Reframing the "Bandhas"
I come from a lineage of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga which is not as commonly known as the very famous Pattabhi Jois School, whose rapid spread gave rise to much of the yoga we practice here in the west today. Yet the methodology is very similar--a set of simple principles to be practiced with diligence. The simplicity of the practice can, with time, lead a practitioner through layers and layers of meaning and understanding of who and what we are. It becomes a very personal and profound journey.
One of these foundational principles is known as Bandhas, loosely translated as "locks." Many of us are taught to focus on three of these very important areas as centers of stability and graceful movement: roughly a low, middle and upper lock all existing in the trunk of the body.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding exactly what it means to "engage your bandhas." I've worked with many approaches over the years and have found some to be helpful. But at one point, I heard a certain phrase used by my teacher that sparked an incredible evolution in the way I approach my entire practice. He was not speaking on Bandhas, or even on physical practice at all, but rather was leading us into meditation.
"The Sky of the Heart...."
I remember feeling an incredible expansion in my chest. I sat up straighter, I felt life force charging me from the bottom up and the top down. That night I dreamed I was laughing, just laughing all night long. I woke up refreshed, lighter. It occurred to me later that there is a feeling I have been running from my entire life there--that feeling that perhaps my little heart is unable, is too small, to hold the grief that I had been asked to hold. I have fought and fought to find space for the good things in there, when the dark and monstrous wounds seem to take up so much, like many of us. But when I heard my chest--my "heart space"-- referred to as the infinite sky, I realized that of course it was big enough, that eternal space can hold it, it can hold all of it.
From that practice on, I have drastically changed the way I move in asana, and how I sit in meditation--and it is all about space: how to create it and how to preserve it.
"The lock is still..."
What exactly does a lock do, and what are its qualities? Much has been said about the intentional reversal of energy flow by using bandhas, what I'm speaking of here is the more subtle aspect of how a lock is "engaged." A strong muscular engagement is not actually still, it is pulsing with activity. To me, a lock is something that is unmoving. Sometimes I see a student become so tense to the point of trembling when I ask them to "engage" something. Trembling is an extremely high level of activity, the opposite of stillness.
My previous approaches to tensing in the regions of the bandhas, pelvic bowl, solar plexus and chin/sternum, did not lead to freedom in my practice. When I started to think of these areas as critical regions of space--regions inside of which magical things happened if only I could protect their boundary--the activation in my physical body became outwardly expanding, incredibly strong and most importantly, it felt amazing. Once I started experiencing the benefits, I started translating my experience with the concept of sky in my chest, into a relationship with the space within my pelvis.
The Sky of the Heart holds the love and the grief. The Subterranean Space holds the power and the fear. The bigger we make it, the smaller the oscillation between these opposing principles becomes.
The moment I started practicing with my emphasis on preserving the space around my lungs and heart, I immediately started noticing a difference in the way my legs felt too. Something felt more grounded, and I began to have the experience of space within my pelvic bowl as well. I applied the principles that had given me so much strength and freedom in my upper body, to my lower body. I spread down into the soles of my feet, I spread sits bones and moved thigh bones straight away from each other, I pulled my navel up and away from the interior. I started imagining the space in my pelvic bowl as being completely empty, completely still. Today when I practice, I feel fixed like a mountain in my standing postures, and I see that the lowest lock/space is the foundation for the expansion of the heart.
I found two things by bringing awareness into the still subterranean space. Power. Incredible ease in postures I had always struggled with. I felt vital, charged, graceful. Oh yeah, and I found a bunch of fear. Lots of it. There in the pelvic bowl, at the place just in front of the sacrum (the holy bone) the place of our origins, is a subterranean world of incredible forces. As I create more and more space, as I condition my physical and energetic body to protect a feeling of freedom, I am developing a practice of alchemy, of reframing my fear, my fundamental unknowing, into just another movement in this huge, all embracing space.
The space is safety. It is the arms of the Mother. So when I move my body, when I come to my physical and spiritual practice, I am now coming with the simple intention of precise breathing, in and out, oscillating around an ever-expanding, utterly still space. The rest is details.
Living in the flowing field
Reading about space, talking and writing and thinking endlessly about correct technique, will only bring us so far. However, intellectually understanding that perhaps there are centers of great importance, of great emptiness within us is not useless--that chain of thoughts might end up with us as we stand at the front of our mats before we begin, and lead us into an authentic and direct experience of what I am pointing to in this writing. I hope it will be so.
The last thing I wish to share, to encourage any who read this with, is a reminder that we are living in the flowing field of forces. We are being pushed and pulled and dragged from all sides. Any of you who are over the age of say, 25, understand that this world is trying to break your heart, and it is not an easy task to keep your heart open after trauma, grief, loss, betrayal or disappointment. We all experience these things. We all see and know the dear souls who have been twisted into a small, angry version of themselves. They are not weak, they are normal. It takes incredible, incredible fortitude to continue to create the space within yourself to experience peace. You have to try. You have to try every day. I encourage you to try to expand these spaces every time you practice; become stronger; use your physical body to bring conditioning to the more subtle regions of yourself. Let your poses develop from the interior space, not from the oppressive outer "ideal."
And finally, find the support to keep trying in the spaces that are held for that purpose, in community. The space of the yoga Shala, the practice room. Its here for us to discover ourselves. When we come together in community to practice, we preserve the boundary of that space, and I am in deep gratitude for all of you who hold it open for all of us. May all beings find what they are looking for. A deep and heartfelt thank you to my teacher, Robert Boustany, for inspiring so much growth and freedom within my practice. Hari Om!
About the Author
Kelly O'Roke is owner and steward of Om Shala Yoga in Arcata, CA. Teaching from a breath-centered approach to systematic vinyasa yoga practice in the lineage of Sri. BNS Iyengar, she believes that yoga is an experiential, shamanistic practice which can be utilized and individualized by anyone to bring greater freedom, healing, and meaning to their lives. She teachers guided group sequences Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30pm and Sunday evenings at 5pm.