In Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, author and yogi Dr. H. David Coulter claims, “Uddiaynna bandha is the only practice in Hatha Yoga that frankly stretches the respiratory diaphragm.” (p. 197)
After 16 years of yoga practice, Uddiyanna Bandha still remained to me an elusive Da Vinci Code only cracked by a few lucky adepts. It looked so freaking cool, but seemed impossible and no one could actually explain how to do it or even what to practice in order to do it. No one even said why to do it. But that didn’t matter. It looked radical, and I’m radical. But all I ever heard was “Pull the belly in” or “Pull the navel to the spine.” Then finally, in January of 2011 during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, in Jill Miller’s Core immersion, I learned how to stretch – actually stretch — my diaphragm and I was free at last, free at last, thank gawd almighty, I was free at last. I felt like a giddy little boy unleashed in the marvelously odd playground of my insides…and that was just the beginning! This set the stage for the next three years of practice to graduate to Nauli Kriya, the seeming magical churning of the abdomen that yogis have performed for generations.
So how do we actually stretch the diaphragm? For starters, we need to embody the difference between an abdominal breath and a thoracic breath and (most important) the difference between an “active” and “passive” belly. When yogis breathe consciously, the movements of the diaphragm set the stage for Uddiyana Bandha, this “flying abdominal lock.”
To review, in an abdominal breath, the diaphragm’s origins (T11-12, inner surface and margins of ribs 10-6, xypoid process) are fixed, and the central tendon (insertion) is pulled down causing the contents of the belly to swell. In a thoracic breath, the central tendon is fixed and the contraction of the diaphragm pulls the origin(s) up, making the lower half of the ribcage swell like a barrel. In both cases, as the volume of the thoracic cavity increases, pressure decreases and air rushes in to fill the low-pressure environment that is created. On exhalation, the thoracic volume is decreased, the intra-thoracic pressure is increased and air is pushed out of the lungs.
Here’s where Uddiyana Bandha comes in — during this pause between exhalation and inhalation. Try this: Inhale a Yogic Complete Breath (abdominal-thoracic) and exhale by squeezing all the air out. Every last molecule of it. Hold the air out, and then relax the belly like jello. Do you feel the suction of the diaphragm deeper into the chest? Now, repeat the above step and then do the actions of a thoracic breath WITHOUT allowing air to enter the lungs. Thoracic volume is increased and intra-thoracic pressure is decreased, but air is not allowed to enter the lungs, thus the central tendon of the diaphragm is pulled up into the thoracic cavity and the diaphragm is actively stretched and pulls up the muscles and organs that are attached to it.
However, if the muscles of the abdomen are tense and contracted, Uddiyana Bandha will not be possible. Why?
Take a closer look from deep to surface. At the coastal margins on the inner surfaces of ribs 6-12, the transversus abdominus muscles (the deepest layer of core muscles) grow into the fibers of the diaphragm. There is no difference. Like a sleeve sewn to the body of a shirt, this deep corset muscle around your waist seems into your “six pack”, latches on your pelvic bones (ilia crests), and corsets around to the giant patch of diamond-shaped fabric on your lower back (the thoracolumbar fascia) that anchors layers of back muscles. The six-pack (really a ten pack) shares the same real estate with the diaphragm (ribs 6-7 and the typhoid), and also anchoring the internal obliques (with feet joining the diaphragm at ribs 10 and 12), and on top of them the external obliques (sharing real estate with the diaphragm on top of ribs 5-12). This is some of the “strapping tape” we mentioned earlier.
If your diaphragm is ever going to be able to stretch, its abdominal bedfellows must let go of the sheets. This is why the cue, “pull your belly in” or “pull the navel to the spine” doesn’t stretch the diaphragm. It does the opposite. It holds the diaphragm down like a hot air balloon trying to lift off while its ropes remain tied to the earth. The abdomen muscles must passively stretch (we helped them let go with the Coregeous Ball) and lose their intimate connection with the diaphragm. Free it! Likewise uptown, the external intercostals (some of whom we massaged in the previous Therapy Ball Sequence) must be free to do their job of pulling the ribs apart for the actions of the thoracic inhale. If the intercostal muscles are tight (I know from asthma what that feels like), Uddiyana Bandha will be felt minimally.
I practice Uddiyana Bandha poses in twists, backbends, and forward folds (in any orientation to gravity) in order to stretch it in all of its glory. When you’ve mastered it, you have a de-stressing tool like no other. And for those somanauts who want to travel deeper, Nauli Kriya waits for you, your organs, and your belly brain. Free at last, free at last, thank belly almighty, free at last….