How to Build An Ashtanga Practice

mosaic ardha uttanasana.JPG

This video is an excellent example of the grace of the body practicing bandhas.

Session 3 - Bracing

At the center of an ashtanga practice is what is referred to as the holy trinity of breath, dhristi and bandhas.  I giggle when I type bandhas because it sometimes autocorrects to ‘badass.’  Most people and most yogis have never heard of bandhas because they are unique to ashtanga.  I should also add that Kundalini yoga has bandhas, and in my limited knowledge of that practice, I don’t believe they are exactly the same practice/technique.


Bandhas are “locks” created within the body to help convey energy. There are three classic bandhas:


Mula - Root Lock - toning the pelvic floor to covey energy from the roots of the body (the legs/feet) into the torso. This is the general location of the tail bone - the tip of the spine.

Uddiyana - Flying Up Belly - a bracing and lifting of the abdominals that picks energy up from the pelvic floor to convey it upward through the spine to the top of the chest and arms.

Jalandhara - Chin Lock - the lowering of the chin toward the chest to concentrate energy - like crimping a garden hose and opening the spine to the top of the skull to convey energy all the way up the spine from the tailbone to the energy that extends beyond the top of your skull.  The use of this bandha is more circumstantial than the other two.


Bandhas are a technique that you must practice consistently in order to become adept.  David Williams says it takes a good 10 years of consistently practicing with the bandhas to become good at maintaining them throughout the practice.  Bandhas are not held in savasana.


Natural bandhas occur when we breathe.  Take a seat and find the ‘tadasana’ blueprint of sitting.  Relax into awareness of your connection to your seat and your natural breath. Place your awareness in your pelvic floor. Notice the relationship between your breath and the pelvic floor.  You will start to subtly notice that there is a downward extension of the pelvic floor on the inhale and an upward lift on the exhale. 


When we apply the technique of engaging the bandhas - mula and uddiyana, it is basically contracting the pelvic floor like a kegel and then drawing your belly in and up toward the ribs.


Beginners grab for these energetics to hold and practice like a toddler holding it’s first crayon. As we become more familiar, it should become more subtle so we can find more ‘samasthitihi.’  Sarah Powers likens this more subtle approach as being fingertips touching a spider web (pelvic floor) and lifting it gently upward.  That has informed my practice of the bandhas for many years.


As a beginner or someone new to the ashtanga practice, I am going to say you should know that bandhas exist, but let’s first learn a more simplistic technique I’ll call ‘bracing.’


Bracing is when we gather and lift energy physically in the body.

Like anything else we do when we are new to a practice or technique, we do it brusquely to get the sense of the energy and the mechanics to perform it. As we become familiar with it, it should become more delicate and subtle.


I first heard the term bracing from my chiropractor. Bracing is very gym rat, but it gives us the picture of abdominal engagement to support the spine in lengthening and staying spacious for movement and strength.


Bracing took on a different meaning for me through my studies of OM Yoga with Cyndi Lee.  An instruction to lift the sternum gave me enlightenment that that simple instruction created the causes and conditions for subtle bracing - which to me is how Sarah Powers’ instruction of the spiderweb bandhas was meant to be felt and practiced.  Voila!


So bracing is a gathering and lifting on the inhale and a conveyance of energy on the exhale. Pumping energy into the gross body and every cell.


What does this do for you? It helps you become more even in your strength, stability and flexibility. It helps you hold the blueprint of alignment in your bones and tissues to support lengthening, loosening and moving with grace.  It supports the Feel Good and…bonus…practicing with this level of mindfulness keeps you present and safe in your practice.  It opens you to the truth of what is misaligned with your alignment, what is tender, tight or injured in your tissues and it keeps you out of the suffering mind of past and future.



The Mechanics of Bracing

Stand in Tadasana as instructed earlier in this series.


Place your awareness on your breath and open your awareness and body to the causes and conditions of Samasthitih.


Bring your index fingertip to the notch in your sternum.  On your next inhale, gather in and lift your sternum without opening your front ribs or backhanding (old dancer stuff).  Practice this for 5 - 10 full breaths. Tune into the subtle way your breath engages with your braced body.  Remember that as we practice anything, we need to be aware of what is too much and what is too little.  Notice where too much and too little exist as you do this exercise, so you will recognize it out in the wild.


When we practice bracing, we are protecting the integrity of the skeleton’s carriage and we are building the strength to support the spine in good alignment.


Add Ardha Uttanasana to your practice.  Ardha Uttanasana is a lift and lengthening of your spine from Uttanasana. In ashtanga, it is the preparation for the transition back to Chaturanga or Plank.


Start in Uttanasana from our previous lesson.  

  1. On an inhale, gather in lengthen your sternum to extend your spine forward and lift your head into neutral. You can cast your gaze forward from the neutral head position (in other words, don’t crane your neck to look forward).  


That’s it. It’s a pass through pose, but it sets up what comes right after. It gives you the strength and stability to move to the next pose.  What comes next in the sequence requires bracing. The flow of the sun salutations and the movement from pose to pose require stability so you can develop grace. When you become adept with bracing, your movements will become more relaxed, yet engaged. You will feel like you are in the flow of your practice, your breath and it will become more of a moving meditation.


Energetics of Bracing

When we are practicing bracing, emotionally, we are summoning our strength and courage to be present with what we are doing. We are facing the potential for growth.


You can take bracing off your mat in so many ways.  First and foremost, I recommend practicing bracing as you walk, stand and sit. You can’t slouch when you are bracing.  Practice it as much as you can and become familiar with it.  I also recommend bracing when you are facing something challenging. It will help you summon your energy and breath to rally you physically, mentally and emotionally.  I also strongly recommend bracing for anyone with issues of the spine and shoulders. It is a postural correction.  And I recommend that when you are heading into Savasana, that you find Tadasana and bracing on the last of your managed breaths to set yourself into a symmetry that allows your body to rest optimally. Let it go on an exhale and find your natural breath for rest.  


If you can practice bracing, I think you will find growth in your strength, balance and flexibility but most importantly, in your ability to be present in the details of being in this moment.