I am often on the fence about instructing or encouraging students (or myself in my own practice for that matter) to ‘bind’ in postures or not. ‘Binding’ in a Yoga posture is when we wrap our arm or arms around our torso or leg and then clasp on to either our opposite hand or perhaps foot. As binding takes time and a certain level of openness in the joints it is not for beginners, but body proportions and limb length can also dictate how accessible it is for different students. Hyper mobile people or those with longer limbs will just find it easier to get into.
Sometimes I feel people opt ‘to take the bind’ as a rite of passage, a next level achievement that they seek out at all costs. I sometimes have to strongly encourage people to take several steps (kramas) back when they forsake relaxed shoulders, the integrity of the spine and shoulder girdle, and smooth breath in order to clasp their hands together tightly around a part of their body in some way. If I am totally honest I have been guilty of this too, ( ‘just one more centimetre, if I could just reach, there’s my finger, nearly there…sooo close!). But why do we want to do it and why (as I am hoping to address in this article) does it in fact feel so good afterwards? Is the reason we should bind not to get deeper into postures but for the intense compression and then subsequent wondrous feeling of relaxation when the bind is released?
Research has shown that deep pressure on the muscles of the body helps with relaxation. It’s why hugs work, and actually why some children on the Autistic spectrum with sensory needs find weighted blankets and vests so comforting and necessary to help them relax.
Pressure on the muscles, like that we receive in a hug or from deep pressure massage, trigger the body to release certain ‘happy’ hormones. Two of which I will introduce below –
Oxytocin – Oxytocin is the magical hormone that is released during childbirth. It is what helps our mothers forget the pain they endured and makes them still want to love and care for us. When we hug someone, oxytocin is released into our bodies by our pituitary gland, lowering both our heart rates and our cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Amazing!
Dopamine – In addition to releasing Oxytocin, hugs also stimulate the brain to release dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Dopamine sensors are the areas that many stimulating drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine target. So hugs, or deep pressure massage on yourself can help the body release hormones to bring a sense of pleasure and wellbeing over your whole system.
Deep muscular pressure is also beneficial to normal babies (Barnard and Brazelton 1990, Gunzenhauser 1990). Institutionalised babies who received supplemental tactile stimulation, mainly deep touch pressure, developed more normally (Provence and Lipton 1962). Premature babies who receive stroking and tightly bound swaddling also are reported to show definite benefits (Anderson 1986, Field et al. 1986, Lieb et al. 1980).
The strong need for deep touch stimulation is suggested in Harlow and Zimmerman’s classic experiment (1959): baby monkeys would cling to and press against a soft cloth mother surrogate which provided contact comfort, over a wire surrogate that provided milk.
Deep pressure touch has been found to have beneficial effects in a variety of clinical settings (Barnard and Brazelton 1990, Gunzenhauser 1990). In anecdotal reports, deep touch pressure has been described to produce a calming effect in children with psychiatric disorders. Deep pressure stimulation, such as rolling up in a gym mat, has been used to calm children with autistic disorder and ADHD (Ayres 1979, King 1989). Lorna King (personal communication, 1990) reports that children with sleeping problems appear to sleep better inside of a mummy sleeping bag, which adapts to fit the body snuggly. It also has been used to reduce tactile defensiveness in children who cannot tolerate being touched. McClure and Holtz-Yotz (1991) found that deep pressure applied by foam-padded splints on the arms reduced self-injurious behavior and self-stimulation in an autistic child.
So hugs and deep pressure both release positive, happy, calm inducing hormones into the body.
To bind or squeeze our own limbs in to our torso is a bit like giving ourselves a hug or deep pressure massage. I think if we treat binding in yoga asana as a full body compression hug and pay attention to the feelings we receive after the bind has been released then we can view it as a way towards deeper relaxation and wellbeing, not as a way to push or pull ourselves further into postures.