How many of us have been told to engage our bandhas, or internal locks, for our entire yoga practice? First of all, it doesn’t seem like anyone is able to truly sustain these illusive muscular contractions the whole time they’re on the mat, but second of all, is this even a biomechanically wise feat to ask us to do? Most people don’t actually contract the correct musculature when they try to engage their bandhas, but even if they did, are we really strengthening our core by tightening our muscles in an arbitrary, non-stop way? Or are we instead interfering with our body’s built-in dynamic system of core stability?
BANDHAS: A REVIEW
In the yoga world, the bandhas are generally described as muscular contractions of the pelvic floor (mula bandha) and lower belly (uddiyana bandha) that we’re meant to hold throughout our entire practice, releasing them only as we arrive at savasana, our final relaxation pose. (Pilates and some other movement systems teach a similar internal lock method sometimes called abdominal “bracing” or “hollowing”.) The reasons usually given for utilizing the bandhas this way are to connect to our deeper core, to protect our spine, and to feel a sense of “lightness” in our poses (especially those tricky arm balances!)
TRAINING THE WRONG MUSCLE IN UDDIYANA BANDHA?
Yogis often contract the wrong musculature when they attempt to engage uddiyana bandha. Instead of firing the transverse abdominus (TvA), the abdominal muscle that truly stabilizes our core and is the correct muscle of uddiyana bandha, most yogis unknowingly contract their rectus abdominus, which is our most superficial “six-pack” muscle and doesn’t offer us any core stabilization benefits at all.
Let’s take a brief look at the difference between these two important muscles. When the rectus abdominus contracts, it rounds your spine (spinal flexion) and/or tucks your pelvis (posterior tilt). As I explained in my "Core Strength Fiction & Facts" article, we used to think that tucking our pelvis meant that we were using our deep core and protecting our spine, but we now know that this belief is biomechanically incorrect, although most yoga classes and even some schools of pilates still haven’t caught up to this new word on the street.
In contrast to the rectus abdominus, which loves to tuck your pelvis, the TvA doesn’t move your pelvis or your rib cage at all when it contracts - it simply and magically compresses your abdomen inward like an amazing built-in corset. Due to the way pressures work, this results in a lengthening of the spine and a decompression of the intervertebral discs (those guys that like to bulge and herniate on us when we don’t treat them well). So when your TvA is working in coordination with the other muscles of your deep core, your spine will thank you because it is stabilized and protected. :)
But due to non-optimal breathing patterns and and poor posture habits (as well as the aforementioned outdated belief that we should all tuck our pelves to protect our back), most people’s TvA is not functioning well in their body, and as a result their superficial rectus abdominus becomes significantly more dominant. 9 times out of 10, even if we know about the difference between these two muscles and are specifically attempting to turn on our TvA, we end up unknowingly using our rectus abdominus instead. Crazy but true!
THE SELF-CHECK: ARE YOU RECTUS DOMINANT?
The more we understand about how our own muscles are currently functioning, the more mindfulness we’ll cultivate in our body. Before we test whether our rectus likes to dominate our TvA, let’s make sure we know how to correctly turn on our TvA in the first place.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Bring your hands around your side waists. Take a full inhale breath, and then exhale and pull your belly button directly inward toward your spine. If the TvA engaged correctly, you'll feel your side waists underneath your hands compress inward toward your spine and your pelvis and rib cage will not have changed position at all. (Remember - if your pelvis tucked, you did not fire your TvA - make sense?)
How did it go? Did it feel like waking up a muscle that you might not have been using much before?
Now let’s test whether our rectus likes to take over during a very simple movement in which our TvA should be working. Lie on your back again with knees bent and feet on the floor with your pelvis and rib cage in neutral. Slide your shirt up toward your ribs so that your abdomen is visible. In order to successfully watch what your belly is doing, either have a mirror alongside of you or use the camera on your phone or computer. (It won’t work if you lift your head and look at your abdomen directly with your eyes.)
Take an inhale, and on your exhale pull your lower belly directly inward toward your spine to engage your TvA, and then lift your left foot off the floor until the heel is in line with your knee. Hold here and observe your abdomen. If it looks like this (relatively flat), you are successfully using your TvA to stabilize your spine - good job!
But if your abdomen looks like this, with your belly swelling up toward the sky into a shape some of my Restorative Exercise Specialist™ friends like to call the “bread loaf” (heh heh), your rectus abdominus has taken over and you have lost your core stability. Don’t move onto the next step if you were baking bread in this first exercise. :)
If your TvA passed this first step, try the exercise again, but this time, lift both feet off the floor until your heels are in line with the knees. Did your belly remain flat and compressed inward, or did your spine move toward an arch and did your belly swell up like rising bread dough? If you saw the bread loaf here, your TvA is not strong enough to stabilize your spine in this shape, and you should not do this exercise or any “core work” that is stronger than this until your TvA is able to adequately handle these loads.
THE TVA SHOULD PLAY CENTER STAGE
When we’re doing “core work” in yoga, pilates, or any other movement program, it’s essential that our TvA is working for us if we’re interested in the long-term structural health of our body. Unfortunately, a lot of core work out there is quite strong in nature, and if our TvA is weak or not functioning well (as you may have just discovered is the case with yours), it can’t meet the demand that such core work places on it.
BANDHAS, BANDHAS, ALL THE TIME?
Now that we’re clear on how uddiyana bandha works, we need to address this problematic idea that we should be holding a static, steady engagement of our bandhas throughout our entire yoga practice. Our core is designed to be a dynamic system which responds to our varying movements with an increase or decrease of engagement as needed, naturally. If we consciously “tighten our core” all practice long (or even all day long as many, many of us do), we are overriding our body’s natural reflex-driven response to movement and this will effectively weaken our core over time.
Instead of “perma-gripping” our bandhas, we should learn to relax our non-stop hold over these muscles so that they can function in their natural integrated way with the rest of our core stabilization system. And then at key moments of extra effort during our practice (like holding a strong arm balance, lifting up into a backbend, or jumping back into chaturanga) or similar key moments during during daily life (like picking up a grocery bag or putting your child in her car seat), we should add in a clear and refined bandha engagement to help enhance our neuromuscular connection to our deep core.
One of the foundational goals of yoga is to restore flow and health to the body, and learning to work with the natural function of the core instead of overriding it is a huge step toward that goal. Offering this biomechanical insight into the bandhas and the workings of our core is part of a continued effort to keep the living tradition of yoga updated and relevant with the best information we have available today. As always, feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments!
Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection