Unless you've had problems with it, you probably haven't given much thought to your pelvic floor. If you're a man, you might not even realise you have one! Yet this hammock-like muscular structure is responsible for stabilising the pelvis and supporting its organs, as well as for bladder and bowel control, and healthy sexual functioning.
Consisting of 16 intersecting muscles, the pelvic floor connects at the four 'corners' of the pelvis, hanging crossways between the sitting bones and front-to-back between the pubic bone and tailbone. When we inhale, the pelvic floor moves down to make space in the lower abdomen for the diaphragm to lower as the lungs inflate; while, on the outbreath, it rises up in synch with the diaphragm, helping to expel air from the lungs.
The two sets of pelvic muscles – side to side and front to back – work in tandem, and it's these complementary actions which make up what's known in Sanskrit as mula bandha.
In yoga, bandhas are mechanisms used to direct or control the flow of prana, or energy, around the body. The literal translation of bandha is 'lock' or 'hold', while mula means 'root'. In mula bandha ('root lock'), the pelvic floor muscles are engaged so as to direct the flow of energy upwards through the body. The physical effect is to support the abdominal organs (such as the bladder, bowel, uterus, vagina, prostate and rectum) and stabilise the pelvis (reducing strain on the lower back).
The action is similar to the Kegel exercises familiar to women who have given birth, but with a focus on promoting softness as well as strength. While, with Kegels, women are typically told to 'squeeze as if interrupting the flow of urine', this can cause the pelvic floor muscles to tighten and shorten, making them weaker and less flexible. So, just as in asana practice (the practice of yoga poses), there is a need to soften as well as strengthen the area.
One way of performing mula bandha is to visualise the sets of muscles drawing together like the doors of a lift. First focus on the muscles running across the pelvis, between the sitting bones. Inhale, then, on the exhalation, imagine moving the muscles in towards each other; take the 'lift' up a floor; then release. Repeat with the muscles which sit between the front and back of the pelvis, 'closing the lift doors' on the outbreath, moving up a floor, and releasing. Finally, pull the muscles together from all four corners of the pelvis at once, like closing a drawstring bag. Again, lift up. Then let go. Aim to do five rounds, two or three times a week.
Mula bandha can be practised on its own or during asanas (yoga poses). Many poses that work the abdominals, such as Phalakasana (Plank Pose) and Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose), become more effective – and stable – when mula bandha is employed. It can also be used in poses such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Face Dog), Setu Bandhasana (Bridge) and Anjaneyasana (Crescent Moon Pose) to bring added steadiness to the pelvis, protecting the lower back. Other poses which work well with mula bandha include Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Utkatasana (Mighty Pose), Malasana (Garland) and Bitilasana-Marjareyasna (Cow-Cat).
Activate mula bandha on an exhalation and maintain the 'lock' while you continue to breath normally in the pose. See if you can feel an added engagement in the pelvic floor and lower abdomen, and an extra solidity in the pose. Remember not to force. Stay soft in your strength, and let your breath flow, even while you hold the bandha.
Practise regularly , on and off the mat. Your pelvic floor – and organs – will thank you for it...