Step on to your mat and make like a horse…

If you have ever been to a yoga class, you will understand this…it doesn’t matter how great a yoga class you are in, when you are first learning, there are times when the repeated instructions of “bandha, BANDHA, BANDHAAA” feel like they may well be in Sanskrit for all the sense they are making to you….

You attempt to analyse and intellectualise what it is you are supposed to be doing and feeling, and you try to break it down, step by step, and understand it before you can kinaesthetically “get” it.

But, sometimes too much description and over analysis may help you to get closer to understanding a concept, but take you further away from actually feeling it….mental paralysis from over analysis…..and that’s when analogies can be extremely helpful in attaining that “oh yeah, NOW I get it…” moment where it all makes sense. Or the “Magic Eye” moment as I call it…if you’re of a certain age and remember all those magic eye posters and books that companies like Athena et al used to churn out, where some of us would sit for ages in 6th form common rooms and University bed sits across the land, staring intensely into those “pictures” desperately trying to “see” what on earth everyone else was wittering on about, you’ll know what I mean… it took me many late night hours of furrowed brows and watering eyes before I finally got that looking too hard meant I saw nothing but a fast approaching migraine, and that I had to let my eyes passively expand out towards my peripheral vision to really see the picture emerge…or something….or maybe I should have actually been studying instead….these days, for the perspective of my yoga mat, I understand that passive “magic” eye as drsti, but that’s a whole different blog topic….

 For those of you who have read the title of this blog above, I can sense a “now where’s she going with this?”…

Please bear with me… for some of you who maybe aren’t too familiar with all things equine,  I promise to keep this basic (I will include *NH* – non-horsey explanations where necessary) but this might not totally connect as an analogy for you; whereas for others, this might have you metaphorically high fiving me from the bottom of your mula bandha.

This is not an in depth discussion about the intricacies and similarities between horses and humans anatomically, chakrally, or any other “lly”, it is just an analogy to convey the concept of how it should “feel” and what it is you are trying to capture  – the sense of alignment, energy and lightness within you on your mat. In essence, it can be the seemingly most obscure or random analogy that sparks with us for the eureka! moment to occur, and as this one worked for one of my students, I would like to share this with everyone in case it helps you to go all magic eye on your yoga mat too…

 Any horse riders out there will understand the concept of how different a horse feels to ride when it is “on the bit” (for the *NH*reader, think of it as rebalancing the horse from front wheel drive to being rear wheel drive – ie all the “impulsion” and drive is coming from the horse’s quarters. Even the non initiated person who has only seen horses on the telly will know that a horse moves differently when it is “collected” with it’s head and quarters looking engaged and it’s top line lengthened and rounded, rather than just “running” from the shoulders, top line shortened, head above the bit, back hollowed and rear quarters following along sometime next week).

Any rider will tell you it is a completely different experience, as when a horse is “on the bit”, it moves with light ease, strength and grace, balance and fluidity and a feeling of powerful buoyancy…the embodiment of shtira and sukha.

All those verbs and adjectives are that which you also seek to feel on your mat, and you know bandha is the key for you…so try this.

 Stand at the front of your mat, in tadasana and gently close your eyes.

Begin by focussing on the breath and the alignment of your spine.

You are aiming to engage each bandha in turn and finally all 3 in unison, but at less than 50%, so this is more about switching on awareness than ramping it up to full tilt. Now start by engaging mula bandha. Lift your pelvic floor or perineum – a good way to initiate this is by keeping your eyelids closed but rolling your eyes upwards within the sockets – as there is a neural link between the optic nerve and the muscles of the pelvic floor. Then exhale fully and engage uddiyana bandha by drawing your navel up and back towards your spine and then, keeping your spine long and lifting through the crown of your head, draw your chin down and in to engage jallandhara bandha (throat). Keep all 3 of these bandhas softly engaged as you inhale and exhale.

If you are struggling to feel the right areas switched on, keeping your eyes closed, visualise a horse moving effortlessly, floating with grace and power, on the bit with their equivalent equine bandhas engaged. Imagine the horse momentarily as a biped rather than quadruped, flip the horse up on to it’s hind legs and the areas they activate to “float” on the bit, roughly correspond to our 3 classical bandhas.

Mula bandha – root lock, the powerhouse, the foundation bandha from which all spinal alignment above sits upon – the seat of our energy. In Equine terms, this too is their powerhouse, driving the horse forwards and giving it the strength, balance and flexibility to propel itself up and over jumps – powerful quarters with hocks coming through under the horse’s body, (*NH* hocks = back knees – the bits that look like elbows on their hind legs).

Uddiyana bandha is drawn in and up under our lower ribs in the abdomen and when a horse engages their equivalent mula bandha, uddiyana bandha follows naturally with the correct alignment and integrity of their spine – this is what gives the horse it’s “collected” look, where it’s spine is beautifully rounded rather than hollowed – lengthening it’s top line and increasing stability, as we do too.

Jallandhara bandha – as you stand in Tadasana, with every inhale and exhale, your focus is on a constant awareness of lengthening your spine between each and every vertebrae – it is a sense of “lift” from your pelvic floor all the way up through the crown of your head – this includes lengthening your cervical spine (your neck) and bringing your awareness to your jallandhara bandha (chin or throat lock) amplifies this sensation. At the same time as drawing up through the crown of your head, you draw your chin down and in towards your chest slightly. A horse does this too, arching it’s neck (the degree of which is dependent upon it’s level of training/strength and flexibility), the poll being the highest point (*NH* poll = the top point of their skull between their ears, the crown of their head) with the head being in a position where when viewed from the side, a vertical line can be drawn down the front of the horse’s face. If a horse is “above the bit” (*NH* head further up and leading with their chin), it breaks the alignment and flow of energy from their quarters and they hollow their back, shifting the power to their forehand or shoulders. As you stand in Tadasana, jut your chin forwards and feel how it shortens your neck and what it does to your spinal alignment all the way down – you lose that “connection” from the rest of your spine and body and the sense of lift and buoyancy from below…walking round like that is incredibly hard work due to the domino effect of postural compensations, it’s energetically inefficient and likely to lead to discomfort and eventually chronic conditions or injury due to subsequent postural imbalances.

A horse is no different in that respect – particularly if they then try to do athletic things with their spine and their limbs, such as jumping –  if they are poorly aligned and imbalanced they can easily injure their back (as any rider will verify).

It takes many hours of training for a horse to be able to be consistently on the bit, as concentration, strength and flexibility have to be built up over time – no different from all the practise that we biped yogis and yoginis have to put in to learn to engage and maintain bandha, especially during asana transitions too.

 For another example, come to the front of your mat and play around with bandha in Virabradasana 3. Try it with all bandha off first and then, switch on mula bandha in the asana – you should feel that your legs and torso are now more connected energetically and you are far more stable within the balance. Bring an awareness to uddiyana bandha and feel your spine lengthen further out of your hips, a sense of buoyancy in your torso and an increase in stability within the pose, then add an awareness of jallandhara bandha, thus ensuring alignment of the entire spine, lengthening the cervical spine and allowing a feeling of energy to run without impediment through the whole spine and right through the crown of the head.

 So “step on to your mat and make like a horse” doesn’t mean flare your nostrils, toss your head wildly and then leap on to your neighbour’s mat without warning, because in your mind’s eye you’ve seen a killer pterodactyl in pheasant’s clothing….it means embody the feeling of fluidity, grace, balance and power that a horse has when it’s on the bit, the effortless float of transitions, the strength and the ease, the shtira and sukha.

 I welcome your comments and feedback below and I hope this analogy connects with you – either way, I suspect you weren’t anticipating reading a blog about yoga that included a reference to both horse and pterodactyl….NAMASTE!



Wonderful stuff, Jacqs, thank-you. LOVE the analogy, things like that really help students to ‘picture’ a visual. After all, asana are so often named after various members of the animal kingdom. There is a reason for this! Next time I get on my mat I might just be tempted to toss my mane 😉

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