Mula Bandha is the spontaneous gathering and rising of the subtle breath from the pelvic floor to the crown of the head. This auspicious movement is said to open the central channel of the body, clearing away condensed memory and emotion, and restoring consciousness to the original wholeness that we enjoyed in the womb.
The traumatic rupture of birth exposed us to outside forces. It made us vulnerable to injury and death, and confined our awareness to the perspective of a single, isolated and fragile organism. The balance of inner and outer forces then became a problem that pervades every aspect of our lives. To solve this problem is the focus of traditional Indian medicine, alchemy, astrology, philosophy and yoga. These disciplines all endeavor, within the scope of their particular fields, to uncover the secrets of aligning our internal forces with their cosmic variants, and thus creating the kind of balance that is required for our nourishment and evolution.
In the theory of Hatha Yoga, balance is restored by suspending the solar and lunar breaths, and merging them together in the central channel of the body. This convergence induces a third current, which carries the power of awakening through the scaffolding of the mind. That power is called kundalini, and she is symbolized as a female serpent who sleeps on the pelvic floor, with her mouth sealing the entrance to the central channel. Her coiled and slumbering body represents the dormancy of our intelligence, and our latent potential for psychological development. The balancing of the solar and lunar breaths, together with the hydraulic pressure created by the yogic technique called mula bandha, rouses the serpentine goddess from her slumber, and she stands up hissing “like a snake beaten with a stick” (HYP).
The upward rising of kundalini is a metaphor for the process of awakening that exposes us to the continuous nature of things. As kundalini rises, she pierces through the delusions that structure our minds, and burns through the tangles of our conditioning. She dissolves the boundaries between inner and outer, subject and object, mind and body that confine us to an isolated sense of self. And when she reaches the head, she melts the disc of the moon, and a cool nectar rains down, flooding our senses with compassion, or perfect openness to reality.
The flood of nectar is the culmination of Hatha Yoga in the microcosm of the body. In the moment of descent, our sense of self dissolves, and our consciousness is restored to that original sense of fullness that we enjoyed in the womb, before we were forced through the rude schism of birth into the world of separate beings. In the downpour of grace, there is a perfect and seamless integration of inner and outer, microcosm and macrocosm, emptiness and form. And in that integration, we experience a visceral memory of the ineffable continuity of all beings. That is the insight of non-duality contained in the experience of fullness.
To induce the experience of fullness is the purpose of Hatha Yoga. Most of us will have only an intimation of this experience, where we taste the sweetness of psychical release, but we are not irrevocably transformed. The rain of nectar quickly subsides, and the light of consciousness fades, and we find ourselves back in the same tense and tangled body, with the same longings, fears and anxieties. But through these ephemeral moments of insight, we are given a new perspective on the forces that shape our minds, and we are empowered to relate to them differently.
After tasting the nectar, we are naturally drawn back, like bees to the honey that they have stored in their hive. We long to taste the nectar again, but we are not sure how and where to find it. So we look into the contemplative traditions that call to us, hoping to discover some useful guidance and technique. Our burning desire for the nectar experience, however, often deludes us into taking things too literally, and this is where our ideas become stilted and strained.
If we turn to the alchemical theory of early Hatha Yoga, we are told that the nectar of is created through the rarefaction of our sexual fluids. These are drawn upward through the central channel of the body through the retention of breath, which excites the alchemical powers of the mind. As the fluids rise, they become more refined, and they are gradually transformed into a delicate and sweet ambrosia. This milky white nectar is stored in the lunar disc, just above and behind the soft palette, in the center of the head. Through the mudra called kechari, in which we draw the tongue upward into the cranial vault, we can drink the nectar, and taste the sweet rasa of eternity.
This archaic but fascinating theory can tempt us to use mula bandha instrumentally, as a kind of fluid pump, by which we hope to raise and store more nectar in our heads. But this notion leads us down the path to absurdity, and only increases the kind of attachment, anxiety and dualistic thinking that prevents the nectar experience and obscures from us the true nature of things.
In later understandings of Hatha Yoga, which leave the alchemical concerns aside, we find a theory which seems somewhat more amenable. The rarefaction of sexual fluids becomes the sublimation of vital forces, and the technique of mula bandha is the means of raising these forces through the central channel of the body, where they dispel our delusions of separation. Here the technique of mula bandha reverses the downward flow of apana, or the descending breath, and draws it up to the root of the navel, where it unites with the ascending breath, or prana, which has been contained in the abdomen by the bandha called jalandhara. This fusion of these opposing breaths creates an intense internal heat, which rouses the serpent kundalini, sending the vital force up through the central channel. As that force rises, it burns through the sediment of our conditioning, dispelling the various delusions of separation that form our individual sense of self. At the height of the process, our sense of self dissolves, and in the emptiness of our purified consciousness, the nectar of eternity rains down.
The pursuit of the nectar experience can become an intoxicating obsession, and it can it lead us once again to misuse mula bandha by taking the technique, and the whole process to which it contributes, much too literally. We find ourselves squeezing the pelvic floor, and lifting the belly, hoping to create enough internal hydraulic pressure to rouse the serpent kundalini by force. But a moment of sober reflection exposes us to the hubris of the entire endeavor, and we become rightly discouraged from what we are doing.
Not that the process of Hatha Yoga is fanciful—on the contrary, it reflects an acute tradition of exploring the psychodynamics of meditative experience, a tradition from which we should continue to learn—but we have to interpret its theories and practices intelligently, in a way that captures their esoteric meaning, but also makes them relevant to our currents circumstances.
The point of mula bandha is to dissolve the polarizing structures of the ego, and it stands to reason that such a process cannot be directed by the ego itself. Instead, it must unfold naturally and spontaneously, with as little interference as possible. As we come to this understanding, our sense of mula bandha and of related yogic techniques becomes more refined, and instead of rigid applications of the technique, we begin to practice with a more provisional sense of what we are doing. We become more receptive, more exploratory, and more responsive to the immediate directives of our experience.
As we surrender our essentialist projections about the practice, we begin to look for something more tangible and more amenable to our embodied experience than the isolated moments of rapture that once called us to yoga. The practice becomes not so much about inducing dramatic moments of transcendence, but about weaving their ecstatic threads back into the fabric of daily life.
And so we learn to be more generous and more supple with our techniques. Instead of trying to force the breath into this or that channel, we learn to give space to the ascending ascending and currents, feeling them interpenetrate in the emptiness of the body. We learn to tone and release the pelvic floor to send pulsing sensations up the hollow core of the spine, and we follow these sensations into tangles of memory and emotion, allowing them to unravel into simple moments of opening. The practice of mula bandha then becomes something that we do with our attention, posture, and breath, as much as with the perineal body, and we rediscover the technique by responding to our own experiences of release.
As we temper ourselves in this new way of practicing, we settle further into the actual experience of the body. We practice mula bandha to internalize our attention, and we give little thought to how it will transform us. In time, our attention remains centered in the midline, where we can feel the ascending and descending movements of the breath reaching into one another, and we can feel the subtle trace of that third current rising continually. By keeping the breath balanced and deep, we learn to position ourselves directly above that current, allowing it to bathe us, cleanse us, refresh us, and illuminate us in every moment, even as we go through the motions of our lives. And by continually releasing the crippling tensions of thought, we hold ourselves open for the gentle descent of grace, which we begin to feel as a light but ceaseless rain, coming down through the emptiness of our bodies, and replenishing our love for all beings.
This is the point of Tantric practice—to situate ourselves in the flow, so we can feel the rising and falling currents of the sublime at all times. Ashtanga Vinyasa can be seen as a modern Tantric practice par excellence. Instead of focusing on sudden and violent moments of awakening, it encourages the vital force to flow upward gently and continually. Through the use of internal holds, visualizations, and postural alignment techniques, we learn to gather sensation in the pelvic floor, and then draw it up through the hollow center of the body, not in isolated moments of pointed focus and exertion, but with each breath. Though these techniques are often undertaken somewhat forcefully, they tend to soften in time, particularly as we being to understand their actual point, which is to install the patterns of awakening into our consciousness, until we can feel them on a subtle level, flowing evenly and gently through the center of our embodied experience.
And when we feel the third current rising spontaneously, there is no longer any need for technique, nor for the rejection of technique. We can simply settle into the present moment, and allow the experience of being awake to unfold.