Maya Abdominal Massage Revelation

belly picThe last time I saw Leslie Howard I heard her say something about Maya Abdominal Massage—we didn’t even talk about it exactly, but I filed it away as something I wanted to try.

Pretty soon after that I was having lunch with a friend, and having a conversation about the pelvic floor (which is not unusual for me) and I realized that Maya Abdominal Massage might be helpful for my friend. So I resolved to find out more about this and to see if it was available in Chicago. I found Shungo, right in my friend’s neighborhood which happens to be adjacent to my neighborhood, too!

So at our next lunch date I mentioned this to my friend, and shared the good fortune of the place being so close by and so on. And I shared that I might go, too. This is what I’m really getting at is that I was really interested, but it fueled my interest to include potential help for my friend in my search, too.

The abdominal massage has really changed my perception of my body. Just as Leslie Howard‘s workshops have changed my world by bringing awareness to my pelvic floor, so also has the abdominal work unleashed even more potential.

One of the important aspects of Leslie’s teaching is about the necessity of being able to relax and soften the pelvic floor—many women unknowingly have already gripping pelvises. The usual emphasis on tightening and strengthening can complicate an already gripping pelvic floor. So what’s really important is for a woman to know what is up with herself. This way she can practice techniques that will really fortify her root. This way she will know whether she really needs to strengthen or stretch and relax her pelvic floor.

What I have found for myself is that the pelvis doesn’t necessarily grip evenly—sometimes one side is tighter than the other. This might be similar to how low back tightness can be gripping on one side and not the other. And there is a similarity—in my perception—to abdominal gripping. There are hot-spots or tension spots in my abdomen that I am learning to become friendly with. The recent abdominal massages that I have received and have also learned to do on myself have really helped with my self-awareness. I have discovered that my abdomen has been blocking some of the potential work in yoga, and as I learn to release these blocks things are moving much more smoothly.

I feel like my abdomen is waking up!

The pelvic floor work set a foundation, and the abdominal work (on releasing the tension hot-spots) is releasing all kinds of crazy fuel for the potential of blasting off into new realms of self-discovery.

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Who rode in on the starship uterus?

I did!!

And I’m here to say hallelujah! So glad I made it!

I came here to live my life and to experience things is my own particular and unique way. Yay!

And to literally “go where no one has gone before…

I am absolutely my happiest when I am exploring my gifts with a positive attitude. Sharing my joy…

And here she is:

Starship Uterus

Isn’t she beautiful!

This is a picture of Leslie Howard’s model of the starship uterus! And I had the great honor of dining with and talking with Leslie just yesterday. She is one of the top yoga teachers and a champion for the health of women!

I see myself getting back onboard the starship (metaphorically speaking) to create some more posts for mulabloga, as well as workshops on related topics that will explore ideas like femininity, anatomy, and essence.

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This post is a talk I gave as a presentation of my research project to my friends in the Level 2 Teacher Training at Yogaview.

“Mula.” The meanings of this word include root, origin and mule.
“Bandha” is often interpreted as a “lock”.

Mulabandha has something to do with an energetic center at the base of the spine: muladhara chakra. This chakra represents our basic root connection with life on earth, and the central issue associated with it is survival (according to Eastern Body/Western Mind, by Anodea Judith).

Don’t mess with the mula! She is uber-powerful!

The momentary imperative of survival will always, in every situation, hijack long-range perspective.
~Geneen Roth, Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations about Food and Money

Which is why it is important to be attentive to our basic needs, lest the mula-goddess make herself known in a most unpleasant way.

It is also important to be aware of what we are associating with our basic needs. Mental constructs that we associate with basic survival can unlock unconscious behaviors, just as surely as if someone is in a literally life-threatening situation. For example:

It seems that money, even more than food, activates our survival instincts and makes wise, otherwise rational people behave like starving dogs. Any distorted or frozen patterns in our psyches will inevitably show up in our relationship with money, which makes it the ultimate repository for shadowy behavior.
~Geneen Roth, Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations about Food and Money

We might look to mulabandha to help us balance our relationship with earth. Life here is pretty unsettling at times, especially since it seems that we will all die. And during our time here, many terrible things can happen. It’s enough to make anyone crazy, I think.

So we consult the root.

Since we are yogis, we might decide to look to the physical location of the metaphoric root in the body, which is exactly what I did for this project. Descriptions of yogic technique to consult the muladhara chakra include activating the pelvic floor to create a “root lock”. In Moola Bandha, The Master Key by Swami Buddhananda, the location of mulabandha is also referred to as a “psychic point”, and it is further stated that we learn to find this point through our musculature, but that once we can find it, muscular contraction is not necessary to do mulabandha.

I think of mulabandha both muscularly and metaphorically. It is both a stabilizing muscular action in poses like hanumanasana, and a stabilizing energy that symbolically helps to support my personality.

This quote from Lost and Found shows a skewed association between money and the muladhara chakra:

…feelings of not having enough while refusing to see how much I actually had…

Here a survival-related fear is getting in the way of a clear relationship with an aspect of getting earth-needs met: money. This awareness allowed the author, Geneen Roth, to clarify herself by finding out how much money she had and how much she needed. And in the process, she also discovered the unconscious associations that she had between money and receiving love, another important need that was expressing itself through her use of money.

Another aspect that keeps us rooted here is the capacity to take responsibility for ourselves and our impact on others and the planet. To do this effectively, we need to fully recognize our right to be here, and our right to have ourselves, pleasure, praise, love, relationships, things, power, money… (these rights are from the book Eastern Body/Western Mind)

I suppose the fact that we are social beings with a long history of dominating one another to get things and power, it’s a potential outcome that some people would exploit their kids’ vulnerability and inexperience to feel a sense of control in life (probably unconsciously). They were likely totally unconscious of this behavior and the effect it might have for them when these children became adults. I know too many people’s stories to think that I’m alone in coming from an abusive household.

What sometimes happens is that people can loose their sense of entitlement to basic needs. Someone can feel as bad as not deserving the food they eat and the air they breathe. What do you think might happen to this person’s money: not good… A person needs to value their worth to value their money.

In my intellectual self I know that everyone deserves love, but when it comes to my emotional sense I believe that nobody can truly love me. So it has been hard for me to have love or money. I don’t deserve it. I’m bad. Ugly inside.

I don’t say this for you to feel bad for me, I say it to try to perform an exorcism, or perhaps to connect with a similarly troubled soul and let them know that they are not alone.

I would like to try to more fully embody my right to have love, relationships, pleasure, money and things. It’s a root chakra issue.


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Answering my own questions.

As a part of project mulabloga, I interviewed friends and yoga teachers about their pelvic floors in yoga. The answers were so precious, beautiful and personal.

I’m going to try to answer these same questions now for you.

1. How much does the pelvic floor inform your yoga practice?
A lot. I believe that a special intelligence lives in the pelvis, and I like to consult her regularly.

2. Do you use Mulabandha in asana or pranayama? If so, in which poses or breathing techniques do you employ Mulabandha, and how (and why) do you do it?
This is a tricky question! Yes, I do it where I find it appropriate to do so. I find that activating the pelvic floor can be really helpful in backbends, and Warrior 2 seems to initiate a natural lift “down there”. One of the ways I do it, when I am seeking that support at the base of my body is try to draw my sitting bones toward one another, and I might also try to draw my tailbone towards my pubic bone, and when I feel a toning and lift I feel that I’ve got something. I do it (when I do it) because I find it helpful, or I’m testing it out to see if it might be helpful wherever I am at the time.

3. Are you aware of any dangers in practicing Mulabandha?
I think it can cause harm if we think that we are supposed to be toning the pelvis all of the time. Many women and men can have physical problems if they are unwittingly gripping their pelvises. Gripping pelvic muscles can be the cause of painful intercourse in women (and men?). Constantly engaged muscles “down there” can also cause problems with blood flow, pelvic pain, back pain, and hip pain for men and women. It may also contribute to prostate problems in older men, and incontinence in women and men. Over-gripping muscles can lead to overall weakness in the pelvis, just as muscles with lack-of-tone can cause problems.

4. Do you teach pelvic floor actions or Mulabandha? If so, how?
Yes, I teach specific pelvic floor actions, and pelvic floor relaxation techniques when individual circumstances call for it. Because of my research project people are asking questions, and I try to tailor my answers to meet my audience at the time.

5. Do you have an interesting story about having a teacher (big or small name) teaching you mulabandha through touch/adjustment/words? Was it traumatic, funny, helpful?
I have a story that was traumatic, or maybe just embarrassing when it happened, but now it’s mostly funny. When I was still somewhat new to Ashtanga yoga, I took my boyfriend to a workshop called “Introduction to Ashtanga”. I mistakenly thought that this offering would be appropriate for someone who was new to yoga. I wanted to offer my boyfriend a really good and inviting introduction to the practice that I was turned on by. Well, about the tenth word of the workshop was the word “anus” and from then on about every fifth word after that was either “mulabandha” or “anus”. I remember sheepishly smiling at my boyfriend who was practicing across the way, knowing that this was a totally weird experience that I had gotten us into. And I was teased for some time after this. Eventually we broke up, but it wasn’t the workshop’s fault.

6. Other thoughts on the subject?
For more of my thoughts, please read on in this blog.

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Limitless Mulabandha

Limitless movie

When I saw the new movie, Limitless, I recognized some of the increased mental capacity as similar to an ascribed benefit of practicing mulabandha from the book, Moola Bandha, The Master Key. But in the film the character continued to be driven by an overblown survival instinct—somewhat limiting his full potential for helping humanity.

See the article at Elephant Journal:
The movie ‘Limitless’ is somewhat limited.

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Parasympathetic rules with mulabandha.

Lower portion of the Parasympathetic Nervous System

This image about the lower portion of the Parasympathetic Nervous System is one I colored from 'The Anatomy Coloring Book'.

The book, Moola Bandha, The Master Key, by Swami Buddhananda roughly describes what might be happening in the nervous system when we practice mulabandha.

When a yogi decides to practice mulabandha, something is happening in the brain—a thought that attempts to contact the south pole! Then the message the brain sends to do something at the base of the body, like activating some muscles “down there”, goes down the spine to the sacral nerves 2, 3, 4 (shown in the illustration above). The sacral nerves are in the low back region of the body. The sacral nerves then send messages to the muscles that contract the pelvic floor, if everything goes as planned. This is thought to affect the Parasympathetic Nervous System, and having the effects of decreasing blood pressure, respiration and heart rate.

The sensations of relaxation and pleasure generated by this practice are relayed back to the brain where they are analyzed by the higher mental faculties of the cerebral cortex (brain), and transmitted to the mind for appreciation and enjoyment.
~ Swami Buddhananda

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is controlled by the above-mentioned sacral nerves (and the midbrain + medulla). It is thought that by consciously stimulating the sacral nerves through the process of actively controlling the muscles at the base of the pelvis, that we also can influence the nervous system towards a more relaxed mode.

Since we tend to be stressed out people, the ability to access and stimulate the nerves that control body processes related to relaxation and pleasure seems pretty desirable and powerful. It offers the potential to choose to have relaxation, rather than fear rule our experience. And a relaxed mind is a clear, creative and happy mind!

Even though mulabandha sounds great so far (as long as it’s not too weird to think about contracting muscles in the pelvis) I’m not sure it’s a good idea to recommend it to everybody in a ordinary multi-level flow yoga class. (Ashtanga classes are an exception because mulabandha is intrinsic to that practice. But even Ashtanga yogis would benefit from detailed attention to what they are doing “down there”.)

To activate the pelvic floor muscles we do much better when we understand some of the basic anatomy of that area, and even then to find out the experiential aspects of exploring, understanding and appropriately using that anatomy can take some time.

Mulabandha is not a simple subject; it is a vast process that is best approached with reverence.

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Radiance replaces boundaries.

Closer to the beginning of this mulabloga research project I had an experience that I noticed particularly after my yoga practice one Friday. During the practice in a yoga class I had been paying particular attention to what was happening at the very base of my torso: the low belly and below, the lower portion of my pelvis, hips and pelvic floor and slightly above. My awareness was resting here, so perhaps it was a meditation on that.

After class I had a strong revelation that I rushed to get paper and pen (yes I use those tools, too) to write it down.

It seemed so important because it seemed to be an answer to a “problem” I had been pondering over for some years.

I remember having conversations with friends over the years about having boundaries or even “tough skin”. These conversations were important to me because I am sensitive. I feel things people say. Sometimes that hurts.

The image of boundaries had been similar to a fence. A fence around an animal might keep it safe by not allowing predators in. So in conversation just “not allowing those words in” might be a solution if I could create the appropriate boundaries for myself.

At some point this approach seemed futile. Conversations happen in the moment, there just didn’t seem to be appropriate time to think and consider whether certain things should be allowed in or not. (And if I’m aware of it isn’t it already “in” anyway?)

So I started to buy into an image about it that would just allow the words to pass through my space. I couldn’t stop what was being said to me (or around me), but it might not have to stick to my mental space and get stuck there. This seemed more realistic and less harmful to me that the image of “letting words bounce off me”. The words crashing into an “invisible boundary” to bounce off seemed a violent image. I didn’t like the experience of that.

The “letting words pass through” image was more truthful for me at the time I believed it because I felt invisible. At that time, I found myself in my interactions with others—which is one (but only one of the ways) truthful way to find things out about ourselves, I think. But it can also lead to some confusion if we totally base our interpretation of ourselves on what other people are saying to us, and how other people are interacting with us.

People (or societal forces, advertising, peer pressure) can easily control someone who doesn’t know or have confidence in their own sense of self.

So anyway, on that magical day I had awareness about how I was feeling after my yoga practice. I was high as a kite—not unusual. And this time I expected to watch myself come in for a landing, which is why I rushed for the pen and paper.

I realized that the problem wasn’t lacking boundaries. The real problem was lacking a center. I felt that radiance really is the best boundary, in that it is not really a boundary at all. When I feel full, I am not vulnerable. I don’t need to create a wall when I am vibrant and bright.

Radiance of the sun.

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What is Mulabandha?

I’m nearing the official “endpoint” for my research project (but I’ll probably continue this blog and exploration for some time), and people are asking me, “So, what is mulabandha?”

I’ll work on forming my answer here—it’ll just be a partial one, to be sure. You might find that my answer is unique, and I think that it needs to be because what I’ve been looking for is not an “answer”—as in a “right” answer, but more of an inner inquiry: what is mulabandha to me. How is this concept meaningful? Or how might it be helpful to yoga practice and life.

Mulabandha is sometimes practiced in yoga to try to transcend this living experience, to have some kind of peak spiritual experience. But that’s not what I’ve been trying for in my inquiry. In fact, these days I want to steer clear of that. It is strong medicine and is sometimes very difficult to integrate an experience of transcendence—it can be literally mind-blowing. Everything seems different afterward.

Perhaps strangely, I came to this subject in search of a deeper connection with myself in my yoga practice and in the world.

Seek and ye shall find.
~ The Bible

The base of a mulabandha practice is often described in yoga classes (when it is mentioned, and if you are not around Ashtanga yoga teachers, it might be rarely heard) with words about a muscular contraction at the base of the body: “Squeeze the anus!” “Lift the vagina!” “Lift the scrotum!” “Lift the place between the genitals and the anus.” “Squeeze like you are stopping your pee—like a Kegel!” “Contract and lift your pelvic floor.” These are just a few of the colorful directives used to try to get a handle on “down there”—the realm of the “root lock” or mulabandha.

One notion about why we might want to practice this is to direct the energy flow upwards towards enlightened impulses rather than allow it to flow toward more carnal desires—to help us control ourselves! Another idea is that this practice might bring lightness to the yoga practice—a grace and floating quality to the movements. And even another idea about it is that it might help us to have better sex. So we’ve already come full circle on this one!

There are a couple things that often get in the way of the activation instructions I mentioned earlier: gripping in the pelvis is one. If someone tries to contract muscles that are already gripping, this is not an effective scenario (Leslie Howard does a great job of presenting helpful information about gripping and weak pelvises in her workshops.). It can cause more harm than good to try to strengthen an already gripping pelvis. We might need to learn to relax chronically contracted muscles through a technique like self-massage before we can learn to strengthen them effectively. Another thing that gets in the way is that most of us—I’m guessing—don’t really know what’s going on down there. How do we really know if we are “lifting the pelvic floor”?

So, I have devoted a good deal of effort to studying the muscles of the pelvic floor, and even the external anatomy of the area, “down there”. And I’m embarrassed to say that while I was familiar with the word “vulva” I honestly didn’t remember what exactly it referred to when I started to look into this material—and I am a woman. The vulva refers to the external female genitals, just in case you are not sure. My mind always was referring to my parts as “vagina” when the vagina is really the opening in the body of a woman that relates to the penis of a man. But if a woman is just pointing “down there” she is pointing to a vulva, which has parts that have names, too. She is not just pointing to a hole.

My project got personal.

What mulabandha is for me in my body right now is an exploration—it is not a thing. But when I think about how the muscles of the pelvic floor might relate with root aspects of my body including internal organs and spine, I think that the muscles may form something like a bird’s nest—it’s the pelvic “bowl”. And this nest holds precious light. To focus on the what’s happening in the pelvis in yoga is incredibly grounding. It helps me to take care of my hips and spine. Happy hips and a strong, tall spine have been resulting from this approach to my practice. I want to free-up my muscles and cultivate supportive strength.


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Pondering Pelvic Evolution

Evolution of the Human Pelvis

Humans and other primates are in principle quadrupeds, whose legs were stretched horizontally backward and then rotated by 90 degrees. Suddenly the weight of the inner organs lay no longer on the abdominal wall, but on the pelvis. In order for the bowels not to fall embarrassingly to the ground, the tail, which at first was stretched out and reaching to the back, had to be pulled in and shortened in order for the new floor to be closed off. Furthermore, the muscles used to move the tail were reinforced and the connective tissue made thicker.
~ Eric Franklin, Pelvic Power. The above picture is one of the many great illustrations from his book.

When Leslie Howard was recently in Chicago for a workshop I had the honor of some time to talk. One of the things we briefly covered was the evolution of the pelvis. I remembered from a workshop with Tias Little from about seven years ago a story about humans standing up. Tias said something along the lines of our evolved physiology represented a call to open our hearts, since we were now standing to show one another what was once our soft underbellies. We are showing our vulnerability and being challenged to love and trust one another, and to offer care and courage rather than fear now that we are revealing our hearts as we stand on two feet.

I asked Leslie what she thought this evolution to standing might mean for our undersides. What was once revealed in the back—female sex organs—is hidden underneath now that we stand. Men might actually be more vulnerable now that I think about it, but women are more tucked away. I remember her saying that it might have something to do with fear.

So as I think further on this: As women stood to reveal our hearts, our genitals may have retreated in fear toward a place tucked away between the legs. Hmm. And as men stand might they be called—just by this evolved physiology of their genitals moved to the front—to bring consciousness and care to their sexuality?

Total opinion here, but I wonder if as women reveal our hearts, are we not being called to educate men about our sexuality (if we choose to be with a man). The slightly hidden location of our sex organs could just be saying, “Enter with caution.”

This is a sacred space.

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A Whole New Body Part!

Sarah the doggie shows her stuff.

During my yoga practice today I felt as though I had a whole new body part. It has certainly been awakening in glimmers of awareness over some time, but today I felt as though I had something distinct and powerful “down there”.

Sarah, in the above picture, has a nice tail that helps her dynamic movement through space. Alas, people just have a puny tailbone, also known as the coccyx at the base of the spine, and sometimes it is called a vestigial tail. A tail that is a poor excuse for the majesty of a tail like Sarah’s.

But no, my awareness didn’t really have anything to do with a tail in any kind of literal way.

What I felt was a distinctly stabilizing engagement in my pelvic floor, between the pubic bone and tailbone that lifted up and into my body, like an inverse tail. Sarah’s tail reaches out of her backside to stabilize her movements, and my experience of a clear engagement at the floor of my pelvis between my legs that lifted into my core provided ballast for the opening of my upper body in a backbend. Pure and fascinating bliss that seemed to work in symphony with the strength in my inner legs.

One of the earlier backbends definitely had a practically erotic current running through it, but as that energy cleared I began to clarify and go deeper.

My “new body part” is actually something that has been a part of me the whole time I have been practicing yoga, but articulating and sensing a clear activation was really cool.

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