Not too long ago I was at a backyard birthday party where kids and adults leapt on a huge trampoline. While I looked on awaiting the car crash that would inevitably take place, a mom leaned over to me and whispered, “It looks fun, but I can’t do anything like that since I had Matthew.”
“Oh?” I replied. Not sure what she meant.
“I can’t even sneeze without wetting myself a little. Nothing down there will ever be the same again.”
Pregnant with my first child, I gave her a knowing nod, as if I too were in for the same fate and could do nothing but enjoy these last few months of sneezing pee-free.
Actually, no. I will not sit pretty, staring at my due date as if it were the sad, sad end to my carefree days of...um...sneezing without wetting myself. As it turns out, the ancient yogis were hip to staying fit inside and out, and worked pelvic fitness into traditional yoga practice through the bandhas. Yoga mamas, listen up! There is something we can do.
Why should I care?
Your pelvic floor plays an important role in labor and birth. In fact, midwives credit a fit pelvic area with less tearing during vaginal birth and lower incidence of long-term incontinence post delivery. Sounds good to me. If that doesn’t convince you, consider this—practicing the mula bandha is said to enhance “sexual power.” Indeed, by strengthening these muscles, you may save your poor partner from the post delivery shock of a less than tight um, you-know-what when the doctor finally gives you the green light for sexual activity.
So, what’s a bandha anyway?
A bandha is an internal “lock” we create with muscles and breath in order to hold energy in the body during a yoga practice. There are three different bandhas and a fourth, which is created by drawing in all three at once. Mula bandha is a contraction of the pelvic floor. Uddiyana bandha is the contraction of the abdomen (stomach, digestive organs, and diaphragm). Jalandhara bandha is a contraction around the throat (esophagus, Adam’s apple, and hyoid). Maha bandha is the aforementioned tri-lock.
If you’re pregnant, the mula bandha is the only one you want to focus on right now. Leave uddiyana, jalandhara, and maha bandha for your postnatal yoga practice. And of course, consult your physician before beginning any fitness routine.
When engaging the mula bandha we are drawing up a diamond-shaped hammock of muscles between the pelvic bone to the front, the tailbone to the rear, and the sit bones on either side. You may have heard your midwife, doula, or doctor refer to these muscles as the Kegel muscles. By engaging the mula bandha, you are essentially doing Kegel exercises—toning and lifting the pelvic floor.
How on Earth do I do this bandha thing?
Engaging the mula bandha is most commonly described as the same contraction you would do when stopping the flow of urine. If you’re like me and not very good at potty tricks, you may need a little more coaching. So, I’m going to get down and dirty with this one. When you orgasm, you involuntarily engage the mula bandha. You’ve probably never paid attention (for good reason). Next time you orgasm, try and notice how the muscles contract in and up.
Some describe it as tightening your anus. Yet, there are many different muscles that make up the hammock that is your pelvic floor, and while you will “tighten up your anus,” so to speak, that’s not all that’s happening. Focus on the perineum—the area between your anus and your vagina—while including the muscles around your urethra.
Still not sure about what’s happening here? Ok, think about the purpose from a yogic point of view: you’re trying to keep energy from leaving the body. Imagine that energy is about to escape and you’re trying to draw it back into your body with your vagina and hold it inside of you.
Here are two exercises that might help you better understand the mula bandha.
1) Start by sitting in Sukhasana, or an easy cross-legged position. Allow your mind to settle into a peaceful place and focus on the breath. Begin to deepen the breath and fill the belly with each inhale. Notice how your diaphragm pulls in and up as you exhale. Let your hands rest on your belly to really feel what’s happening. Continue for five breath cycles.
Now, sit on one hand, placing it under your perineum with your palm facing down. Continue the breath, but now begin to engage the mula bandha on the exhalation. Notice if you feel the muscles in your pelvic floor rise. Don’t panic if you don’t! It’s a very subtle lift. Use the exhalation to draw everything in and up—perineum up, abdominals up, diaphragm up. On the inhalation, relax everything and expand. Repeat ten times. Eventually, the muscles will tone and you’ll notice a more pronounced lift.
2) Start on your back with your knees bent and pointed upwards, as if you are about to lift into bridge pose. If you are beyond your 18th week of pregnancy you may find this posture puts too much pressure on your lower back. If this is the case, just turn on your side. Rest your head on your upper arm and keep the knees bent. Place a rolled up towel in between your legs for extra support and continue the exercise from here.
Focus on the breath again—long and deep. As you inhale let the belly fill and expand. You may even notice the pelvis tilt forward a bit as the space between the lower back and the floor increases slightly. On the exhalation let the lower back draw down towards the floor.
Now begin to exaggerate this movement tilting the pelvis and arching the back on every inhalation, and tucking the tailbone and flattening the lower back on every exhalation. This is where we add the mula bandha. As you inhale, let the pelvic floor be soft; as you exhale, draw the pelvic floor inward. Repeat ten times.
Most doctors and midwives recommend doing Kegel exercises daily during pregnancy. Eventually, you’ll become more aware of when you are naturally engaging the mula bandha within your yoga practice, like shifting from down dog to plank or from cow to cat pose. It’s a way to go deeper in your yoga practice and explore breath work from the inside out. But I’m not going to lie; the biggest incentive for me is being able to jump on a trampoline after the birth of my son without fear of wetting myself.