Various larger body locks (bandhas), which are muscle contractions in different areas of the body, are used in yoga. Likewise smaller body locks (mudras), are small changes in the limbs or organs such as the fingers, eyes or the tongue, are applied. A shared feature of the locks is that they strengthen concentration and meditation by controlling the flow of prana.
There are three large body locks in particular that can be advantageous. They can be used separately, but when used at the same time, they are referred to as Maha Bandha, which means Great Lock. Apart from aiding in concentrating prana and stirring the sleeping energy in the body, kundalini, the Great Lock is also applied during breath holds, because it “locks” the air in your lungs.
The first bandha is the Root Lock that is performed by contracting the rectum to influence the inner and outer sphincter. In addition, the perineum area has to be lifted a bit. This is an important lock, because it stimulates the lower branch of the parasympathetic nervous system that extends from the spine in the lower part of the body. Stimulating the entire soothing nervous system in an optimal and balanced way.
The second bandha is the Abdominal Lock, and is performed by drawing the abdomen and navel towards the spinal column and then lifting it upwards. Because of a negative pressure within, the abdomen, diaphragm and all the internal organs are sucked up between the ribs. A person performing the Abdominal Lock will thus appear extremely thin. This bandha is spectacular and drives prana up along the spine. Only the exercise where the abdominal muscles rotate massages the internal organs to the same extent, improving digestion and strengthening the diaphragm. Even the heart is given a thorough massage.
The third bandha is the Throat Lock, which is performed by pressing the chin down towards the small depression just above the sternum making the chin and the two collar bones meet, locking the throat. The throat lock brings prana to a halt and directs it downwards to unite it with the upwards flowing prana in the chest area. Besides concentrating prana and activating dormant body energy, the Throat Lock is very effective during breath holds because air flow through the throat is inhibited and the lungs are cut off.
Apart from the bandhas – the large body locks – a set of mudra exists – small body locks. A mudra, often used together with the Great Lock, is the Sambhavi Mudra. In this lock focus and thought is directed towards the third eye chakra by looking cross-eyed upwards and inwards to promote relaxation, concentration and meditation. Another small mudra is the well-known yoga position where the thumb and index finger join to form a ring with the palm of your hand pointing downwards, this is called the Jnana Mudra. It influences the psyche and symbolizes wisdom and intuitive knowledge. When the palm of your hand points upward, the lock is termed Chin Mudra and symbolizes an expanded consciousness. These two mudras are useful during meditation.
In hrdayanjali mudra the hands are folded in front of the heart to honor the inner soul. Hrdayam means heart, but can also be translated as mind or soul. Interestingly, the same "mudra" is also practiced in Christianity. It is even more interesting that people in deep reverence or timid prayer, often will fold their hands in front of their forehead - exactly the same place as the third eye chakra is located.
The final mudra I will mention is the Kechari, which in its ultimate form is one of the most difficult, effective and least known body lock of them all. Kechari exists in two varieties – a simple and an ultimate version. The “small” kechari is described as follows:
“Pursuing any livelihood, in any location, a yogi may practice nabho mudra.
Turn the tongue upwards, inhale and hold the breath.
This is nabho mudra; it destroys all diseases.”
The ultimate kechari
To learn the ultimate kechari requires a good deal of practice, but the benefits you can gain are of many. During my stay in Rishikesh in Northern India in 2004, my teacher, Yogi Rakesh Ji, showed me this kechari several times where he forced his tongue into the nasal cavity. Every morning at sunrise I performed a set of exercises that massaged my tongue, made it stronger and stretched it. In brief, I performed “gymnastics” with my tongue. I pulled it to the side against the teeth in the lower jaw, gradually cutting the ligament below the tongue. I would clean the tongue with my fingers and a little cloth prior to the exercises, and as soon as it was dry, it was easy to grab with both hands and hold onto. Even a small amount of saliva on the tongue made it slippery as an eel and impossible to handle.
If yoga is of secondary importance to you, you obviously do not have to aim for the ultimate kechari. However, the importance of performing kechari with perfection is stressed repeatedly in the old scriptures. Kechari is particularly important because the tongue can be used to stimulate areas in the brain that control our hormone production, notably the pituitary gland. By controlling the area where the energy channels ida, pingala and sushumna meet (the third eye chakra), you gain control over the part of the nervous system that the will cannot control. Accordingly, focusing your attention on the area between the eyebrows is very common in yoga because it creates balance and peace in the mind.
Another advantage of kechari is the ability to change the flow of air through your nostrils without using the fingers. The tip of the tongue can shut off the air flow through one nostril at a time. In this way you will be able to choose to breathe through either the left or right nostril. Finally, during breath holds it is possible to remove the urge to breathe and stop the natural contractions of the diaphragm with kechari – even though you have held your breath for a long time.