The first place that Ashtanga students often get curious about bandhas, even if their teacher has been talking about them for ages, is in the transitions we encounter between postures: the jump through and the lift up, jump back. This is especially true of uddiyana bandha, the “flying up” lock. Sometimes this is because the student has seen, heard, or read that all you need to pick up and jump back is “enough bandha”.
I’ve heard it too — teachers and others who flippantly throw out that idea to practitioners without digging any deeper into the concept of bandha. This tends to leave students with an overly simplified idea of bandhas, especially uddiyana bandha. Students are mistakenly left with the idea that uddiyana bandha is some kind of magical muscle, and if you just squeeze it hard enough it will transport you into the clouds like a magic carpet. So if this over-simplified idea is not what the flying up lock is, then what is it?
What is uddiyana bandha?
It’s important to remember that we’re talking about yoga here, not lifting weights at the gym. The language and conceptual ideas of yoga, like bandhas, give us a way to describe and relate to our experience in a way that everyday concrete language doesn’t necessarily provide.
Uddiyana bandha is described like this in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: “Uddiyana bandha is called so by the yogis, because when it is practiced, the prana is controlled and flies through the susumna. This practice is called uddiyana bandha, because through this the great bird (i.e. prana) flies up without tiring [through susumna]. The drawing band of the abdomen above [and below] the navel is called uddiyana bandha.” (HYP 3:55-57, A.G. Mohan translation – brackets and notation are from Mohan’s translation).
From this description you can understand that uddiyana bandha is part of a larger set of tools that we use to control our energy. Because the way we take in “energy” is with our breath, bandha is never separate from breath. One way that we incorporate the physical aspect of bandhas is as the valves we use to manage the speed, volume, and quality of our breathing. And, through our breath control we manage our energy.
What does it mean to be light?
Uddiyana bandha is associated with the quality of lightness. But what does that mean? Remember these are energetic qualities, not concrete objects. Lightness, lift, or uddiyana, is a quality that exists in balance with rootedness, groundedness, or mula. Uddiyana and mula aren’t things we do or objects that we can grab onto. They’re qualities that we can choose to embody. Ideally we are going in the direction of embodying both of these qualities in balance with each another. We can go too far in any direction, including in the pursuit of bandha. Qualitatively, I might describe too much mula, or downward energy, as heavy, stuck, or rigid. I might describe too much uddiyana, or upward energy, as flighty, spacey, or unfocused.
How do we embody lightness or uddiyana?
We have tools in the practice that help us lean in to the experience, or quality, of uddiyana. This is where we get into engaging muscles. The quality of lightness comes from efficiency among other things. So, training our bodies to move efficiently within gravity encourages a quality of lightness in our movement. Efficiency of movement occurs when we train our body to move from central, intrinsic muscles, rather than superficial muscles and the extremities.
One example of a central, intrinsic muscle group is the iliopsoas. My teacher points to the iliopsoas as an important and relevant place, anatomically, to place our attention when exploring uddiyana bandha. The transverse abdominis muscle, the deepest layer of the abdominal muscle group, is also anatomically relevant to this exploration. I’ve found that placing my attention on these areas of my body has been very helpful when exploring the idea of uddiyana bandha. What’s important to be clear about here is that the muscle or muscles is not the bandha itself. They are tools that we use to get closer to the experience of uddiyana bandha.
What does it mean to be light in life?
Why would we want to explore the idea of uddiyana bandha, or lightness? Our physical experience is not separate from our mental and emotional one. In my mind when we explore lightness we are going in the direction of exploring equanimity. I associate the quality of lightness with less need to have our day to day circumstances unfold in a certain way. I equate lightness with a greater amount of ease riding the waves that life sends us. If any of that strikes a cord with you, consider incorporating the quality of uddiyana into your practice with a broader view to what that might mean and see where your practice takes you!