Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Discussion of ujjayi breathing, mula bandha and core-centered practice

Sorry this post is a bit all over the place. I always have the urge to talk about 10 things at once and I don't feel like splitting this post into three, so here they are, a whole bunch of topics in one. Feel free to read and comment on only parts of this post.

Kino's video on "Accessing Forward Bends in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series" is a great reference video of the foundations of Ashtanga - the tristana: breath, postures, drishti. She offers excellent explanations of Ujjayi, or rather, "free deep breathing" (3:04 in the video), as well as the mula bandha, and the mechanics of a forward fold. I learned a lot from this video. Some yogis (including me) like to close their eyes during practice. Grimmly also questioned when dristi came about in the traditions. I can't comment on that because I am not familiar with the sutras or the history of yoga (I am not a diligent enough yogi >_<~), but at least Kino cleared up the purpose of the drishi, i.e., the energy goes where our gaze go. So if we look down in our forward folds, we probably bend downwards instead of forwards.

Now for a little bit of controversy. David Robson blogged about how Sharath mentioned at a conference that ujjayi is a pranyama technique to be practiced once a student reaches advanced series and not part of the Primary series asana practice. Say what? I guess there's no name to the breathing we do in Asthanga. The new official name is "free deep breathing (with sound)", like Ujjayi but not actually Ujjayi. This was in the comments section of the blog:

"A student had once asked Guruji if the breath we do during practice is like Ujjayi. Guruji didn't give a clear answer (I picture the Indian head bobble), and so the misnomer was born."

That wasn't too bad unless you're not used to being anal about the correctness of labels.

Now, mula bandha: Michael Stone (a psychotherapist who studied Ashtanga with Richard Freeman, but also studies other styles of yoga, plus he can read Sanskrit) gives his interpretation of mula bandha at about 5:25 in this video: The inner traditions of yoga. I highly recommend watching the whole video by the way. Unlike Kino who went into detail on the anatomy of mula bandha, Michael talked about not squeezing the anus or the pelvic floor, but rather a natural toning of the pelvic floor at the end of an exhale. The "bandha" is not really a lock but a yoking of attention and the feeling of the breath (he describes prana not as the breath itself but a feeling pattern of the breath, a life energy that's associated with the breath) at the end of an exhale. To be honest, I find it hard to focus at the end of the breath (still a beginner), but I understand why he teaches it this way. Mula bandha is probably a pretty subtle engagement, but as a beginner practitioner, it's hard to engage the right amount of muscle fibers, so students were just taught to "squeeze the anus". If you squeeze everything in that general area the mula bandha will be engaged. However like Michael says, it's pretty uncomfortable and students forget to breath. That I agree with from experience. I think with Michael it's free breathing first, the bandha comes later.

In my practice today I experimented with both "general area squeeze" and no squeeze in various asanasa + vinyasas, and found that Michael was correct in that it's not necessary to do the massive anal squeeze to engage the core. Poses that require a lot of core (e.g. utpluthih), muscles in the core area get engaged anyways, otherwise the pose won't happen. Mega-squeezing did actually induce extra unnecessary strains. On the other hand I noticed it was really hard to keep the uddiyana bandha engaged at all times.  I think with more practice I'll be able to engage the right set of muscles; for now I'll go easy with the "mula bandha overs-queezing", and focus on the uddiyana bandha instead.

Nobel wrote two posts on the topic of core-centered practice. My take is that for Ashtanga yoga and utpluthih (probably some other poses too) specifically train for core strength. Jump throughs are not possible without hardcore core engagement. It is totally possible to do a lot of the more basic poses without bandha engagement, e.g. warrior II, tree pose etc. However, no core engagement makes it really easy to get injured. Coming up from a standing forward fold is unsafe when core is not engaged to protect the spine. So is upward facing dog. In fact, my colleagues recently strained their lower backs from doing YogaX (a power yoga sequence in P90X) because Tony Horton didn't emphasize the concept of "sucking in the belly button", a.k.a. core engagement in upward facing dog or coming up from standing forward folds. People love him, and macho people who would otherwise never try yoga in a million years are practicing yoga because of him, so I guess I shouldn't judge. Nobel asked if bandha (core) control is necessary for safe yoga practice, how should beginners approach yoga then, if they start out having little core strength? That's when I think pilates classes come in handy. I do think it's a good idea for people to build some basic core strength through pilates before getting into power / Ashtanga yoga. However, I noticed some people in our studio would only take pilates classes and avoid yoga classes. I had a discussion with a yoga teacher friend who thinks it's because pilates classes offer straight-forward feedback - "feel the abs burning!" whereas yoga requires more body-limb coordination and upper body strength. People who lack upper body strength and who only want the satisfaction of "getting a good work out" minus the frustrations of a learning curve may prefer pilates over yoga.

Anyways, it sounds like I'm becoming totally judgmental, but I just find it fascinating trying to figure out why some people will only do restorative and yin yoga, some will do 2 hot yoga classes in a row every day, some will only do pilates, and others will only do power yoga. Hmm.. and which of these people have the strongest vs. the nicest looking core muscles? :D


  1. And then there are some Ashtanga Fundamnetalists who only do Ashtanga everyday :-)

    About the ujjayi issue, the first person I learned Ashtanga from (she had been to Mysore once) referred to the breath during practice as "Samavrtti breath" (even-fluctuation breath). Which is actually a very apt description of the evenness of inhalation and exhalation that one tries to achieve in the breath during practice. She did not say anything about what Guruji had to say about the ujjayi issue; but honestly, it doesn't really bother me. I mean, okay, so the breath I'm doing during practice is not ujjayi... I have no problem with that :-)

    About mula bandha, I think David Life wrote this article in Yoga Journal many years ago, where he relates how Guruji would tell students to contract the anus (in his heavily Indian-accented English, it sounds more like "Contact Uranus!"). But Life (and a few other senior teachers) believe that Guruji gave that instruction because his English was too limited to convey the subtleties of Mula Bandha. In my own practice, I find contracting the anus (or contacting Uranus) too energy wasting; frankly, I don't think it has that much to do with engaging those muscles that we need to engage anyway. I tend to agree with Michael Stone. If one works constantly on the postures and pays attention to the most effective way to get in and out of postures, one will eventually engage mula and uddiyana bandhas, simply because not engaging them would be less effective and safe.

  2. I had the honor (I love him) of attending a workshop with Michael Stone in NYC last year and I will paraphrase what he said about Mula Bandha: He said that those of us who had smoked a cigarette or whatever would recognize the upward movement the pelvic floor makes when you inhale smoke. In fact not just the pelvic floor but the area below your belly button as well. Again, I am paraphrasing and not advocating smoking anything

  3. @Nobel: and some people will only do yoga if it's part of P90X :) Thanks for the further clarifications on breathing and bandhas! It only bugs me when a power yoga class teacher tells me to ujjayi breath but leads the class in a way that it's not possible to breath evenly because the work out routine so challenging that we have to mouth breath.

    @Serene, I've also had the pleasure of attending a workshop with him. I think the way that he speaks tends to make female yogis believe everything he says and fall in love with him, LOL. He didn't talk about smoking at that workshop but I have a friend who's a yoga teacher now saying before he started yoga, taking a long drag from the cigarette was the only way he knew how to breath deeply. I've never tried smoking myself, but does this mean chain smokers actually crave deep breaths rather than cigarettes; they just don't know it?

    1. @yyogini: i thought the same thing recently. i mean, think about the psychology of a smoke break. to go outside into fresh air and connect with the stillness at the top/bottom of the breath. the cigarette drag involves pretty much the same musculature and energy movement as mula bandha.

    2. Hi Eric, thanks for your comment. It's nice that the cigarette drag helps people activate their mula bandhas, but unfortunately the cancer-causing aspect of cigarettes kinda makes it a not so ideal mula bandha activation teaching tool.

  4. Hi, yes I also felt a bit like you when I read the post on Sharath saying no ujjayi... then again, whenever in Mysore the "deep breathing" is always heard, and the "loud breathing" is repeated pretty much in every led class. He also said it is not in Yoga Mala -the book- which is true! however, every teacher on the planet -or almost everyone- calls it so...

    my guess is that it is the smooth breathing long inhale and exhale, the "hissing of a serpent" like Krishnamacharya says in Yoga Makaranda, only that maybe Sarath does not want to give it the ujjayi breath to avoid confusion, perhaps inadvertently creating some...

    Interesting topic!

  5. Yes Y, that's what smokers are probably trying to do- Calm themselves by inhaling deeply..

  6. @Claudia: The label issue itself is not a big deal but it reflects how other erroneous teachings can be accidentally passed down and become popularized. Good thing we have Sharath to look to for providing authoritative reference information.

    @Serene: I'm surprised no one has started a "Quit smoking with pranyama" program yet. Million dollar business opportunity right there :)