The mystery muscle - YogaCity NYC

The Mystery Muscle
“Engage your mula bandha," I hear from the front of the room.

Oh no, Not again. “Pretend you really, really have to pee"— one teacher will say. “Do a kegel," saysa another. Exactly what am I supposed to do and why, I can’t help thinking.

Mula bandha has been a mystery to me for years, as both a student and teacher of yoga. Likening this action to doing a kegel isn’t just a disservice to the longstanding tradition of yoga; it’s also an oversimplified and potentially detrimental explanation many teachers fall back on. Another is simply offering the Sanskrit translation—“root lock"—with little context. “That ‘lock’ word I find a little heavy handed," says Bill Gallagher, yoga therapist and master clinician in integrative rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “Learning to engage the pelvic floor and lift it up can help people learn to let it go."

The physiological benefits of mula bandha are many, but letting something go can’t happen if you don’t know exactly what it is you’re holding onto in the first place. The pelvic floor is several layers of musculature stretching between the sitting bones side to side and from pubic bone to tailbone front to back, says Amy Matthews, Body-Mind Centering teacher and managing director at The Breathing Project,.

Just how many layers comprise the pelvic floor is a point of contention among yogis. While some believe there are three layers, others make the distinction of only two. But regardless, acknowledging that there are multiple layers of muscle is important. “Let the bottom layer be about grounding and downward moving energy and the upward layer about upward lifting energy," says Matthews.

This awareness is not just important for women after childbirth and in old age. “It’s important for everybody who has legs and walks, for everybody who has a spine and has a body that moves around," says Matthews.

Why? Incontinence is the simple answer—being able to manipulate the muscles that control the flow of urine. But there’s more to it than that. The levator ani—a muscle that stretches across the base of the pelvic floor—translates to mean “elevator of the anus," says Jonathan FitzGordon, creator of the FitzGordon Method core walking program and yoga teacher at Prema Yoga in Brooklyn. “It’s an upward lifting muscle that supports the organs."

Try this: lift up the muscles of your pelvic floor as if you have to pee. Then attempt a full deep breath. It’s hard, isn’t it? The ability to contract and release the pelvic floor is critical in allowing us to choose the way we breathe. “This quality of responsiveness is what our goal should be," says Matthews.

When we inhale, the diaphragm moves down, increasing pressure on the organs below it. When the pelvic floor is gripped, it cannot respond to this intra-abdominal pressure, says Lara Kohn Thompson, who teaches at Kula and Bend & Bloom. “There’s pressure from upstairs when we breathe and when we move," she says. “It’s like a dance of diaphragms. They are interconnected."

When and for how long one ought to be engaging the pelvic floor is debated in the yoga world. In certain practices, like Ashtanga, we’re instructed to engage mula bandha throughout our practice. This makes sense when you are trying to maintain core stability during rigorous activity, another reason mula bandha is important. “It’s a way to preserve the back, to stabilize the spine," says Gallagher.

Often, some of the more superficial muscles of the lower back or abdomen jump in when we are looking for stability, which can overwork those muscles and lead to strain or postural problems, says Thompson. Finding stability from all of your deeper core muscles gives you a more solid foundation. It’s the difference between a building’s internal structural beams and its scaffolding.

But keeping the pelvic floor firing all the time is also problematic. Constantly gripping mula bandha can lead to sacroiliac pain because the back of the pelvis is in a position that can create a sheering force between the sacrum and the rest of the pelvis, says Gallagher. “If you are very strong and flexible, but have no awareness of the pelvic floor, that’s a problem."

Others believe properly positioning your pelvis is key in accessing mula bandha. FitzGordon says that finding a true mula bandha in which the line of energy runs from the base of the pelvis up the spine is only possible when the pelvis is in a neutral line. “Once you tuck your pelvis, mula bandha is gone," he says.

Still others believe engaging mula bandha is appropriate only after the body has been cleansed properly, removing toxins that develop from the cycles of digestion and metabolism.

While opinions in the yoga world may differ, what’s undisputable is that developing awareness of the pelvic floor is a critical first step in accessing mula bandha. “Strength requires motion. It’s the capacity to respond efficiently and with mobility," says Thompson. “It takes time to bring awareness to the body and mind."

-By Jane Porter