A lock, or bandha, in hatha yoga, is a gesture in which a segment of the body is sealed, isolated, or constricted in some manner. One of the most powerful locks is uddiyana bandha—the upward flying lock or abdominal lift, in which you suck your abdominal wall in and up at the end of an exhalation, while restraining the breath. The abdominal organs are all swept up to a higher than normal position in the trunk by a partial vacuum in the chest cavity.
A lock, or bandha, in hatha yoga, is a gesture in which a segment of the body is sealed, isolated, or constricted in some manner.
On an empty stomach uddiyana bandha is pleasurable and invigorating. It is the safest form of breath retention because it creates a vacuum in the chest instead of additional pressure. The vacuum in the chest also improves circulation to the abdominal organs because it draws blood from the abdominal cavity into the chest and back to the heart. Decreased pressure in the capillary beds and veins of the abdominal organs will facilitate more blood flow through those organs as well as more efficient fluid exchange with their tissues.
Uddiyana bandha is the only practice in hatha yoga that stretches the respiratory diaphragm, which spans the junction between the chest and abdomen and attaches to the base of the rib cage and lumbar spine. Exhaling as much as possible will push the dome of the diaphragm to the highest possible position that can be accomplished with the abdominal muscles. Performing uddiyana bandha at that time pulls the dome of the diaphragm from above to an even higher position, stretching its muscle fibers and connective tissue. Practiced regularly, uddiyana bandha will enable you to exhale more completely and breathe more comfortably and efficiently.
Uddiyana bandha and its variations are also required for the practice of several yogic kriyas. For nauli kriya, uddiyana bandha is performed first, and then the rectus abdominis muscles are alternately contracted, producing a side-to-side rolling motion in the abdomen. Uddiyana bandha plus contraction of the rectus abdominis muscles is also necessary to generate the abdominal vacuum necessary for basti kriya and vajroli mudra, in which water is drawn respectively into the lower bowel or urinary bladder.
Many children do uddiyana bandha in play, often combining it with other manipulations such as rolling the rectus abdominis muscles side to side or up and down. In a typical group of fourth-grade children, almost half will be able to do uddiyana bandha with only a few seconds of instruction and demonstration. In a beginning hatha class for adults, those who did the practice as children will usually be able to do it immediately, but others may find it difficult and perhaps impossible.
For learning uddiyana bandha, you will ordinarily stand with your knees slightly bent and brace your hands against the thighs. This stance develops a downward and forward movement of the abdominal organs, which you counteract in the abdominal lift. You can do all of this in practically any upright position, but the classical stance allows you to detect errors more easily and make internal corrections.
For learning uddiyana bandha, you will ordinarily stand with your knees slightly bent and brace your hands against the thighs.
Here is exactly what you do:
- Exhale completely. Notice that you do this pressing in with both your chest and abdomen. You can pretend to be blowing up a balloon as much as possible with one breath.
- Do a mock inhalation using your chest, locking your glottis and restraining air from entering your lungs, and at the same time relax your abdomen. If you get confused about how to prevent air from entering your lungs, you can try to inhale (without inhaling) while blocking your mouth and nose with your hands. You should feel your chest lift.
- Holding the breath, try harder to inhale while keeping your abdomen relaxed. Your upper abdomen will form a deep concavity that extends up underneath your rib cage. This is uddiyana bandha.
- Relax your mock inhalation, letting your chest and abdominal organs drop and your abdomen release forward.
- Press gently in with your chest and abdomen, thus equalizing air pressure on the inside and outside of the body, and gently inhale without gasping.
The best time for practice is early in the morning, with empty stomach and bowels. The contraindications for uddiyana bandha are high blood pressure, hiatal hernia, ulcers, pregnancy, and menstruation.
- If you hold your breath at your glottis on the exhalation, it will be more comfortable to drop your chin toward or into the little concavity just above your sternum. This is jalandhara bandha, the chin lock.
- Another lock that often goes nicely with this practice is mula bandha, the root lock, in which you tighten up the muscles around the base of the body, much as you would if you needed to restrain a bowel movement in diarrhea. Don’t attempt it until uddiyana bandha comes easily. If you have difficulty relaxing your abdomen and letting it be pulled in and up by the action of your chest, trying to do the root lock will only create confusion.
If you are having trouble, one of three things may be wrong:
- You are not exhaling enough at the beginning. The less you exhale, the less convincing will be the lift.
- You are letting a little air in on your mock inhalation. You have to try to inhale without doing so. That is the whole point of locking your airway at the glottis or of holding your nose and mouth at the end of the exhalation.
- You are not relaxing your abdomen during the mock inhalation. This is the most common fault. Many students hold their abdominal muscles rigidly or even mistakenly try to keep pushing in with them. If you keep them tight, the abdominal organs and abdominal wall cannot be sucked in and up.
Confusion is common because the abdominal muscles can operate in several ways. Many students succeed in relaxing the abdominal muscles momentarily, and then get confused and try to aid the inward movement with an active contraction. They have already exhaled, but they try to exhale more, probably because they associate a demand for concentration with tight abdominal muscles. It is a natural response, but out of place here. You must distinguish between pressing in with the abdominal muscles (which you do only during the preliminary exhalation) and allowing the abdominal wall to be pulled in passively by the vacuum in the chest.
The vacuum that creates the bandha comes from expanding the rib cage. Because no air is allowed in, the pressure inside decreases, creating a mild vacuum which lifts up on the relaxed diaphragm and the abdominal organs. When you release the lock, the expansion of the rib cage is relaxed and the diaphragm and abdominal organs settle back down.
What apparently prevents many people from letting go of the abdominal muscles is an unconscious fear reaction. (If you pretend a feeling of apprehension, you’ll feel tightening in the most vulnerable part of your body—your belly.) To learn uddiyana bandha, you have to release and relax.
If you still are having trouble, purse your lips while leaving a small orifice, and create a gentle suction to draw air in. Close your eyes. Feel what is happening. Notice that you do this with the entire torso, and that it would be unthinkable to do it except after exhalation. (You would not suck liquid up a straw after a full inhalation.) Notice also that you have to prevent air from entering your lungs from your nose. Anyone who has ever sucked on a straw does that naturally. What has happened in this exercise (in contrast to uddiyana bandha) is that the abdominal muscles remain in a state of contraction by creating a rigid tubular structure, which holds its shape even though the chest has developed a substantial vacuum.
Now, try the same exercise, but this time relax the abdominal muscles completely as you draw air in through your pursed lips. You create a vacuum as before in the chest, but this vacuum is now translated to the abdominal wall, which yields. It is sucked in and the abdominal organs are lifted up by the vacuum in the chest. If you do this maneuver without permitting any air to enter, you will be doing uddiyana bandha.
One of the most helpful postures for those who have difficulty relaxing their abdominal muscles is a modification of the cat stretch. Rest on your knees and forearms and drop your head down against your hands. This pitches your abdominal organs forward and toward your chest. Now all you have to do is exhale as much as possible and hold your breath. Notice that it is unnatural to hold the abdominal muscles tightly in this posture, and that the abdominal lift occurs naturally and gracefully. Then, holding your breath and keeping the feeling of rib cage lift and abdominal relaxation, slowly lift your head and shoulders, carefully come up on your hands, and then ever so delicately come into a kneeling position. Coming up without tightening your abdominal muscles may require some practice.
One of the most helpful postures for those who have difficulty relaxing their abdominal muscles is a modification of the cat stretch.
Uddiyana bandha is one of the most important practices in hatha yoga. The abdomen is the seat of power in the body and the locus for the third chakra. The abdominal lift transmits this power to higher centers—to the heart and upper extremities so that you lovingly give your work and talents to the world,
to the head and neck to empower your sense of direction and leadership, and ultimately to the final goal beyond the realm of body and mind. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika glows in praise of uddiyana bandha: “It is the lion which conquers the elephant, death. Of all the bandhas, uddiyana is the best. Once it is mastered, liberation occurs spontaneously.”
Contraindications for uddiyana bandha:
- High blood pressure
- Hiatal hernia
David Coulter, Ph.D., studied and taught in the field of anatomy and physiology of hatha yoga.