When I introduce the subjects of breath and bandha in my immersion and pranayama courses, I begin with a description of three different layers of internal feeling and experience to which we can attend and move from during practice. These three layers of our experience of posture and movement are body, breath and bandha. These layers are functionally intertwined and inseparable in their roles within the experience of the whole organism, so rather than thinking of them as separate “things”, I prefer to frame them as different perspectives or lenses from which we can view the whole of our experience of posture and movement.
We can consider different asanas and movement patterns as dynamic “forms” which we attempt to mould ourselves into. Backward bending, forward bending, twisting, inverted postures, etc. all have different types of shape or form. When a beginner to movement practice first attempts to perform asanas, he instinctively attempts to copy the forms that he sees with the form of his own body. For someone with little experience in consciously embodied movement, this layer of external form is the main layer of awareness from which he instinctively attempts to perform asanas. The external shape or form of the asana could be considered as the most superficial layer from which we can practice.
If we compare an asana to a building, this superficial layer is analogous to the shape and form of the building – whether it is low and flat like a strip mall, high and narrow like a tower, or elongated and curved like an arched bridge, etc. We can also note details such as whether the surface of the building is made of wood, concrete, metal, etc.
The asanas of a beginner can tend to look sloppy and unrefined when compared to those of an experienced practitioner. The beginners’ posture may resemble the general form of a particular asana; however he may also appear (and feel) strained and lacking in the fundamental qualities of stability and ease – or sukha and sthira – which an experienced practitioner of the same asana often exhibits. The beginner will also lack alignment, stamina and resilience. He may fatigue quickly and be unable to incorporate even minor adjustments in form without losing his balance and toppling over.
In contrast, the asanas of an experienced practitioner will hold the same general form as the asanas of the beginner, but he will exhibit (and feel) the added qualities of alignment, stability and ease. An adept practitioner will be able to sustain a longer practice or hold particular asanas for longer periods of time without excessively tiring. He will also have the resilience to change certain features and details of the posture if he is asked to, without losing the fundamental essence of the posture. The postures of the adept practitioner will look and feel “aligned, relaxed and resilient”, as rolfer Will Johnson describes in his book of the same title.
How does the progression from the unstable and strained forms of the beginner to the aligned, relaxed and resilient forms of the experienced and adept practitioner occur?
When a beginner applies the techniques of Ashtanga practice on a regular basis – especially the vinyasa system of moving body and breath in a co-ordinated and concentrated flow – he will eventually begin to experience the asanas from a deeper layer within himself than the external shape and form of the postures and movements. Over time, he may begin to feel like there is something that is supporting these external forms and movements of his body from a deeper place inside himself. He may begin to reduce emphasis on applying instructions and directions which originate from the outside intellect to the form of his body, and he may start to give precedence to an intuitive and embodied intelligence which guides and moves his body from the inside.
Some experienced practitioners say that this internal force or intelligence is the breath, and that at a certain stage of maturity in Ashtanga practice, the breath becomes the primary force in shaping and moving the body through the postures and vinyasas of the practice. There is certainly some validity in this statement, and the breath is the second layer from which we can perform and experience the asanas and vinyasas. The layer of breath is deeper and subtler than the superficial layer of external shape and form. For an experienced practitioner, the sound and sensation of the continuous flow of elongated, smooth and deep breath can pull him deeper inside himself and it becomes the most prominent feature of his embodied experience of the Ashtanga practice. At this stage in practice maturity, the superficial structural layers of the form of flesh and bone become more of an adjunct to the experience of the form of the breath.
An important discovery that some practitioners make at this layer of experience is that the breath does indeed have a shape and form to it, just as the external body has a shape and form to it. One important feature of the internal form of the breath is that when correctly applied, it remains relatively constant regardless of the variety of different external forms (such as backward bends, forward bends, twists, inverted postures, standing postures, supine postures) that the body can take in the practice. That is to say, regardless of the variation in external form of the body in the practice, the internal form of the breath should remain within one basic pattern. I call this form “the tree of breath,” and will return to it later.
Returning to our analogy of a building or structure, we can think of the layer of breath as the infrastructural elements, such as the main posts and beams, which support the external structure and form of a building. The infrastructure is usually not obviously visible in a finished building, but beneath the external layers, it is what supports and holds the entire building up.
We can continue to probe deeper into the forces which support and move us in the practice. Just as the internal form and movement of the breath supports the external form and movement of the body, some practitioners eventually discover that there is an even deeper layer which supports the form and movement of the breath. I call this the layer of bandha, and it is the deepest and subtlest layer from which we can experience and perform the forms and movement patterns of asanas and vinyasas.
In this particular context, I define bandha as the energetic dimension of our relationship with our environment. This vague and abstract definition will become clearer if we return to our analogy of a building: The effectiveness of the infrastructure of a building in supporting the form of the structure is highly dependent on how the infrastructure is arranged in relationship to the field of gravity and to the terrain of the earth that it is built upon. The way the structure of the building will relate to the earth below it and the space around it is the most important consideration to take into account when planning the construction of the building. I don’t know very much about architectural design, but as far as I understand, the features of the environment which the building is to be built within and how the building will relate to these features are the foundations of everything that comes afterwards in the planning process. A building which works with gravity in a constructive way will be strong and stable and more likely to withstand any kind of disturbance that it might encounter during its lifespan with minimal damage. An arched bridge that is built with effective distribution of natural forces from its center will be a bridge that is safe and stable to travel upon for many years.
Bandha is the energetic patterning which manifests in the way we move in relation to the earth below us and the space around us. This energetic movement occurs in both static asanas as well as dynamic movements of the body. When we practice in a state of embodiment and tangibly work with our relationship to the environment around us, bandha can be intuitively understood, and becomes the root and foundation of our entire practice experience. As embodied beings who are functionally and physiologically intertwined within – and inseparable from – the planet earth, this energetic relationship between self and environment is occurring every moment that we are alive. Formal practice is a place and space within which we can refine and cultivate the intricacies of that relationship to its maximum potential for harmonious exchange, but the actual relationship of energetic exchange between self and earth does not stop when formal practice stops. This fact can shed some light on K. Pattabhi Jois’ famous statement that mula bandha should be applied 24 hours a day.
The energetic form of bandha in our postures and movements can also be understood by examining how it manifests in trees. We tend to think of trees as static entities, but a significant amount of movement takes place as a tree communicates with and relates to its environment. We share more than half of our genes with trees and the common ancestor that we share with trees is relatively close on the phylogenetic map of life, as shown in diagram below. Though trees and humans have evolved some very different ways of relating to gravity on the planet earth, we also share some fundamental qualities, including the movement of bandha.
In order to see all of the movement patterns that a tree engages in, we would need to view it in time lapse, and also be able to see what is happening underneath the earth. We would also need to be able to see the chemical signals that trees exchange with one another and with animals and other forms of life. Trees form vast interconnected networks with their roots through underground fungal filament networks, which some modern ecologists have likened to the dendritic connections that are made between neurons in a mammalian brain. Trees also communicate with their peers, and with other life forms, by absorbing and releasing chemical signals through their leaves. This has led some ecologists to suggest that trees behave less like individual entities, and more like nodes in a vastly interconnected forest and planetary network. Trees are more like cells which contribute to the health and functionality of a whole forest organism, and their behaviour can be more appropriately understood when viewed from this perspective. Humans, as a part of the web of life, also have this degree of connectivity with our environment. Unfortunately, centuries of the Cartesian legacy of the illusion of separateness has led us to repress and ignore this fundamental aspect of human nature. Bandha can only be effectively understood and felt if we allow ourselves to drop into embodied sensitivity and to feel and move as if we are connected to and communicating with our environment as participants within a network of relationships within a greater whole.
The fundamental movement of bandha is a co-engaging of two complimentary or opposite qualities or movement patterns. In the present context, we can discuss the complimentary forces of dropping downwards into the earth, and of lifting upwards and expanding outwards, away from the earth.
The rooting force of dropping downwards into the ground is the part of the movement of the tree that we cannot see with our eyes. The germination of a seed actually begins with the sprouting and downwards movement of the root. The stalk which grows upwards towards the light and air doesn’t appear until after the root of the seed has already established itself. For a tree to have any degree of stability and reach its potential to expand and grow upwards and outwards, it must have space to grow downwards, penetrating ever more deeply into the earth. A tree which is kept in a pot or in a confined space where its roots have nowhere to grow, will never reach its potential to fully mature in its upwards and outwards expansion. A tree’s roots are powerful. The movement of the roots happens slowly, relative to our perception, but this movement is epic in deep time. The roots of trees can eventually crack and destroy rocks, concrete foundations of buildings, roads, and other structures which are located a surprising distance from the actual trunk of the tree. If all the humans on the planet earth died today, it is the roots of the trees which would immediately begin to spread and proliferate that would reduce all of the concrete structures of our civilizations to rubble within a few decades. These deep and powerful underground movements give trees the strength, stability and longevity that they are known for, and as previously mentioned this is also where the trees become physically connected with one another through their fungal “synapses”.
Humans also have the capacity to move downwards into the earth. Any action that a human wishes to perform will be executed more effectively and efficiently if the part of the body that is touching the ground first reaffirms and deepens its downwards movement into the ground prior to attempting to engage the actual lifting, pushing, pulling, or whatever the intended action is. Imagine you are standing beside a large boulder and wish to push it. You place your hands on the boulder, but before you start to push with the strength of your arms, you instinctively step back a little bit, bend your knees, and then you anchor yourself and press downwards into the earth with your feet, The earth responds to your gesture, and a reactionary force comes back up out of the earth, ripples through your entire body and you harness this force that is given to you from the earth and channel it through your arms and hands as you begin to push against the boulder. Imagine how much less effective your efforts to move the boulder would be if you didn’t make these initial rooting connections to the earth through your legs and feet. This rooting action, and the subsequent channeling and harnessing of the complimentary gesture from the earth is the essence of bandha: Bandha cannot be understood in this example without considering it as a function of our relationship to both the earth and the boulder.
Humans can also increase their sensitivity and connection to the rest of the web of life through the earth, just as trees do. Carl Jung is famous for having said: “It is quite possible that India is the real world, and that the white man lives in a madhouse of abstractions… Life in India has not yet withdrawn into the capsule of the head… It is still the whole body that lives. No wonder the European feels dreamlike: the complete life of India is something of which he merely dreams. When you walk with naked feet, how can you ever forget the earth?” I feel it is necessary to insert the caveat that this statement may have been true in Jung’s time, or in his idealized vision of the Indian culture. In my own experience, modern India is as much of an abstracted madhouse as the West. My reason for sharing the quote is that, irrespective of culture or geographic location, engaging with the ground through bare feet, in an embodied state of perceptive awareness, is the only way to actually feel our connection to the earth and to the rest of the web of life. Without this embodied feeling, there can be no connection. Modern scientific discoveries and ecological movements which emphasize the interconnectedness of all of life on the planet earth are important, but unless we cultivate the ability to feel these connections with our living breathing body, as animist cultures have always done, then there is no possibility of authentically feeling our relationship to the rest of life, and no possibility of feeling bandha. I once watched a world famous and celebrated ecologist speak at a public event. This man understands the nature of the web of life on planet earth as well as any other living human does – at an intellectual level. He has undoubtedly done very important work for the world and for encouraging humanity to understand our appropriate place in the world. Yet, when I watched him speak, as a yoga instructor I watched his body. His body was full of tension and was not connected to the ground beneath him at all. There was no bandha in his lived experience of the earth – at least while he was giving a public lecture.
Most modern humans are unaware of the extent of the loss of communicative skills that has occurred through our trajectory of disconnection from the earth over the last few millennia. The abstract technological universe, within which we communicate solely with other humans, has severed most of our reciprocal perceptual exchange with the more-than-human world. Though we are not able to escape our interdependence with the more-than-human earth, we operate under the illusion that we have done so, resulting in a great void and a profound lack of deeper meaning in life, not to mention the very real possibility of the collapse of all of the earth’s living systems, including our own human civilizations. The few remaining extant societies of indigenous humans have spoken about the ease and regularity with which they communicate with plants, other animals, dead ancestors, etc. Modern humans tend to disregard these tales as myths from a primitive and uniformed worldview, but for those who cultivate embodied sensitivity, the richness of the network of reciprocal perceptual exchange that is possible between the human and the more-than-human becomes apparent. To perceptually inhabit these pathways of exchange is a fundamental element in experiencing the essence of human nature.
Elephants are known to communicate with each other through seismic vibrations that are picked up through their feet. I recall reading about a study which found that elephants emit low frequency vocalizations, which other elephants can receive vibrationally through sensitive receptors in their feet – up to 10 km away! If such a massive and hulking animal can be capable of such sensitivity, there is little doubt that human beings can also be this sensitive, and that our ancestral human forest dwellers also communicated with their environment through their feet.
I attempt to keep my feet open to earth as much as possible. Living in a warm climate, it is natural to keep my feet bare and free of any footwear for most of the day. The only time I put on shoes is when I walk or drive outside. A few years ago, I began to wear vibram barefoot shoes, which allow one to retain a surprisingly large amount of tactile sensitivity with the ground. Once I became used to wearing this type of shoe, I found it very difficult to return to using regular soled shoes as the degree of tactile communication with the ground that is lost with conventional shoes becomes very apparent. Now, the only time I wear conventional shoes is when it is too cold for barefoot shoes, or if I am hiking with a backpack that weighs more than 10 – 15 kg. I’ve even considered attempting my next trekking expedition with a backpack in barefoot shoes. I’ve climbed all of the highest mountains of Bali in barefoot shoes, as well walked through numerous other challenging terrains. Why? Because I prefer to experience the connection of bandha as often as possible.
My first yoga instructor was an Iyengar teacher. He gave extremely effective training in the rooting foundation of posture, without ever using the term “bandha”. A good portion of the 3 – 4 hour classes were spent doing standing postures on thinly carpeted flooring without the use of sticky mats. Perhaps 50 times per class my teacher would emphatically tell us to “pound your heels into the ground.” And so, we learned how to connect to the ground with our feet. I spent over a year learning intensively with this teacher, and the instinctive ability to initiate all movements and forms of my body by pressing myself into the ground is something I have never lost. I’ve done my full Ashtanga practice without a sticky mat numerous times, as I have little need to use the sticky mat for traction. The main purpose of the mat is to provide some padding for rolling movements or movements where more sensitive parts of the body would become bruised by pressing hard against the ground. I had no idea that I was learning bandha in those early days of my practice. When I asked my teacher about the concept of bandha, he would smile and tell me “It’s happening, you just don’t know it yet.” Bandha begins with embodied movement into, and communication and exchange with, the earth beneath us.
The complimentary force in the tree shaped energetic patterning of bandha is upward lifting and outward spreading. This movement arises as a response to the downwards rooting force. We can think of it as the feedback that the earth gives to us when we communicate with it by dropping down into it. To understand how this force manifests, we can observe that the trunk of a tree lifts straight up out of the earth in alignment with the force of gravity for some distance, before the first branches appear and begin to spread outwards. Occasionally, we may find a tree with a split trunk, such that there are two main trunks which have split from the root trunk very close to the ground level. This can happen for a number of reasons, but trees which exhibit this feature are much less stable and doomed to a shorter lifespan in comparison to their “normal” peers who have a well-defined main trunk which grows upwards in harmony with gravity. There are two trees of the same species which stand on either side of the front door of my house here in Bali. One tree has been harvested by my landlord several times. He cuts the branches back very closely, and I believe it is for this reason that it has a split trunk. The other tree has never been harvested (to my knowledge), and its trunk is much stronger and more stable than that of its sibling. Sometimes, after a torrential rain, these trees become weighed down and bent beneath the weight of the water that has accumulated on them. The tree with the split trunk becomes much more deviated from its usual growing pattern after the heavy rainfall, and takes longer to return to its usual pattern thereafter, compared to the tree with the stronger trunk. It is clear to me which tree has stronger bandha. Other animals have made the same observations about these two trees. There is a lineage of white rumped munia birds which nest in the stronger tree every year that I have lived here. These birds always choose the tree which has the more developed bandha to build their nest in.
Trees with a stable midline – that is to say, a strong and well aligned trunk, also have much greater capacity to spread their branches and leaves outwards in all directions. Supported by the stability of the main trunk, the branches can elongate and reach much further outwards without compromising the overall stability of the tree.
I’ve already spoken about the mobility of trees through the growth and connections of their roots beneath the earth. This mobility is also apparent above the ground. Over deep time, trees can grow in whichever direction and orientation will best serve them in their quest to absorb maximal sunlight through their leaves for photosynthesis. When sunlight conditions change, the growth patterns and orientations of trees change in response. Different species of trees living together in a forest also cooperate in various ways to allow each other to capture all niches available for sunlight absorption.
A minimal amount of breeze can be enough to excite all of the leaves on a tree and even cause the thickest branches of a large tree to sway back and forth lazily. In the event of a great storm with gale force winds, the branches and upper trunk of a tree exhibit a huge range of motion and will bend in harmony with the wind, without resisting the extreme forces that assail them. These movements of the branches and trunk of a tree always look very relaxed to me. The tree is so confident in the rooting aspect of its bandha, that it has no fear or need to hold rigidity in its branches and leaves. Rather, the tree understands that allowing relaxed and resilient movement in the peripheral parts of its structure is the path of least resistance and greatest harmony in its relationship with its environment.
Humans can also manifest the lifting and spreading aspect of bandha in a way that is similar to trees. Once we have established a firm and sensitive rooting movement into the earth, we can harness the force of gravity and allow the complimentary lifting and spreading action to move through the rest of our body. “Harnessing” and “allowing” are terms that I have selected carefully. Bandha is not an active gripping or clenching of the muscles around the pelvis or lower belly. Many practitioners who have been erroneously taught to do so are not experiencing bandha at all. By attempting to clench abdominal and pelvic muscles without actively soliciting an embodied relationship with the ground and with gravity, these practitioners generate excessive tension which inhibits their ability to harness and allow the energy of the earth to flow freely through their bodies. The result is a state of tension and disconnection, rather than a state of bandha.
Just as a tree seems to relax and allow the wind to move its branches freely, relaxation and release is necessary for humans to allow the force of the earth to manifest to its full potential and move through us uninhibitedly. Once we have effectively “plugged in” to the energy source of gravity by rooting into the earth, we then must cultivate conducive receptive space for this energetic response from the earth to move through us. When we succeed in this, we can manifest movement patterns which are both rooted, stable and powerful, and yet relaxed, resilient and expansive. In this state, we are in the most harmonious and balanced possible relationship that we can have with the earth beneath us and the force of gravity around us. This represents a state of engaged bandha.
Effectively engaged bandha feels effortless, intuitive and meditative. When we cultivate embodiment and give authority to the intuitive animal intelligence within our soma, we experientially understand that the essence of posture and movement is that of reciprocal and active relationship with nature. When practicing from the layer of bandha, the sensations and embodied feelings associated with the “central axis” or “midline” of the body communicate reciprocally with the field of the earth and these sensations become a meditative focal point which can be carried through all of the postures and vinyasas of our practice. If we are able to feel the dropping and rooting force actively co-ordinating with the lifting and spreading force through the central axis of the body, and this “core alignment” is being actively solicited in every posture and vinyasa movement that we place our body and breath into, then we are successfully holding the form of bandha in place throughout our practice.
Allow me to emphasize again that “holding bandha” has very little to do with holding the anus, pelvic floor or lower abdominal muscles in an engaged state. One might ask why these particular muscle groups are so often associated with bandha? It is because when we do harmonize our midline with gravity and activate the tree shaped energetic pattern of balanced rooting/dropping and lifting/spreading movements, some of these “core” muscles will naturally and instinctively respond to this energetic patterning and alignment. The muscular engagement is a product of the energetic alignment of bandha. The muscular engagement is not the cause of bandha. This is an important distinction to understand.
I generally encourage practitioners to focus less on the science of anatomy and physiology in their yoga practice, and more on phenomenological and embodied feeling. Focusing on anatomy and physiology in isolation of engaged relationship tends to lock one into the illusion of a separate self and results in one becoming trapped in the labyrinth of abstracted mirrors which the modern human race is lost within. Moving in phenomenological and embodied relationship with the earth is something that our species has been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, and something that the ancestral lineage to our species has been doing for millions of years. I have little doubt that our hunter gatherer ancestors moved through the forests and savannahs intuitively, as if the environment was an extension of their own bodies, and were more skilled at movement than most of us are today. I am also sure that healing from injuries was an equally intuitive process which they were also skilled at. Needless to say, intellectual study of anatomy was not a part of this paradigm. Embodied sensitivity and felt relationship with one’s environment provides the vast majority of the confidence, sensitivity and experiential understanding necessary to work with bandha, and to move safely and efficiently. The majority of injuries do not arise from a lack of knowledge in the field of anatomy and physiology. They arise from a lack of embodied sensitivity and focus in one’s bodily attunement with the environment.
The tree shaped movement pattern of the layer of bandha also manifests in the layers of breath and external body.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, the three layers of bandha, breath and body are not functionally separate from each other. The form of the tree should be consciously cultivated from all three layers simultaneously. I think of the relationship between bandha, breath and body like the concentric rings in the trunk of a tree. Bandha represents the innermost layer of rings, breath the middle layers of rings and the body the outermost layer of rings. Although it is possible to identify these three layers of rings as distinctly separate things, it is meaningless to think of them as being able to function separately from one other. All three layers of rings are part of the structure, form and movement patterns of the tree.
In the tree-shaped breathing we use during Ashtanga practice, the exhalation represents the downwards movement of the roots of the tree probing into the earth. In this context, the earth is our pelvis and we apply an intentional force to push the exhalation down into the bowl of the pelvis, or into the earth. In a refined breathing practice, this downwards push is not aggressive. It is subtle, yet powerful. It is possible to have power without aggression. It is also elongated. Think again of the roots of a tree, elongating in deep time down into the ground at their glacial pace, and yet with enough strength to gradually crack and move through concrete or rocks. A fully developed exhalation similarly pushes its way through all of the layers of tension and blockage in the belly and pelvis, opening them up, until it eventually connects into the floor of the pelvis itself.
The inhale begins where the exhale finishes, and represents the lifting and spreading pattern of the trunk and branches of the tree. As previously discussed, most tree trunks grow directly upwards, away from the earth for some distance, before the first branches start reaching outwards to the sides. In this context, we can think of the lifting movement of the inhale up and out of the pelvis and through the lumbar spine/abdominal region as representing this straight part of the tree trunk; and we can think of spreading of the breath through the thoracic area, including ribs and shoulder girdle as representing the spreading branches of the tree. In Ashtanga practice, when we begin inhaling upwards from the bowl of the pelvis, we do not breathe outwards into the belly. Instead, we draw the breath straight up through the lower abdominal cavity, until we reach the upper abdominal and diaphragm area. At this stage, we allow the breath to spread outwards through the entire rib cage as it continues its journey upwards. An adept breathing practitioner will eventually be able to lift and spread the inhale through the entirety of the rib cage, including the front, back and sides – all the way up to the sternum and along the width of the collarbones at the front, up to the top of the thoracic spine and between the scapula at the back, and into the armpits at the sides.
When we apply the tree form to our breathing in this way, we sometimes find that the lower part of the abdomen does stay drawn gently inwards, due to a natural negative pressure that is generated in the abdominal cavity. Once more, I will emphasize that this negative abdominal pressure is not due to a conscious and rigid tensing of the abdominal muscles. Just as actively gripping these muscles will inhibit the free flow of energy in the state of bandha from manifesting, it will also inhibit the free flow of breath from manifesting. Sharath Jois says that we should apply “free breathing with sound” to our practice. I have also heard him define bandha as meaning “to lift up.” Sucking in and holding the abdomen muscularly will not contribute to free breathing or to lifting up. When we are able to find relaxed and natural alignment with gravity and we can breathe freely from the roots of the floor of the pelvis to the tips of the branches at the outer reaches of the upper ribs then a natural negative pressure manifests in the abdominal cavity and “lifting up” happens naturally and with relatively minimal effort.
Finally, we can return to the layer of external structure and form of the body. We can examine samasthiti as a basic example of how the form of the tree manifests at this layer of our practice experience. In my immersion and pranayama courses, I like to do a simple but effective exercise to demonstrate this: Standing in samasthiti, a partner comes behind us and uses his hands to press down on the tops of our iliac bones, with a fair amount of force. This usually feels pleasantly “grounding”, and allows us to feel the downwards rooting aspect of our posture. This downwards movement begins from the bones of the pelvis, and moves down through the bones of the legs and feet and into the earth. A second partner then rests his hand lightly on the crown of our head. We can then attempt to actively channel the energetic response of the earth from the downwards pressure being placed on our pelvic bones into an upwards growth and expansion through our central axis, spine and rib cage. When we succeed in this, we are able to lift straight upwards through the crown of our head. Our second partner will actually feel the top of our head growing upwards into his hand. During this exercise, most students find that they can tangibly feel the structure of their body growing taller.
If we learn how to engage with gravity and the earth through the three layers of bandha, breath and body in every asana and vinyasa of our practice, we actually will grow taller over time. I spent 4 years away from my native Canada when I began my yoga practice in India in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. When I finally returned home, my friends and family who had not seen me during those years all commented that I had grown taller. Though I did not understand it as such at the time, this was due to long term cultivation of the pattern and form of bandha in the structure of my body.
We can examine the tree shaped movement pattern of the external body in any other posture or vinyasa movement that we choose to engage with. Utpluthi can serve as another example: When I give instructions for this posture at the end of a led primary series class, the first thing I say is: “Place your hands on the ground and connect deeply with the earth.” Then, I say: “Press down and lift up.” It is the same principle as in samasthiti. Lifting up cannot happen effectively unless pressing down happens first. Utpluthi is a strenuous posture, but it is most effectively and least strenuously performed by working primarily with our energetic relationship with the earth, rather than muscular gripping. When I am holding utpluthi for a longer count and I begin to tire, the first thing I do to recharge the dynamic process is re-establish the contact of my hands with the ground, and press down more. When I do this, my pelvis and torso immediately lighten and lift up higher with less effort. There is no conscious clenching of my belly or pelvis in this application of bandha. While the core muscles in that area certainly do engage, this engaging is a natural by-product of the cultivated relationship patterns between my body and breath and the earth. Lifting up to jump back to chaturanga dandasana from a seated posture follows identical principles.
To experientially understand the tree shaped movement in bandha, breath and body, it is necessary to work with our reciprocal relationship with our environment from an embodied, phenomenological place of tactile feeling and sensation. Every gesture and movement of body and breath generates a response from the ground and from the space around us, and we need to be receptive and sensitive enough to feel that response from the earth. When we are able to accept, feel and transmit this response through our own body and breath, this informs the next gesture and movement that we make. This reciprocal feedback loop between the self and the environment builds up in intensity and focus over the duration of our practice as body, breath, bandha and earth become intertwined in an inseparable web of reciprocal communication and exchange. The vinyasa system of co-ordinated and concentrated flowing movements of body and breath is one of the unique features of the Ashtanga practice, and is indispensable in order to experience bandha in this way. In a deep experience of bandha, the boundaries between self and environment – body and earth – begin to dissolve, and we begin to experientially understand the fundamental truth that we are not separate from our environment. We begin to identify less with the abstracted, isolated conception and experience of self and more with the felt reality of an embodied organic organism embedded within a rich web of relationships of reciprocal exchange that is the whole of the living, breathing earth.
Thank you to Allen Enrique for the “made to order” drawings.
Thank you to Clayton Loizou for helpful editing and suggestions about the article.
Thank you to Richard Powers, whose novel “The Overstory” provided inspiration for me to finally translate some of the concepts and ideas that I have been carrying into words on a screen.