May 31, 2011

Ashtanga Yoga and the Secret of Mula Bandha.

Photo: David Garrigues

Ashtanga Yoga (as in the 8 limbs) begins with Ahimsa, non-harming. Yama is the first limb of the eight limbs and ahimsa is the first Yama. Thus ahimsa can be considered the base, the very foundation and support of the 8 eight limbs. Consider the use of the word ahimsa, the main root himsa, means violence, harm, aggression. When you add the “A” in front of it it becomes ahimsa, the opposite of himsa. The use of the word Ahimsa in this ‘negative’ manner is intentional. For example the first yama could have been ‘peace’ or ‘care’ but instead it is stated as the opposite of non peace. That is because himsa is simply inherent, part of you and me, an automatic, survival response to fear and/or perceived threat.

Often emotionally we start from himsa, we are born with a bent,  a tendency to express aggression and violence under certain circumstances. In order to get to peace or empathy, we need to find our way through our aggression by cultivating its opposite. You must adopt a conscious stance or intention that helps you turn your energy around and go ‘against the grain;’ to find a different choice, as was practiced by both Gandhi and MLK.

Stated positively Ahimsa means care, extraordinarily high level, genuine, deep, sustained care; the kind of care that begins within your body when you take up a serious, soulful asana practice. Curiously both mula bandha and ahimsa are found together there. They are both foundational, core practices that involve harnessing the powerful energy that exists in the form of deep drives within us. Mula bandha and ahimsa involve redirection of this energy, a causing of this energy to move out of mundane channels, to flow along spiritual channels to draw forth what is real and what has truth within us.

Photo: David Garrigues

Ahimsa and mula bandha meet as two complimentary allies in your daily practice, in fact with practice you discover they are one and the same practice. In yoga when you enter into the body, you enter into your center, the realm of mula bandha, the root support at the base of the spine. Breathing, moving, and creating your stance, or posture from center gives you a kind of empathy and willingness to be open to your self, leads you to relate to and work to understand anything and everything that occurs within you. This is the basis of ahimsa and the foundation of yoga practice. You find that in order to get a grip on the practice of ahimsa, you must also work on mula bandha and vice versa.

Guruji insisted on the importance of practicing and performing Mula Bandha. He said that mula bandha is a contraction of the anus, gives mind control and must be practiced 24/7. In a recent conference with Sharath Jois (Guruji’s grandson), Sharath related a story about how he asked Guruji about the difficulties he was having with a challenging section of an advanced series postures.

This set of postures requires you to alternate between opposing postural patterns (like extreme extension to flexion) without a warm up, without the hand holding type of continuity of first or second or even third series offers. Guruji told Sharath it was only possible to master this sequence by achieving a strong Mula Bandha. This story lit up the point that you practice Mula Bandha to strengthen your base, your center so as to be able to choose more freely both physically and psychologically, and thus not get caught in one kind of pattern or groove.

You become oriented and strong in the middle, in your core, and become capable of switching between patterns, even extreme opposites with relative ease. Mula bandha could be defined as “the ability to stay rooted and centered with ease and thus to stop and redirect your self as is desired and necessary.” Ahimsa requires this same ability; you must learn how to respond creatively to the strong drives within you, neither blindly following their dictates, nor rejecting their power and the directions they may be indicating that you need to explore.

The need to be able to redirect your energy is true in an asana sense, but more important, it’s true in a psychological sense. When Guruji spoke of Mula Bandha giving ‘mind control’ he meant precisely this, that to apply mula bandha, you have to have enough mental strength to ‘stop’ the patterns of mind that take you away from where you want to go. You have be able to do this as immediately as you are able; with sharp, razor like control that is coupled with receptive, insightful care. Without mula bandha, without inhabiting your center, you won’t have the immovable stance, nor the mental maturity that you need, and so you will frequently and even helplessly watch your self think and behave in ways that are against your innards.

Anger often bursts upon you with a swiftness when it comes, as do other strong emotions. Before you know it you’ve said or done something harmful to your self and/or others. Working with your base, mula bandha allows you to match the energy of those emotions and thus to diffuse or re channel that energy and transform it into something else, something more right, more appropriate to the situation, more creative and personally empowering to you. In part the trick is in the timing; can you catch your self, reflect, let go of the grudge, make a different choice. Can you do it now, or in 10 minutes, or an hour, or a day, (or years later in your head)?

Photo: David Garrigues

The reasons we waste our energy in harmful and small ways is at least in part based on a fundamental unwillingness to face our pain and fears in timely, sustained ways and with enough commitment and emotional engagement to change ourselves. And we also waste our energy simply because we’ve forgotten how to just be happy, how to celebrate life with ease, and how to be truly joyous as happens when we are involved creatively in our lives or when we just simply stop and breathe and tune in what is here exactly now.

But frequently, rather than really see ourselves moment to moment with our contradiction, weakness, vulnerability, insecurity, and emotional nakedness, we’ll pass up the thrills and joys of now, and instead, we’ll dissipate energy, let our power go down and out of the body somehow. We’ll indulge in something in one way or another whether it’s anger, envy or something that promises immediate happiness. And we’ll convince ourselves that it’s alright this time, and fail to remember how many times and for how many years we’ve let it be ok ‘this time’.

Maya (ignorance, or the veil) lulls us into drowsiness and steals our sense of the passage of time. We can become bafflingly unreflective, meanwhile the life we want floats by, mirage like, our dreams shimmering up ahead hazily out of reach but tantalizing close, close enough and distinct enough to feel real. And yet the years pass and we’re still eating when not hungry, drinking or smoking or shopping or watching tv or computering to forget our pain or how hard it all seems. We’re still pushing away the intimacy we so long for, and finding ourselves caught in our personal round of ‘life drama’s’ ‘that seem to come up one after the other and effectively sap our energies and prevent growth.

Mula bandha’s relationship to ahimsa provides a vital link between the physical practice and the emotional, mental aspects of practice. I don’t only do mula bandha so that I can perfect and ‘floating’ jump backs. Those jump backs need to be connected to a greater awakening within myself. Can I bring that same grace and power to my emotional life, to my hidden attitudes about myself, to my behavior in relationships and even to such basic things as my eating patterns. Practicing mula bandha as ahimsa gives you the ability to close the gap between the little you and the you as your unique expression of the Divine Self, the Cosmic Magician, The Trickster, The Beloved, the Secret one, the one with a Thunderous Voice, the one you really wish and yearn to be.

Photo: David Garrigues

Some examples of redirection of Prana to be able to switch back and forth between these as the need dictates, without ‘stickiness’ and immediately as possible:

• anger to forgiveness
• envy to appreciation
• fear to faith
• shouting to listening
• craving to contentment
• aversion to indifference
• superficial to deep
• gross to subtle
• judgement to empaathy
• blue to red, red to blue
• scarcity to abundance
• taking to giving
• peripheral to central
• inherent sadness, depression to inherent joy,
• will and effort to receptivity, being


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