Friday, 28 September 2012

Mula bandha, forward bends and achieving the perfect posture

Since I've found (at least one layer of)  mula bandha, questions keep arising.

I've always been told that in forward bends one should keep the back as straight as possible so as to lengthen the spine (fine) and so to not jeopardise the lumbar discs (makes sense). Yet, I came across an article by bandha yoga on degenerative disc disease and the sushumna nadis. Below is an extract form the post..

"let’s look at some widely circulated information on forward bends that seems to imply that forward bends in yoga cause disc herniations. It begins with a graphic description of lumbar disc herniations; however, absent from this description is any mention of the fact that most of us have asymptomatic disc herniations anyway. Also absent is any real evidence that yoga forward bends cause disc herniations. (My preliminary analysis of the data on ER visits for injuries from yoga did not reveal one herniation caused by yoga). Nevertheless, those circulating this information know that they can cause anxiety by implying that forward bends harm the discs. So far so good: a problem is presented, and a reaction (anxiety) is caused. All that’s left is the solution. The solution that has been circulated is to perform forward bends while sitting on a stack of blankets with the knees bent over a bolster, using the weight of the body to slump into the pose. While this is excellent preparation for sitting in a chair (or on a couch), it is almost unrecognizable from a yoga forward bend. Furthermore, the “slumped” posture has been shown to increase the pressures in the lumbar intervertebral discs, potentially harming them. 

Practising (and teaching) in this manner also establishes a “fear-avoidance” behavioral pattern, whereby the practitioner becomes habituated to doing the pose this way. The “solution” to the fear based “problem” thus creates a vicious cycle that disempowers the practitioner on both psychological and physical levels. This pattern of graphic descriptions of herniated discs and forward bends has been circulated several times in the media, (including with instructions to avoid using the protective and empowering mechanisms described in our previous post on the thoracolumbar complex).

So, to recap, we have all of the elements of “Problem, Reaction, Solution,” but all of them are based on a false premise: the implication that yoga causes a core problem (herniated discs). This is a well-known disinformation technique: imply that the problem was caused by the potential solution.'

I love the daily bandha and the information and tips Ray et al have given over the past few years have had a profound impact upon my practice. However, this post and my recent explorations into mula bandha have made me question the teaching of forward bends within the context of the 500 hour yoga TT course I'm doing. I also found this post by House of Ashtanga on forward bends and found this extract very interesting..

'During a forward bend, the upper body is flexed forward with the backs of the legs and the back muscles being stretched. Anatomically, most of the movement in a forward bend takes place in the hips and the lumbar region, that is the lower back area above the sacrum, as well as the sacral region of the spine. The traditional and originally taught method of forward-bending by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is to simply fold forward, relax the head, round the back, tuck the tail bone in and avoid flaring the sit-bones up and away. This makes engaging mula bandha and uddiyana bandha possible and is a perfect example of how ashtanga yoga is more about integrating the energy (into the mula/uddiyana region) rather than ‘spacing-out’ and dispersing the flow of energy. The straight-back (flat-back) approach makes engaging mula bandha and uddiyana bandha almost impossible and has a certain disconnective effect.'

The feeling I get in the lower back when I do a forward bend now I'm engaging mula bandha is one which originates at the coccyx and lengthens through the SI joint and through the lumbar spine. It creates a feeling of rounding the lower back, but although I have not taken a photo of my new-found forward bend, it feels as if the rest of the spine is relatively straight. Well, I have my head to my shin, so it must be!! I've attached the link to the full blog post from House of Ashtanga below. Really interesting.

So these two posts got me thinking... Is the western way of teaching forward bends removing the potential for students to ever achieve a full fold? If mula bandha can only be truly engaged when there is a slight rounding of the back, then is this manner of teaching preventing students from ever finding mula bandha? There is also the question of ego here. The western way sometimes appears to be all about how a pose looks; you must keep the back completely straight, legs straight, no rounding or bending etc. But is this just so postures look nice? I've read people slagging off the postures on the practice sheets of Sharath, but when you look at the photos of Pattabhi Jois, they're a mirror image of Sharaths!! 

Are western teachers going to far with health and safety to the detriment of students' practices?


  1. Nice post, Micqui. You certainly are thinking a lot about mula bandha and forward bends and related stuff. I can feel it in your writing :-)

    I also read that bandha yoga article recently, and agree with much of what is said there. I think paying attention to healthy alignment is a good thing, but there seems to be too much of a climate of fear in much of the yoga world about doing anything that might look even a little less than perfect, alignment-wise. Which gives rise to the "Problem, Reaction, Solution" dynamic, which is ultimately based on a fundamental attitude of fear. Which, honestly, strikes me as being rather unyogic.

    In any case, the idea of a "perfect forward bend" in which the back is totally straight/flat is actually a myth: Even Mr Iyengar's Paschimottanasana in Light on Yoga doesn't look anything like this! Maybe there is some Yoga Journal model out there who looks like this in Paschi, but well, it's Yoga Journal, right?

    Anyway, the whole preoccupation with achieving a "perfectly-aligned flat back" has given rise to such funny instructions as "try to achieve a backbend in a forward bend".

    I think the cool thing about Ashtanga is that we try to work from the "inside out", so to speak: Take care of the bandhas and breath, and the outside will take care of itself, flat back or no.

    But I'm probably being very biased here; as you know, I call myself an Ashtanga Fundamentalist...

    1. Thanks for your comments Nobel! Yeh, I love the way some say it's got to look like this, like that... and you try it for years that way, then suddenly you change your pattern of behaviour and you can do it. Kino does a little vid on how to achieve straight legs in navasana (my nemesis). She says 'keep your feet at eye level', but whilst she's saying this her feet are about a foot above her head! I love it!

  2. I love your write from your experience and not something you read or where told or learned in a workshop. It is really inspiring.
    This is such a great insight. I have struggled to get my back straight in Paschimottanasana and Nobel is correct, BKS Iyengar has a rounded back in his asana as does Sharath in forward bends.
    Any tips for engaging Mula Bandha in prasarita padottanasana? Not that I feel like I have found Mula Bandh, its still at a I-hope-this-is-it-stage.

    1. Thanks Rani! My teacher tells a story of one day in a forward bend his teacher comes and says, 'why are you striving so much? Where do you think you are going to be able to go?' (I think he must have been all tense and pulling at his feet and such!) But In forward bends there's only a finite amount of space to go, right?! I love that story.

      Prasarita posture I'm just getting my head to the floor on. I've been meaning to do a post on it. I've realised that a lot of it is in the weight distribution across the feet. So even if your weight is only ever so slightly more in the heels you will find it difficult to get all the way down. It's scary coming forward. But there's a nice adjustment my teacher does in Prasa C where he puts his leg/calf against my back in between the arms and then I literally lean into him and let go and the arms release and the hands go to the floor. Over time (for me its been a year) you can work out the distribution of weight across the feet and lose the fear. It's all about losing the fear! Thanks again :)

  3. great post micqui! as i first learned vinyasa style, i received a lot of alignment instruction in forward bends, along the lines of keeping the back flat almost at the expense of everything else. now i am working on unlearning some of this stuff, and listening to my body more. I even thought i had hamstring attachment injuries which made me completely fear forward bending for over a year, and arose again when i started practicing ashtanga.

    when grimmly posted those darby videos on janu..i experimented with changing my seated forward postures so that my forehead, rather than my nose, touched my knee. lo and behold..i could sometimes feel more internally in the posture. long long way to go, but reading this makes me feel like i am on the right track at least.