If you have taken more than a handful of yoga classes, the chances are that you’ve heard the term, “Mula Bandha,” also known as the “root lock.” Teachers will sometimes instruct you to pretend to “stop the flow of urine” in order to help you perform Mula Bandha. But what is MB really? Wikipedia quotes Iyengar for an explanation: “A posture where the body from the anus to the navel is contracted and lifted up and towards the spine.” It seems that Iyengar is using a language that attempts to describe an experience, but unfortunately his anatomical reference is incorrect.
This particular form of miscommunication is common in modern-day yoga classes. Why? Simple: cultural (mis)appropriation. The truth is that even though we can (and we will) talk about the anatomical structures that make up Mula Bandha, the language used to describe it is easily muddied, when we try to communicate our individual experiences about a physical action whose origin is embedded in the “mystical” and is part of a practice, in which the intention is to explore our energy-selves. (Stick with us, people.) What Westerners consider the more esoteric side of a yoga practice often involves kriyas, bandhas and even pranayama. Our cultural perspective will influence how we perceive and interpret our engagement with these particular practices. This is why the language that tries to convey a culturally foreign experience is often inaccurate; we are limited by the nature of our English language that tends to focus on physical experiences as separate from spiritual, mental or emotional ones. The key word here is “diachronic.”
We at SMARTer Bodies, often try to embed or contextualize yogic practices in concrete, scientifically-minded language to convey the validity of these experiences to those of us who only dabble in yoga classes that focus on Asana. Mula Bandha is a practice that begins to cross the line or blur the lines for typical Americans who are not used to connecting the physical, mental and emotional bodies (or for some, even a spiritual body). Yoga teachers in the United States are meeting an almost insurmountable challenge in trying to teach these practices in a few 45-60 minute classes. A 200-hour teacher training can only introduce concepts from a culture in which we did not grow up (i.e., concepts such as chakras or bandhas, which are energetic centers of the body). In the West, we focus on gross anatomy, as opposed to the subtle anatomical relationships that usually provide the context for yoga. Attempting to put these Eastern, energetic concepts into the Western perceptual framework is sometimes like trying to describe a car by what it tastes like. Only recently a number of Americans, who acknowledge and adopt ancient yogic practices/concepts as valid have grown sufficient enough that there is a demand to describe those practices/concepts by an empirical language that many people find authoritative and secure. Again, “diachronic.”
So, for those of you who aren’t going to study yoga seriously or take years to properly interact with these concepts, we are going to try and explain MB to you quick and dirty (Yeah, just how SMARTer Bodies like it. Yeeeeeeah…sorry.) A properly executed Mula Bandha may feel the way Iyengar describes it (and may even energetically correspond to the entire area he refers to), but what you are really engaging is your pelvic floor. This is an important distinction to make since YOUR PELVIC FLOOR IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR STOPPING THE FLOW OF URINE! It is your urethral sphincter and your external anal sphincter that are responsible for controlling the stream of urine. Therefore, pretending to hold the stream in an attempt to access your entire pelvic floor DOES NOT WORK.
Your pelvic floor, or pelvic diaphragm, is a group of muscles that includes the 3 muscles of your levator ani (pubococcygeus, puborectalis, and iliococcygeus) and your coccygeus muscle. Some refer to the entire pelvic floor by referencing only one of the muscles (the PC muscle, the ones that help us use those sphincters to stop our urine). Both men and women have these muscles, and just like any other skeletal muscle, they need to be conditioned for both sexes. Unconditioned pelvic floor muscles can lead to prolapsed organs, incontinence, more subtle breathing issues or the inability to properly create intra-abdominal pressure for core work.
A well-conditioned pelvic floor will be helpful for birth labor, core strength and organ health. Regardless of the cultural context, this muscular work is important and relevant to every human being. In our next blog post, we will talk about pelvic floor conditioning.