Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Yogic reflection 2. On locks

The "lock" terminology that is used often in yoga used to turn me off rather, as it has a whiff of chakras and other hippy--speak that I tend to find rather empty of content.

I have, however, come to understand that my prejudice in this department was rather misdirected -- there is a lot for me to learn about the locks (or "bandas" as the Indian yogis term them), and how to use them.

Roughly speaking, "locks" are rings, or regions, of muscle around our body that we can learn to control as we practise our asanas, in order to bring greater stability to our asanas. The three locks that I have gained some understanding of are as follows:

1. The throat lock: this is the muscle at the back of the throat that we constrict if we want to do "darth vader breathing", more correctly known as "ujaya breath". I won't explain how to do this, as it is fairly straightforward if you are shown in person, and I've been using it for years -- I tend to use ujaya breath with the mouth closed and breathing only through my nose throughout my whole yoga practice.

The ujaya breath has the benefit of stabilizing my neck as I move, and of constricting oxygen flow through the throat. The latter effect causes my body to heat noticeably fast, making for a much more effective warm-up at the start of the session. (I've also used it before swimming in cold water, to prepare myself!). Conversely, if I want to cool down rapidly because of overheating (for me this is usually when cycling, not doing yoga), then the opposite cooling breath involves breathing through the mouth with the tongue sticking out with the sides curled up.

A friend of mine, new to yoga but experienced in capoeira, remarked to me that he found the neck-stabilizing effect quite remarkable -- it noticeably aids balance (very important in capoeira); my guess is that this is because it decreases neck flexion and so connects the labyrinth in the ears more directly to the main weight of the body in the torso.

2. The belly lock: this is the ring of muscle around the abdominal region which we turn on by seeking to draw the bellybutton closer to the spine. As I mentioned above this is very useful for enhancing forward bends.

I've also noticed that the belly lock is very important for avoiding an over-arch in the lower spine: typically, when we do a standing forward bend we are told to "lead with the sternum", rather than the chin (or, as yogi-Nic put it, forward bends should include an "essence of back bend"). The problem with this instruction is that it can mean the practitioner simply puffs their chest out as they bend, creating an exaggerated arch in the lower back. This is a big problem because it puts a lot of strain through the lower back as we go forward, and all the weight of that top-heavy chest can create stress around the top of the pelvis.

If, on the other hand, the belly lock is engaged, then the belly-button is pulled closer to the spine, and the lower-back straightens out. This stops the over-arching, as well as providing stability as one descends in the bend -- the abs are turned on and working, steadying the descent. Engaged abs also loosen up the back (a la quads and hamstrings, as discussed in the previous post), and they can let one draw the head down closer to the floor. So the benefits of the belly lock in forward bends are manifold.

Another example: the standard quad stretch before exercise like football or running is to stand on one foot, with the other foot held in the hand behind the buttocks -- this is the start of dancer's pose in yoga. If you do this pose without the belly lock, then you will feel a mild stretch through the front of the thigh, and a pronounced arch in lower back; if, on the other hand, one engages the belly lock during this process, then the arch disappears and a strong stretch is felt through the centre of the quad -- a big improvement alround!

In fact the recommendation is (I believe) that one engages the belly lock throughout one's practice... I'm a long way off this, but I am trying to make it one of my internal mindfulness-bells: As I perform my practice I try and conduct regular mental tours of my body, checking that various bits are doing what they are supposed to. High on my list is "belly-lock on?" The answer is usually "It wasn't, but it is now!".

3. The perineal lock: this is the muscle between genitals and anus. Most of us know how to turn this on and off -- blokes can just imagine they are trying to suck their balls up into their body, and they will immediately feel the "lift" down below that engaging this lock creates. There is no doubt a female version of this instruction, but I won't speculate here what it might be :-)

As with the belly lock, I'm just starting to use this in my practice -- it's becoming a regular stop on my body-tour. The only observation I have at present is that it seems to connect rather directly to the libido -- try turning it on and off a few times in the privacy of your own bedroom, and see what thoughts come to mind!!

Beyond this rather elementary observation, though, I don't yet understand what it brings to the practice but, adopting a curious spirit of inquiry, I intend to find out.

Conclusion: use your locks! I've discussed the three that I have some understanding of. I imagine that there are others and it seems to me that understanding how to use them is a very worthwhile aim.

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