To this end, here's a quick look at the most common bandhas, their meanings, and how they can enhance your practice.
Uddiyana-bandha- translates to mean "upward lock" and is easily accessed by pulling the lower abdomen inward and slightly upward. Think of yourself trying to zip up a pair of super skinny jeans; that's the action that occurs in your belly. While the word bandha often translates to mean "lock" or "constriction," it's important that we don't hold our breath or create tension in the body when engaging the bandhas. Think of your abdomen as being active but not overly tense, the muscles drawing in to support your spine, but you're not sucking in your gut or flexing your six-pack like a bodybuilder. Remember, you're doing yoga poses, not posing for your P90X "after" photo, Schwarzenegger style.
Today, it's not uncommon for yoga classes to include some version of "abs" within a more traditional sequence; however, rest assured, if you never did another crunch in your life, but you always engaged uddiyana-bandha while practicing yoga (and you practiced frequently), you would still have a super strong core. Promise.
In addition to building strength in your stomach and support for your spine, uddiyana-bandha also has energetic benefits. The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga (one of my go-to yoga resources) explains the concept of bandhas as "local stoppages of the flow of psychosomatic energy (prana)." I would add to that point that in addition to stopping energy from flowing, you are also channeling it in a given direction. For example, the key element is jumping from bakasana (crow pose) to chatarunga (low push up) is the drawing in of your belly. This "upward lock" is what allows you to jump up and out of the posture in one, streamlined motion.
Uddiyana-bandha is crucial to maintaining arm balances and inversions, protecting the spine in back bends, standing postures, and twists, and, yes, even looking slimmer and taller in a swimsuit.
Mula-bandha- If you've ever practiced a kegel or held the urge to pee on a long road trip with no rest-stop in sight, then you're already acquainted with mula-bandha, the sensation of drawing your "root lock" or pelvic floor in and up. Mula-bandha is most important in seated postures, where there might be a tendency to let all your weight sink into the floor. Being relaxed in seated postures is great, but the poses should remain energized and active. Jivamukti co-founder David Life once explained this feeling in an article for Yoga Journal by saying that mula-bandha makes the body "less earth-bound and more mobile."
Mula-bandha, given its resemblance to a kegel, might also control urinary incontinence, prepare for childbirth, and improve sex. Not usually a bad thing . . . Just saying.
Jalandhara-Bandha- Named for the ancient yogi Jalandhari, who is credited with initiating two kings into the tradition of yoga before his renunciation of the world, this bandha is used less often than the others. When practiced correctly, it serves to lengthen and protect the back of the neck. It also localizes the breath in the torso and lungs rather than the throat.
Accessing this bandha in shoulder stand is a helpful way to keep the cervical spine safe. Also, I encourage my students to use jalandhara-bandha while preparing to enter poses such as matyasana (fish pose) and ustrasana (camel), before dropping the head all the back. By initially drawing the chin in and upward, jalandhara-bandha creates awareness and mindfulness before the extreme movement of letting your head hang all the way backward.
Go ahead, yogis; get your bandhas in gear! As always, please feel free to post additional insights, questions, or experiences in the comments section.