I recently received a great question from a yoga teacher friend of mine who recently attended the CWY Bandhas Workshop that I taught in Maple Ridge back in November of this year. I thought it was a great question, and one with a complex and interesting answer, so I thought I would take the time to share it and my response with all of you!
“I wanted to ask you (my bandha guru!) about bandhas - I have read a few things online about them being 'dangerous' for teachers to teach - that all students are not able or ready to try them....I have explained them to my students and encouraged them to engage the mula bandha (squeeze sphincter muscle up to belly bottom -after a brief anatomy lesson !!:) etc. SO....I was surprised to read this online - I thought that maybe they just want people to take THEIR training....$$$... Anyhow, what do you think?”
There are indeed many references to the concept of ‘Bandha’ being a dangerous practice that you may read online or in other sources. Admittedly, my opinion on the topic may be one that not all yoga teacher’s share, but I would argue that the debate here lies between ‘tradition’ and ‘modern understanding’ of yogic principles and philosophy. The word Bandha translates to ‘bind, lock, tighten, or hold.’ The use of the word itself is most often used in regard to a physical action coordinated between the body’s 3 diaphragm’s (vocal, respiratory, and pelvic) in such a way that allows us to control our internal pressure, increasing stability and creating lift and lightness in movement. However, the word bandha is also used in a number of different instances in traditional philosophical works as well.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the word bandha is used in several concepts. Dharana, or
the practice of meditative focus, is said to require the binding (bandha) of focus to a specific object or thing. It is also used to describe the relationship (sambandha) between the ‘organ of hearing’ and the air that surrounds us. Holding (nibandhanin) one’s attentional awareness in steadiness is yet another example.
In much of yogic philosophy, it is believed that living in a physical body requires our spirit to be bound to nature, and yoga is seen as the path of releasing that bondage and becoming enlightened.
However, in most cases, when you hear the term bandha in a yoga class, it is usually in reference to a physical action of one of your three diaphragms during an asana or pranayama practice and is absolutely essential for proper technique.
In ancient times in mystic India, a yoga discipleship looked far different than it does today. Today, you can do a drop in at any number of studios, any time you like, with no commitment or obligations. In ancient times, the practice required much more discipline and patience, and discipleship was earned through hard work and focused attention. Teachers didn’t need 30 students in a class to pay the bills, and usually trained only one student at a time. Once accepted for tutelage, a yoga student would move in with their guru and spend 9 years in training, often times in a remote location far removed from society. The first years were spent doing labour, and learning basic techniques. The right to learn the harder and more challenging techniques was reserved for students who
had proved they were worthy of the ‘great secrets of old.’ The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (another traditional work) informs us that bandha practice “has been described as the giver of success…..and should be kept secret by every effort, and not revealed to any and everyone.” Initiation into bandha practice would start subtly with a series of instructions intended to help students realize their bandhas inherently and through experience, as opposed to through anatomy and direct discussion about ‘what, where, or how.’ The astute student would come to understand these actions long before any discussion of bandha arose. As the teacher felt the student was both physically and mentally ready (showing they could perform the asana correctly, could demonstrate a large variety of breathing exercises, and could focus their awareness), deeper and more challenging bandha techniques would be taught with greater detail. Using bandha basics to breathe and stabilize movement requires practice and time to develop awareness and muscular strength. It also takes time to create proper organ mobility, fascial integration, and nervous system tone, all of which are needed to move into intermediate or advanced practices. More challenging techniques such as Maha Mudra, Uddiyana Kriya, and Nauli Kriya are much more difficult and could indeed be considered as dangerous for someone who has not first learned and mastered the basics of bandha.
When I had first learned of Uddiyana Kriya and it’s benefits many years ago, I was excited to give it a try. When I applied my bandhas in this particular way, I did indeed hurt myself! I had previously smashed 6 ribs in an old injury that had been quite severe. The scar tissue it left behind had created restrictions between my ribs, my diaphragm, and my internal organs. When I did the deep action of the technique, I did not have enough flexibility around all that scar tissue, and as a result, I rebroke my ribs in multiple places, even though the injury was a decade old! A painful lesson! After that healed up, I approached the technique more slowly, and over time it became the tool that fixed the deep scar tissue and healed the chronic injury once and for all.
So, in actuality, there is a very good reason why the yoga teachers of old stressed that these bandha techniques are dangerous, as they certainly can be, depending on what bandha technique you are attempting.
We must also take into consideration the mystical and religious culture of India throughout yoga’s development. It was one of secrecy, discipline, and commitment. If teachers gave away their ultimate secret on the first lesson, what would keep their disciples engaged for the traditional 9-year apprenticeship? After all, in those days, payment for this knowledge was only received at the end of the discipleship and did not always involve monetary gain.
This tradition of mysticism and secrecy, and thus the references which have been handed down through thousands of years, are the source of modern-day statements that ‘bandhas are dangerous’ and should be practiced with caution.
In today’s modern world, anatomical understanding and advancements have allowed us to view bandha practice through a new lens. With an ability to accurately label the precise mechanism behind ‘what’ bandha is, and ‘how’ it functions in the body, new perspectives about learning and feeling these principles at work in our body have become available. This ‘anatomical fast-track approach’ to learning bandhas is one which is often more attractive and appropriate in the ‘fast-food’, ‘buy-now-pay-later’ society which has evolved in the West (and around the world) today.
Just imagine what would happen if a new yoga student walked into a studio today and was told to clean the studio, massage their teacher’s shoulders, prepare lunch, and then was given only a single instruction and a single position to work on with. That person would walk out, wander down the street to a find different studio, and would certainly never come back! These are different times, and we live in a different culture.
Yoga ultimately teaches us to be adaptable and flexible enough to act in accordance with change and time. Our culture today is one where people want to know, “what’s in it for me?” By adapting the yogic teachings to include the advancements of modern science, teachers can meet students where they are at and create a practice which is inspiring and meaningful in today’s climate.
The fact of the matter is that bandha is an intrinsic element of all human movement. If you are alive and breathing unassisted by a machine right now, you are using bandha! The question is, how efficient and versatile are these actions in your body. Building bandha begins with building awareness, followed by mobility and control, and one day progressing into the most difficult (and Instagram worthy) positions. To say that bandha is dangerous and should not be taught would be like saying that running a marathon is dangerous and should be avoided. The question is who is running the marathon. If you’re overweight, out of shape, or have never run down the block before, a 40km marathon
likely would be dangerous and counterproductive to your health. However, if you started with some fast-paced walking, slowly increasing your speed and distance over a period of time with consistency, one day that same marathon would be not only safe, but also beneficial towards the improvement or your health and vitality! When we are new to bandha practice, it is best to learn how to properly use gentle bandha actions to control the movement and speed of breath. From here we can learn to use these breathing techniques with movement and asana to create a deeper understanding and to further improve control. Over time, more challenging breathing exercises and complex movements will become safely available, as will deeper applications of bandha techniques.
Bandha is something that benefits everyone, regardless of where they are in their life journey. It is something which, if taught correctly and by a skilled teacher, is safe and highly productive for improving health, stability, and vitality. It is also a topic which is dramatically under-represented in the educational side of yoga teacher training, it requires the comfort and ability to have constructive conversations about some the ‘private’ parts of our body and is generally a topic which many modern yoga teachers feel uncomfortable and unconfident with. As new teaching resources continue to become available to modern yoga teachers, I feel that the mysticism and ‘danger’ surrounding the practice will be re-evaluated and redefined, much to the benefit of yogis everywhere!
To make a very long story short, this is exactly what led me to create the CWY Bandhas Workshop, as a way to show people that with a bit of awareness and technique, bandha practice is incredibly safe, accessible, and highly productive to almost anyone!
I’d like to thank my dear friend Donna for sending me such a great question. I’m sure she expected a short answer, but little did she know she stumbled onto one of the great topics of yogic debate!
I’d love to hear any and all of the thoughts, comments, or questions from anyone reading this article in the comments below! Let’s keep the discussion going!
Have other yoga questions, that’s what this forum is for!! Feel free to post your questions directly, or to email them to me and I am happy to add in my two cents on these great yogic explorations!