Part of the joy of being a beginner yogi is listening to the rolling prattle of Sanskrit fluidly undulating off of the tongue of the instructor. For some time, these words can seem meaningless yet their smooth sound has a soothing effect. As practice progresses, these words begin to be associated with certain postures then eventually specific parts of the body, directions, and even names of animals. One of the Sanskrit phrases that confused me thoroughly the first ten or so times I heard it was “uddiyana bandha” (ooo-dee-YAH-na BAHN-da). It always made me smile a little to hear it, and usually seemed to come at an intense moment of the class. Before I understood what it meant I would wonder why it came with such emphasis and seriousness.
Uddiyana can be translated as “upward flying” and bandha as “lock”. The lock is located in the lower abdomen about three fingers below your navel; it is a band of muscle between your two hipbones. This space can be engaged in a full range of ways, in such a way that it feels slightly firm, or even intensely engaged, drawing the belly into such an extreme that it is visibly pulled up and under the ribcage. For asana, we work towards something in the middle, as a start. For pranayama, we reach towards the more extremely engaged end of the spectrum.
To engage uddiyana, pull the low belly in and up towards your spine. For many, it takes awhile before you can even begin to recognize that it’s there. There are several things you can try in order to find it. First, lay on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Take your hands to your belly at your hip bones and begin to press the arch of your lower back towards the floor. While you will not actually lose that space between the back and the floor, you likely will feel your belly begin to engage. If this doesn’t work, stay on your back and stretch your legs out on the floor in front of you. Try to lift your heels an inch off the ground. This is a surefire way to notice your lower abdominal lock.
This feeling of a strong and engaged core is what you should be striving for in most of your yoga postures. Ultimately, you want to work to keep uddiyana bandha engaged throughout the entire class and beyond if you can. This lock stabilizes the body by aligning the hips and spine, drawing strength from the center rather than the extremities. This will build more power at the core for the body to draw from, while also decreasing the potential for injury in the hip and shoulder girdles, as well as in the outer limbs. Once the core becomes strong and a part of practice, it makes a multitude of postures easier and more accessible. Tackling that sirsasana (headstand) or bakasana (crane pose) starts to feel achievable, or lightly jumping back to chaturanga (low plank) and up into handstand becomes a sudden possibility. Basic postures like tadasana (mountain pose) and trikonasana (triangle pose) feel more natural and stable. Balance takes on a whole new meaning when you bring your focus and strength to the center line of the body rather than working to steady the limbs. A stable and strong virabhadrasana III (warrior 3) or ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) are attained and realized further with this lock. Applying uddiyana bandha incorporates a certain grace and agility, an ‘upward’ lift to all postures, as well as to the space in between them.
There are also more internal benefits to this lock. It is said to keep the digestive organs clear and moving, and it helps to keep the flow of energy sealed inside the body, building prana (life force) and heat while assisting in the removal of impurities within (tapasia). According to ancient yogis the solar plexus, or Manipura Chakra, is the seat of fire within our physical and psychic systems. The lower chakras are the energy centers of many vital functions and health issues within the physical body. Keeping this part of the body active and working prevents lower back problems and promotes healthy adrenal glands while improving kidney, bladder, and liver function, taking the benefits deeper within. Uddiyana is another example of how yoga has benefits that we don’t even realize are there during our practice—we can’t visibly see the results or even feel them physically, but over time they can make a difference in longevity and health just beyond our realm of tangibility.
When uddiyana becomes engaged, it is difficult to understand what to do with the breath at first. Naturally, our breath moves down into our diaphragm, causing it to drop and the lower belly to push out. Keeping uddiyana locked requires effort on the part of the yogi to keep the breath above the belly, filling the lungs and ribcage more fully instead. Almost automatically, ujjayi breath is activated, which is an audible sounding breath swirling around in the back of the throat. In addition to building focus and concentration on the breath’s sound, ujjayi is a powerful pranayama that heats the body and stimulates the flow of blood, increasing your circulation as well as your metabolism. Taking in more air also oxygenates the blood, which keeps the blood healthy and more resistant to disease.
I have students who grimace every time we take navasana (boat pose) in class. When a student requests core you can hear the others in the room groan with disapproval. One of my dearest friends just lays on her back or takes a child’s pose whenever core work is happening in class. There seems to be a misconception that yoga is supposed to be easy. While nurturing and providing an outlet for stress release, relaxation, stretching, and opening, yoga is not easy. If we ignore our core muscles, we will likely end up imbalanced and with a higher risk of injuring ourselves. We cannot rely on our limbs for strength for we will wear on our joints and tear on our tendons. While core strength has the benefit of a slimmer waistline, it also holds the rest of our body together. With this in mind, strive towards rejoicing in core strengthening postures. Resist your resistance! Feel the intensity of the body building strength, the heat inside building, the sweat forming across the brow. Acknowledge that this effort will not go unnoticed or be in vain, but will rather build towards a safer and stronger practice. Also know that in a few short breaths, you will be granted rest.
As you begin to notice your body acclimating to yoga and asana practice, you might find yourself correcting your posture as you stand over the sink or taking a deep breath when you feel tension forming in your psychic system. These are good and right efforts that will bring a certain element of comfort and joy over time. Similarly, try to incorporate uddiyana into your daily life. When you are doing heavy lifting, bending over, or reaching, pull in on your lower belly lock while keeping your spine straight. While in the garden weeding on your knees, draw the shoulders down and belly button up. Keep your energy centered, protect yourself from injury and celebrate your strength, awareness, and diligence. Uddiyana is just another way to get closer to all that is within us.
By Shanti Caiazzo