Freeing the Bird of Prana
When imagining the subtle body, the mystics and yogis of India and Tibet designed elaborate systems for navigating the body’s interior, akin to the network circuitry of a computer. These systems map the flow of breath called prāṇa whose dynamic potency pumps, flows, and trickles through myriad channels called nāḍīs. The language and imagery used to articulate the subtle body, in collections such as the Upaniṣads and the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, are metaphorical and cryptic. This is due in part to the fact that the landscape of the inner body, long before the era of modern science, was visualized during states of profound meditation. Also, descriptions of the subtle body were shrouded in metaphor and obscured so as not to be readily understood by the uninitiated but reserved for those who trained with a qualified master. Ironically, today we have the opposite scenario, where yoga teachings are ubiquitous, launched on the World Wide Web, and made available to everyone at any time.
Falconry—common throughout Europe, Persia, and India in medieval history—became a central metaphor in yoga for how to “tame” prāṇa. The prāṇa that roams inside the body is likened to wind (prāṇa vāyu), and the aim of both falconry and haṭha yoga is to tether the winds of prāṇa. When the prāṇa is yoked, it serves the higher purpose of yoga, the liberation of the human spirit. In the way that a raptor in the first few launches would be unruly, uncooperative, and hard to keep still, so the prāṇa at the outset of yoga training is flighty. Via prāṇāyāma, āsana, and meditation, prāṇa is harnessed and flown in the same way that a kestrel or peregrine falcon is handled and trained.
Like the trained falcon, the wind of the breath is made to soar, hover, drop down, or be still. In the art of falconry, once a bird of prey is trained, it can fly far and wide in the sky and yet return to its perch. In the same way, a yogi, having mastered prāṇāyāma and the ability to return to the root support (via mūlā bandha), can extend his or her breath into new and far-reaching dimensions.
In the practice of āsana and prāṇāyāma, the bird of prāṇa is fettered in two vital ways. Located in the lower spinal region, these fetters (bandhas) are engaged in order to leash (and eventually unleash) the power of the prāṇa. Mūla bandha involves harnessing the pelvic diaphragm. Uḍḍīyāna bandha, a movement that is contiguous with the perineal lift, involves an upward suspension of the anterior lumbar spine. “Lock” is a poor translation of “bandha,” yet unfortunately it is still used in most yoga circles today. The word “bandha” (etymologically related to the English word “bind”) suggests the act of capturing, tethering, tying, or harnessing. It implies a catch that must ultimately include release. The act of bandha involves its correlate, abandha, which means to unfasten or liberate. Physiologically the aim of the bandhas is to open and release the breathing mechanism and to promote proper metabolic flow through the adjoining organs, glands, and vessels.
The practice of falconry would have been contemporary with the compilation of the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, one of the most comprehensive texts on yogic techniques compiled sometime in the fifteenth century. In fact, the Pradīpikā employs the falcon cry metaphor to illustrate the elusive movement of uḍḍīyāna bandha: “Uḍḍīyāna bandha is so named because by its practice the great bird of prāṇa flies upward effortlessly inside the hollow center of the suṣumnā nāḍī.”
Mention of the bird of prāṇa appears in other sources that predate the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. In the Upaniṣads, which precede the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā by nearly two thousand years, there is a beautiful passage that likens the mind to a restless bird:
Just as a bird, tied by a string, after flying in various directions without finding a resting place elsewhere, settles down (at last) at the place where it is bound, so also the mind, my dear, after flying in various directions without finding a resting place settles down on the prāṇa. For the mind, my dear, is bound by the breath (prāṇa-bandhanam).This is one of the earliest passages suggesting that the mind (citta) and prāṇa are bound together.
The Flying Bandha
Uḍḍīyāna bandha is called the “flying bandha” due to the way the umbilicus area swoops backward against the spine and upward toward the respiratory diaphragm. If we think of a hovering hawk suspended over a meadow spying its lunch, a mole far in the grass below, the bird must have tremendous internal suspension to hang in midair. This suspension is accomplished not only by the span of its wings but by the muscles that comprise its abdomen and tail. In the human body the core muscles of the iliopsoas provide a similar support.
The impulse to lift upward, reversing the pull that gravity has on matter, has inspired yogis for millennia.The impulse to lift upward, reversing the pull that gravity has on matter, has inspired yogis for millennia, epitomized by the stereotypical image of a yogi levitating off the ground. Many yoga poses are named for animals—cobra, frog, locust, and eagle, to name a few—as yogis imagined ways that the human body could imitate the buoyancy and ethereality of wild animals.
Uḍḍīyāna bandha is exemplified not only by a hovering hawk but by other animals that exhibit the power of upward surge. The spy-hop of a whale suggests the power of uḍḍīyāna bandha. Spy-hopping is the vertical thrust of a whale’s body out of water, executed when it wants to scan the horizon. The propulsive force of a forty-five-ton animal moving vertically upward is truly awe-inspiring. The power for such a movement, against the force of gravity, requires tremendous strength in its hindquarters and tail.
To understand the force of uḍḍīyāna bandha, it is helpful to imagine other upward-surging forces of nature. The whirlwind vortex of a tornado and the updraft of air in a chimney flue suggest the power of rising prāṇa. In the abdomen, the rush of uḍḍīyāna bandha causes the organs, nerves, blood vessels, and glands to be pulled upward toward the underside of the diaphragm.
In a practical sense, why might it be valuable to perform this kind of movement? Within our sedentary culture, applying a mechanical force that will counter the downward drag of the body’s interior is a good idea. All bodies are prone to collapse as they age, because gravity causes the structures of the body to slide downward toward the pelvic floor. In the abdomen, this drag can mean drooping intestines, prolapsed kidneys, and compression of the lumbar spine. David Byrne of the Talking Heads once sang, “Gravity gets you down,” and this is certainly true of the structures in the belly.
The pull of uḍḍīyāna bāndha is a direct means to hoist the abdominal organs and vault them upward away from the pelvic floor.
Tias Little will teach a series of five workshops at Vista Yoga in Atlanta from Nov. 30 through Dec. 2. For more information, call 404-929-9642