Uniting Asana, Bandha and Pranayama:
Moving the Spine in All Directions, Binding the Torso and Breathing with the Whole Body
According to T. Krishnamacharya, the practice of asana and pranayama is the primary Yoga practice; it is yoga-sadhana (“that which can be done”) par excellence, not just the two fundamental pillars of hatha-yoga. In asana, the most important thing is to move the spine in all directions in a very structured and precise way, and to breathe consciously, deeply and evenly with the whole body, especially moving the whole torso while breathing. In this way, asana becomes moving, dynamic pranayama adequately preparing for static pranayama proper, most often done in a most appropriate form of the archetypal Yoga seated position with the legs crossed, hands forming sacred gestures, jaw relaxed, chin tucked in and the back erect, eventually including some of the breath suspensions done in an appropriate way. This fundamental practice of asana and pranayama in synergy, one within the other and one after the other, naturally prepares for meditation as the crown practice of Yoga, and it happens within a certain context. The right Yogic context for it is the everyday life based on moral integrity (yama) and consistent discipline (niyama). Also, the Yoga that we practice must generally be safe (not dangerous), it must be effective (not ineffective) and it must be pleasurable (not painful). If it is dangerous, ineffective and/or painful, you can be pretty sure that what you are practicing or teaching is not Yoga. This is what I got from my teacher Mark Whitwell immediately, and soon was empowered by him to transmit it to others. The act of transmission was and is love, a genuine care for the well-being of others. And this sincere relationship between teacher and student is the primary Yoga. All the rest happens more or less naturally and spontaneously.
Of course, no human activity, including Yoga, is 100 percent safe and therefore it is always somewhat of a challenge. Of course that its effectiveness is quite relative and so varies with different people. And of course, not all the Yoga sessions must be entirely pleasurable because it is probably impossible. However, these are the principles that help create a right context for personal transformation that Yoga is supposed to provide. If these three basic preconditions for developing a personal practice are not there, it will become virtually impossible to develop the practice and no transformation will take place. The student must bring in her/his willingness to practice and change for the better, and the teacher must secure the context for this transformation to bloom, and then be there for the student while going through the challenges of transformation as long as the student doesn’t become her/his own teacher. At least, this was/is my experience with Mark as his student and my experience with my students. And there must be some spontaneity in one’s practice, and it grows as we grow in our practice so that we actually do our yoga anew each day, ideally giving ourselves exactly what we need at a particular moment of our human development through Yoga. No system of Yoga can do that for us. At least that is what I think and know from my own experience in practicing and teaching Yoga.
When it comes to the practice of yogasana, each Yoga practice session should ideally be planned in such a way as to insure the proper movement of the spine in all directions. This is how T. Krishnamacharya classified asanas and this is a safe way to progress in our Yoga practice. First, the spine should be gently activated (sometimes with the help of simple head movements of increasing difficulty or simply by stretching the spine gently in a seated half forward bend) and then stretched upwards. Lifting the arms above one’s head on inhale is a good way of doing it, either sitting, standing or lying on the back. Then, the spine is stretched forwards on exhale, as for example in the standing forward bend. The spine can then be stretched backwards (on inhale) and sideways (either on exhale or on inhale), first in simple and then in more complex movements. And finally, the spinal twists can be done after the spine was properly prepared in previous movements, since they are the most complex movements of the spine. They are usually performed on exhale and must be followed by a gentle forward bend as a counter pose. In this way, the spine will be both softened and strengthened, which are the qualities a healthy spine must have and retain as long as possible so that the good health of the entire organism is ensured.
Also, a special care should be taken to balance posing and reposing in a Yoga practice. Modern styles of postural yoga are usually either too dynamic or too static, and often lack this delicate sense of balance between moving into and out of postures, and staying in them, either holding the breath or subtly breathing in the postures. This is very important since we must have both: a dynamic exploration of our limitations and a static relaxation into our limitations once we have detected them. Then the breath takes over and leads us across our physical, psychological and spiritual boundaries if IT wants to go there. Since the breath is moving the body, it is the inner teacher that must be obeyed at all times. The final/ideal/classical/desired position is never the goal, only an orientational point of reference. The goal is to feel good while we are exploring our limitations and relax into our reality.
Asana practice is also the right context to learn most of the mudras of hatha-yoga, especially the three bandha-mudras: jalandhara, uddiyana and mula-banda-mudra, or tri-bandha. At first, special attention is paid to learning jalandhara-bandha-mudra safely without creating any undue tension in the neck. The neck is very sensitive and can be stretched safely only with great caution. Jalandhara-bandha is first done dynamically with the shoulders lifted up before lowering the chin towards the lifted sternum, then dynamically with the shoulders kept down, and only then statically with the chin comfortably tucked in while performing any samasthiti-asana (the one in which the spine is erect or extended). So, before introducing jalandhara-bandha into any pranayama, it must first be practiced in appropriate asanas, first dynamically and then more and more statically until it becomes natural and easy. It will stretch the spine, open the rib cage and enable the practitioner to breathe in deeply and fully. In due time, its connection with the other two important bandhas (uddiyana and mula-bandha) and its deeper significance at the vital and spiritual levels will also be known. Jalandhara-bandha (tucking the chin in as far as comfortable) is applied in all the postures where the spine is straight and elongated in the upward direction according to the capacity of the practitioner. Mula-bandha (contracting the lower abdominals plus the perineum) is occasionally practiced mostly in deep forward bends on exhale by contracting the lower abdomen and the muscles of the perineum in and up. Uddiyana-bandha can be first practiced in various twists during a full exhale (including some other simpler postures promoting the deep sucking of the upper abdominals in and up) and later on in some mudras like tadagi-mudra, viparita-karani-mudra and maha-mudra. By inhaling into the chest and exhaling from the base of the body consistently throughout asana practice, the whole torso is slowly and systematically engaged into the breathing process and the movements of the arms and legs in various positions help the practitioner breathe deeply with the whole body. There is no straining either of the body or the breath.
After a series of postures is done dynamically, they can be done half-statically (deep breathing in the postures with subtle movements and in the same ratio established while moving dynamically, again in close coordination with the breath) and/or statically (stopping all the movement and/or holding the breath in the posture). One of the vinyasa–krama principles also states that asanas should first be done dynamically and then half-statically and/or statically, noting that a dynamic aspect of the Yoga practice must be retained in one’s personal practice regardless of how “advanced” the practitioner might be. And finally, the dynamic way of doing yogasanas helps the practitioner gage the current level of flexibility and strength before going deeper into oneself by means of an asana enables him or her to connect with the breath and engage the bandhas and other mudras, so that the following pranayama might be as effective as possible, laying the right foundation for a fruitful meditation.
So, here is some general advice on how to do your yogasana practice effectively and precisely:
1. Keep your neck, arms and knees soft wherever possible. Move naturally with ease. Avoid all extremes and enjoy your practice.
2. Gently stretch the spine in all directions, breathing deeply and evenly producing the hissing sound (ujjayi) in the slightly constricted throat without ever losing your breath, and feel what is really going inside you right here and right now. This will do much more for your Yoga practice than mechanically following someone else’s arbitrary pattern of bad, mediocre or inappropriate gymnastics looking astonishingly.
3. Since the main point of doing yogasana is stretching the spine to facilitate the movement of the breath through the whole body, the mobility and health of the spine is the primary focus of yogasana, so the movements are organized in such a way as to move the spine upwards, forwards, backward, sideways and twisting, in that order. Various inversions can then be carefully used to counteract the negative effects of gravity on the spine and the whole system.
4. Inversions are a special case that needs a lot of precise physical and psychological preparation, and adequate counter posing. Special emphasis is put on moving all the joints without putting too much pressure on them, and the movements of the limbs are mainly used to move the breath, that is the spine, the chest and the base of the body.
If the postures cannot be done with the breath initiating and enveloping the movements, which is exactly what most clearly distinguishes yogasana from all forms of gymnastics and body work, we are not ready to do this specific series of postures or any other posture for that matter. The idea is to receive the inhale softly (by gently expanding the rib-cage in all directions) from above and exhale robustly (by firmly contracting the base of the body) from below, allowing in this way our wholehearted participation in the union of opposites that is already the case (ha-tha yoga). This is the basic principle that lies at the foundation of all asana movements understood and practiced primarily as dynamic pranayama. If the breath is strong and under control, then asanas are done in sequences (and one by one repeatedly) in such a way as to allow us to explore our limitations by respecting the dual quality of stability (sthirata) and comfort (sukha) in each and every asana we do. If that is the case, we are doing the Yoga that is right for us, that is we get all the benefits Yoga can give us in a particular moment of our overall harmonious human development. Something other than that either is not Yoga or is not the Yoga that is right for us.
It is very important to start your Yoga practice properly, that is mentally prepare yourself for the practice, and then actually start practicing. Ending your practice properly is of equal importance, and then you actually start living your life. The main point of a Yoga practice is to feel what is happening inside, especially at the end of the practice when all the positive effects should be absorbed deeply into the body and mind, and we need to give ourselves some time to feel it. That is the reason why we cannot end our practice abruptly, but instead deepen it by blessing ourselves through certain movements and gestures that help us feel the subtle changes of the energy currents in our system. And finally, we should never forget that one of the principal reasons for doing asana is preparing the whole organism for long sitting in pranayama and meditation, so the basic cross-legged sitting position must be carefully and consistently built up until sitting with ease like a majestic mountain becomes possible without straining one’s body or torturing one’s mind. Any kind of obsession with the form or custom, like insisting on sitting in the lotus posture (padmasana) if it is not possible or comfortable for whatever reason, is very unproductive and should be avoided. Easier sitting postures can be practiced instead, and a chair can be used too in some cases. All kinds of props can be employed and there are technical details and little secrets about how to sit well without forcing either the body or the mind.
There are many ways of performing Yoga postures and here are some of the possibilities that came out of my personal practice:
I. ASANAS PERFORMED INDIVIDUALLY
a) free and deep ujjayi breathing while going into and out of an asana
b) inhale and exhale of approximately the same length
c) inhale or exhale (or both) deepened with each repetition of one asana
d) inhale or exhale (or both) deepened with each new asana
a) breathing freely and deeply in an asana with small movements of the body
b) breathing freely and deeply in an asana with only the torso moving
c) inhale and exhale of approximately the same length while staying in an asana with the same ratio as in dynamic performance of the same asana
d) inhale and exhale of different lengths, usually 1:2 or 2:1
a) subtle inaudible breathing in the deepest comfortable position and easing into the final position with each new breath to the extent IT wants to go
b) subtle inaudible breathing in the final position and merging with the infinite
c) holding the breath and stopping every movement in an asana either after inhale or after exhale (or both if the breath is also held in the starting position)
d) breathing in ratios with holds while in an asana, as in static sama-vrtti or vishama-vrtti-pranayama (or with movement if the breath is held in the starting position)
4. In Steps (asana-krama):
a) performing an asana in 2, 3 or more steps with one breath in between steps
b) performing an asana in 2, 3 or more steps while holding the breath
II. ASANAS PERFORMED IN SEQUENCES (vinyasa-krama)
1. connecting 2 asanas into a meaningful whole
2. connecting 3 or more asanas into a meaningful whole
3. compressing 2 or more asanas into one breath
III: ASANA VARIATIONS
1. Varying the form:
a) without the use of props
b) with the use of props
c) changing the ideal/classical form
2. Varying the breath:
a) inhaling where exhaling is usually done and the other way round
b) moving while holding the breath
3. Varying the focus and sphere of attention:
a) moving the focus from where the maximum action is to other less prominent areas
b) moving the focus to a number of different points, from various parts of the body to deeper emotions
4. Varying the rhythm:
a) slowing down and/or speeding up either in breathing or moving from one asana to another
b) resting more or less than usual
5. Varying the order of execution:
a) changing the preparation for an asana or an asana-vinyasa
b) changing the order in which asanas/vinyasas are usually executed
6. Varying the counter poses:
a) doing the usual counter poses in different ways
b) doing different counter poses
IV. ASANA WITH MANTRA
1. mantra articulated out loud to extend the breath
2. mantra articulated softly to calm the system
3. mantra articulated silently to improve concentration
4. combining all three ways of articulation in one asana session to get the combined results
V. ASANA WITH MUDRA/BANDHA
1. combining asana with bandhas
2. combining asana with other mudras
VI. ASANA WITH DRSHTI
1. using external gazing (bahir-drshti) in some postures
2. using internal gazing (antar-drshti) in some postures
3. using both drshtis in one asana session
VII. ASANA WITH BHAVANA
1. physical (focus on the body and breath)
2. mental (focus on the mind and feeling)
3. devotional (focus on emotions and surrender)
The ability to breathe with the whole body that was developed in asana practice is then effectively used in pranayama, where there is no movement of the limbs, but there is a lot of movement of the trunk: the chest expanding on inhale and the base contracting on the exhale; the spine moving up on inhale and moving down on exhale. The basic pranayama is ujjayi-pranayama and ujjayi breath is used in performing asana. Namely, the hissing sound produced at the back of the throat by slightly constricting the vocal cords both during inhalation and exhalation is first used in asana to facilitate the coordination of the breath and movement so that the breath starts and ends each movement. Then it is used in static ujjayi-pranayama. T. Krishnamacharya realized that the coupling of the ujjayi breath with the movement links asana with pranayama into one functional whole and so asana is no longer practiced as a separate set of bodily exercises done haphazardly without the breath being the moving force behind the body. Instead, it is actually the breath that is moving the body, so after ujjayi breathing has been consistently applied while performing asana, it naturally turns into a static ujjayi-pranayama, where it is used as the basic means to prolong, feel and deepen the breath. First, inhale (puraka) and exhale (recaka) are prolonged, and finally holds, or suspensions, after both inhale and/or exhale (abhyantara-kumbhaka and bahya-kumbhaka), are slowly and carefully introduced. The respiratory components can be all of equal length or of different lengths. Sama-vrtti means all the phases of breathing are of the same length: inhale, exhale and hold (if there is one) are all of the same length. Vishama-vrtti means that the four phases of breathing are not of the same length: inhale, exhale and hold (if there is one) are of different lengths, usually with the ratio of 1:2 (exhale twice as long as inhale) and later on 1:4:2:0 (holding the breath after inhale is four times as long as inhale while exhale is twice as long as inhale with no holding after exhale). More complex pranayamas of the ujjayi type – anuloma, viloma and pratiloma-ujjayi-pranayama – can also be used for different purposes.
Nadi-sodhana-pranayama is the second most important type of pranayama, the one that makes use of the alternate nostril breathing with the help of a hand gesture called mrgi-mudra by which the nostrils are pressed or released using the thumb and the last two fingers of the right hand (inhale into the partially closed left nostril, exhale through the partially closed right nostril, inhale into the partially closed right nostril and exhale through the partially closed left nostril, making one breathing cycle in this pranayama) to achieve various psycho-physiological effects in the practitioner. If done without holds (kumbhaka) to cleanse the subtle channels (nadi) in the body, it is called nadi-suddhi and it is not considered pranayama proper. Only if it involves holding the breath it is considered to be a real pranayama. And, if accompanied with bandha and mantra, it is in fact regarded as the supreme pranayama that effectively calms the mind and so adequately prepares for mediation, or dhyana. It is probably the oldest type of formalized pranayama. It was widely used in ancient India and is often thought to be the paradigmatic pranayama that should be done daily with the minimum of 12 breaths per one session, 2-4 times a day. Two other pranayamas of the same type – surya and candra-bhedana-pranayama – can also be used for various purposes.
Bandha-mudra is a type of hatha-yoga-mudra which involves delicate muscle contractions in the torso to make pranayama as efficient as possible in each particular case. Jalandhara-bandha involves the neck and chest in such a way as to lower the chin at the end of inhale towards the lifted sternum. It maximizes the inhale since it stretches the spine and opens the rib-cage. Mula-bandha is a complete exhale or contraction of the perineal muscles in the pelvic floor (or vaginal muscles in women), including the lower abdominal muscles. It maximizes the exhale since it effectively contracts the base of the body, both above and below the pubic bone. Uddiyana-bandha is an intensification of mula-bandha done in such a way as to lift the upper abdomen (the portion above the navel) in and up with mula and jalandhara-bandha properly engaged. It is usually done after a complete exhalation (that is, with mula-bandha firmly in place), with great care, and is released slowly so that the next inhale can be done without gasping. Jalandhara-bandha is also applied throughout the process. Uddiyana-bandha massages the vital abdominal organs, including the heart and liver, and facilitates the merge of prana (the energy of inhale) and apana (the energy of exhale) in the Heart (hrdaya), which is the very essence of hatha-yoga. On the physical level, all three bandhas effectively bind the torso so that all the muscles of the trunk cooperate intelligently in such a way as to support the breath. On the energetic level, the three bandhas seal the torso off so that no vital energy is leaking out of the body, but is instead channelled into the core of the body. On the spiritual level, tri-bandha is a devotional practice of integrating the mind located in the head and the instincts located in the base at Heart located in the chest; the mind is bowing to the Heart and the instincts are sublimated in the Heart.
The principles of vinyasa-krama when planning and practicing pranayama are often applied in the same way as in planning and practicing an asana sequence (that is, it includes the three continuous phases of preparation, culmination and conclusion): first we take a few preparatory breaths, then we take a few middle breaths with some complications (usually introducing suspensions, visualizations, mantra and/or bandhas that are in focus of that particular pranayama session) and then we ease up by taking a few relaxing breaths without any complications (except for jalandhhara-bandha, which is usually held throughout all types pranayama to secure a straight spine and a deep inhale).
Throughout a pranayama session, we make sure that inhale is done by first expanding the rib-cage and stretching the spine upwards and then secondarily protruding the abdomen, whereas exhale is done by first contracting the base and then secondarily deflating the chest over the contracted base. Inhale is the opposite of effort and is done with the idea of receiving the life-giving energy from the outside deeply into the organism along the frontal line of the body, whereas exhale is done actively with the idea of releasing the consumed energy up and out of the system along the dorsal line of the body. There should be no strain in the neck while doing jalandhara-bandha and no spasms while doing mula-bandha. As jalandhara, mula-bandha can be engaged throughout the entire pranayama session, but they are never firmly fixed: jalandhara is slightly released during exhale, and mula-bandha during inhale. Since uddiyana-bandha is very strenuous, the most delicate and most complex of the three, it is done only occasionally and its practice should not compromise the quality of breathing. The minimal requirement for it is the ability to hold the breath after exhale for at least 15-20 seconds with ease, and all the bandhas must be carefully learnt only from a competent and caring teacher in a private one-on-one teaching situation.
The logic behind the entire idea of a Yoga practice, from the vital perspective of an uninhibited flow of prana in the body, is the following: asana opens the nadis, nadi-suddhi cleanses them, pranayama (with kumbhaka) fills them with prana, and dhyana concentrates, directs and merges prana with Isvara, or the Source of Life in the spiritual Heart felt somewhere in the chest. This, in fact, is the traditional definition of pranayama; namely, it is the stretching (ayama) of prana throughout the whole body so that it could be stretched back or surrendered to the Whole of Life.
In conclusion, the important points to understand about pranayama are the following:
1. According to T. Krishnamacharya, “pranayama is central to yoga because the breath is central to life”.
2. Asana is essentially dynamic pranayama, and pranayama done in some stable (usually sitting cross-legged) position is stationary pranayama, or pranayama proper.
3. The two most important pranayamas are ujjayi and nadi-sodhana: the first one is first applied in moving while doing asana, and then as the first static pranayama to further connect with the breath; the second one is then used to calm the mind.
4. Pranayama, if properly practiced, strengthens the breath and calms the whole system, facilitating deep relaxation conducive to healing and meditation.
5. Pranayama prepares the practitioner for meditation because conscious breathing first clears the mind and the suspensions then effectively cut off the train of thoughts and so make meditation possible, natural and easy.
6. In essence, “pranayama is conscious breathing” (T. K. V. Desikachar); and “when we are with our breath, we are with That which breathes us” (Mark Whitwell), we become aware of prana-sakti that we actually are as Life Herself flowing through us as we flow through our life on this breathing planet Earth.