathon kegel, we need to look at this practice and ask ourselves if it is right for yoga students with a modern lifestyle.
Is this a practice, designed by and for men, that's even safe for women? For one thing, you need a strong, dynamic pelvic floor to birth, not a short and tight pelvic floor. Hypertonicity in the pelvic floor can lead not only to pelvic pain and menstrual pain, but also to difficulties with natural childbirth. This is noteworthy because mulabandha is a staple in so many prenatal yoga classes.
This is not just an issue for women, though. Chronic pelvic floor tightness in men can lead to a number of serious dysfunctions. According to Bowman, “Prostatitis is usually the diagnosis they get from the urologist, when, in fact, the painful symptom and urinary dysfunction is caused by the hypertonicity of the pelvic floor and other alignment factors.”
Most importantly, assessing the pelvic floor is out of the scope of many modern yoga teachers' practice. A good pelvic floor physical therapist is the proper person to give an assessment, and then we can use that information to modify our practices. As yogis, we can look at our alignment, our symptoms, and our lifestyles, and ask ourselves if this practice of mulabandha is benefiting us in any way. Perhaps a practice that focuses on releasing tension in the pelvic floor, rebuilding gluteal muscles, releasing leg tension, realigning our bodies, and walking more would be more appropriate. But it needs to be a practice that fits us, our students, and our lifestyles.
Most importantly, assessing the pelvic floor is out of the scope of many modern yoga teachers' practice.
Rooting Around for the Truth
Mulabandha is part of a series of exercises designed for seated breathing and meditation practice in the context of medieval Indian hatha yogic alchemy. It has, in the past century, been transformed into a technique employed during dynamic asana practices and prenatal yoga classes in the context of a culture of sitting and chronic lower back and pelvic dysfunction.
Let us be very clear on this point. We are not disparaging or discrediting the technique known as mulabandha. We are critical of the context in which this technique is being employed. For example, I love pajamas. But I don’t think they are the appropriate choice to wear to work (unless you are a yoga teacher!).
This is not a conversation about what is right and what is wrong. This is a conversation about what is most appropriate to any particular context. It would be unreasonable to suggest that every technique that was relevant and useful 300 years ago must still be relevant and useful today.
We are not proposing an all-out ban on mulabandha. There are, no doubt, small groups of practitioners for whom mulabandha makes perfect sense. If you feel that cutting the frenulum under your tongue will enable you to dig around for the nectar of immortality behind your soft palate, we have no intention of preventing you from doing so. The same can be said of mulabandha. It is not necessarily a “bad” practice, but it may also not be an appropriate practice for a broad, popular audience of yoga students.