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The Dhuni: Bandhas, Mudras and Kumbhaka in Ritual Processes (Part Five)

In this topic we will explore the use and application of bandha, mudra and Kumbhaka in the ritual process. These tools come to us from the Hatha Yoga system, a Tantric technology of bodymind techniques designed to centralize the various energy currents in our organism. Few modern practitioners are aware of the tremendously beneficial results achieved through proper and steady cultivation of bandha and mudra, which give rise to kumbhaka.  Kumbhaka is said not to be merely a function of pranayama, but rather kumbhaka IS pranayama. This is stated clearly in the Yoga Sutras and further expounded in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The applied process of suspending the breath due to a mentally imposed demand on the respiratory system increases carbon dioxide in the system, which is one way we can systematically affect our own systemic pH.  However, the real “goal” of breath regulation is to cultivate the “inner wind”, which is the circulation of prana internally without leaking it out beyond the limits of a closed system. When the breath spontaneously stops of its own accord, without mental imposition, this is said to be the supreme state of pranayama, known as kevala kumbhaka. This result is achieved through a gradual and steady cultivation of pranic circulation , which is enhanced by the application of bandha and mudra. At the time that the breath is suspended INvoluntarily (as in, spontaneously), the inner wind has become steady and the container holding the energy internally is sealed off from the outer world. Pratyahara, or sense withdrawal, is the automatic result; as the energy driving the senses out into the world becomes withdrawn, this energy is then directed inwardly to perceive their Source. Thus , the process of the inner journey back to one’s essence and the realization of our innermost Light, which is the One Universal Light: the final goal of yogic sadhana. 

As it is said in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is during Kumbhaka that the veil of ignorance covering the mind is lifted, and the True Reality can be perceived. 

The development of the system of Hatha Yoga came later, historically speaking, centuries after Patanjali and, later, the first Tantras. Along with its development came many expositions on kundalini and, notably, bandha and mudra. It is said that bandha IS mudra, and vice versa. Looking at what these words mean and what they “do” can help us get clues into what is being suggested here. 

Bandha, often translated as “lock” or “bind”, is also seen as a “tie”. I prefer this translation of “tie” although the other definitions may apply at different times and contexts. Mudra is translated as “seal”. Both of the terms can work interchangeably. However, we have to think about what we are trying to “do” when it comes to the application these terms. 

The bandhas in question are trifold: from the base of the spine at the root we find mula bandha, at the navel center we find uddiyana, and at the throat we find jalandhara. I am reducing this down for simplicity as much more is happening than simply “drawing up at the perineum, pulling the lower abdomen in, and notching the chin to the chest” as you may have heard in reference to the three bandhas. We can think about the nerve impulses running up and down the spine and out of the spine into the peripheral body to understand what is being affected when we begin to “tie” or “seal” these energetic structures in our physical (and subtle) bodies. Large networks of nerves are irradiating out of our spine in between each of the vertebrae and innervating our body  to pick up messages from both our inner environment and our outer environment. There is data collection and surveying happening on a quantum scale, moment to moment to moment. This requires a certain baseline of energy . When the bandhas are engaged, we are essentially “tying off” the usual flow of outgoing energy . Those nerve impulses are directed inward upon themselves and into the central channel.  The gradual refinement of the three bandhas results in what is known as “mahabandha” or the “great tie” . When this happens, the outflow of energy is greatly reduced and perhaps cut off entirely. The result? Our attention to — or more accurately, the amount of energy we have available to even be AWARE of — the world “out there” is taken down to a minimum. If the yogi is successful, pratyahara is a spontaneous experience and this directs all of one’s conscious energy inwardly: to become aware of itself.  Breathing may have ceased at this point for the need for metabolism is also greatly reduced in this inward flow of energy. The ida and pingala nerve currents are balanced and thus the usual flow of Shakti is forced into the mouth of the sushumna nadi, or central channel, where it becomes the fire of kundalini. Kundalini is most often bound up in life processes, which is what is meant by the “usual flow of Shakti”. Unless and until She is freed up from Her habitual becoming, She remains “dormant” as it is said in the shastras (scriptures). Once we consciously learn to direct Her, She becomes an evolutionary force that has the power to transform and awaken our consciousness. 

The use of mudra is another form of “tying” or “sealing” the energy inwardly. We must remember that our body is itself a mudra, as is the asana that we adopt in any sort of ritual or meditative practice. It is said that a yogis asana is of great importance for without the proper arrangement of limbs, when the energy becomes too intense, the energy will simply spill out. The Hatha Yogis knew this and set it upon themselves to strengthen their “container” through the use of technologies such as asana. The various forms of pranayama suggested in Hatha Yoga texts are clear: adopt the right “seat”, or asana, and your practice will be substantially more fruitful. The same can be said about our ritual practices, as for example in the Dhuni, the recitation of mantra over a period of time is a type of pranayama. The chanting regulates our respiration which regulates the inner winds, or prana. Those who are practiced will observe the subtle, slow breathing and deep meditative spaces that open up in the periods between mantras, which there is a pregnant silence. This happens as the prana becomes more and more centralized in the individual, and less scattered about. When the prana or inner wind is not blowing hither and thither, the mind is neither scattered. Our ability to maintain our focal point of awareness is greatly increased. This assists us in moving deeper into the subtler realms and will aid us during the times that the Kundalini is unwinding in us. To remain highly focused, sensitive, relaxed and with a strongly held container within our bodymind we must cultivate all of these tools. If they are not cultivated it is no matter, as the practice itself brings their cultivation, but our focused awareness can enhance and assist the process. 

In my final point, the tools suggested by the Hatha yogis can be developed beyond just the limits of the ritual practice. Our daily sadhana, which might include a combination of bandhas, kriyas, mudras, asanas, vinyasas and pranayama is supremely supportive to our ritual environment. The daily sadhana itself is a type of “Dhuni” whereby the individual is cultivating their inner fire, and feeding it through the tools and techniques used. We must remember that Agni is not simply “out there”. It is inside of us. When we practice our kumbhakas (with bandha) outside of the Dhuni, we become more versed in its application during. This brings about the awakening of the central channel so that the fire inside can rise. When the fire inside rises, transformation is imminent. We are no longer the same person as we were before. This is what is meant by “fire sacrifice”, and all of these tools, after all, are a means by which we can surrender our limited personalities to the One Divine Light in exchange for the realization of our eternal nature. 

Guru Om 


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