Where is the Pelvic Floor?

Dear Yogini: What is this pelvic floor you keep referring to? ~ Confused

Dear Confused:
I’m glad you asked. You’re not alone in your confusion. The pelvic floor muscles are important structural core muscles that are largely hidden from view. Many of us have no idea how to find them or why we would want to. What follows is a short primer, if you’d like more information my favorite description of the pelvic floor muscles can be found in the book Body3 by Thomas Myers. (for an image check out: http://lucy.stanford.edu/img/ImageCA_562_2.jpg )

The pelvic floor muscles lie in the floor of the pelvis. Take your awareness to this area of your body, note the position of your sitting bones, your pubic bone and your tailbone. These four bony landmarks bound an area shaped like a diamond. The pelvic floor muscles are a sheath of muscles spanning this diamond. The fibers in the muscles span all directions in the diamond: front to back, side to side, and figure-eights through the space. The area can be thought of as a diaphragm or even a trampoline. To function optimally these muscles need to be taut, resilient, pliable, strong, and able to relax completely.

If we think evolutionarily, these muscles evolved in a vertical position in our four-legged ancestors. In most mammals the pelvic floor is a door through which mating, birthing and waste release occurs. The area needs to be able to open and close, but doesn’t need to bear weight. When humans became upright walking creatures the pelvic floor rotated into its current horizontal position. In this position it bears most of the weight of the abdomen. Pressure changes within the abdomen (breathing, sneezing, jumping, and running) stress the pelvic floor musculature. For women the pelvic floor is particularly stressed during pregnancy and childbirth. Strengthening these muscles has many benefits, from preventing incontinence and hemorrhoids to increased sexual pleasure in men and women.

Western medicine generally teaches these exercises with the name “Kegel” Exercises after the MD who first introduced them to us. The exercises have long been part of yoga practice. The common yogic term for working the pelvic floor muscles is Mula Bandha or the ‘root lock.’ Mula Bandha is variously used to refer to subtle energetic work in the pelvic floor as well as to the engagement of very specific subsets of the pelvic floor musculature. For my purposes, I use the term to generically refer to engaging all the muscles of the pelvic floor.

Kegels are introduced by encouraging the student to stop and start the flow of urine. This particular exercise focuses on the urinary sphincter part of the pelvic floor. It is a good beginning. You can also isolate the muscles that contract the anal sphincter and the genital sphincter as you become more familiar with the area. Practice and explore to find the various parts of this region of your body.

For yoga, I encourage students to engage the entire area. If you come back to imagining that diamond shape underneath you, my first cue is to ‘narrow the diamond,’ to make it smaller by drawing front-and-back and side-to-side together. Do this 5 to 10 times. Then relax. As with any exercise the rest phase is as important as the work phase. Needless to say, you do not want these muscles to go into spasm or hyper contraction.

Once you’ve got the first exercise down you can begin to lift the diamond. Imagine the area lifting like an elevator one floor at a time. You might be able to lift 3 or 4 separate floors, stopping for just a second or two on each floor and then reversing the process and resting on the ground floor. Repeat this process 5 to 10 times as well.

In yoga class we engage the pelvic floor and attempt to hold a gentle engagement throughout our practice. We don’t want to clench the muscles but we do want to keep them lifted and taut. This is “Mula Bandha” – the support provided by the pelvic floor lift. You might also notice that when you contract the pelvic floor muscles that the muscles of the lower abdomen also engage. They are hard wired together and provide important support for the low back and spine.

For general health you should do something on the order of 3 sets of 10 Kegels each day. I have known some women who said they practiced every time they waited for a red light, or anytime they were standing in line waiting. You don’t want to make the habit of doing the exercise in the middle of urination because you can prevent your bladder from fully emptying and thus cause bladder infections. Use that technique only to identify the muscle sets and then establish another time and place where you can remember to do this exercise daily ~ maybe while brushing your teeth. I call it the secret exercise as you can practice anywhere, any time. Just make a practice of repeating daily.


Yoga for Grief: Backbends

Dear Yogini: What are supportive postures for grief and broken hearts? from: A Grieving Soul

Dear Beautiful Shimmering Grieving Soul:
When we open our hearts to life our hearts inevitably will be broken by life. Our hearts will be broken for lost love, for friends and loved ones who die, for children who grow up and leave home, for flowers that wilt, for cultures, places and critters lost from the planet, for the violence perpetrated by one human on another, and for the hope that lives on in spite of loss. Life is wrought with heartbreak. We keep opening our hearts so that we can experience love and joy knowing that everything passes in time.

Heart opening postures support the body through the process of grief. They help us feel safe when we are exposed. They let us know that we can care for ourselves in vulnerable situations. When we practice heart openers we experience the physical sensation of an open heart without breaking. Difficult emotions may arise in these postures. Breathe through the emotions. Let them in and don't grasp onto them. Always breathe and let them pass through you.

Backbends can be done standing, seated or lying on the floor. There are belly down and belly up variations. Begin simply. Try sprinkling the seated and standing variations pictured above throughout your day. Invite your heart to lead and your gaze to turn gently up. These poses will counter the habitual forward bending we do in our lives. You'll feel better at the end of your days as a result.

Lisa in Bridge Pose

Bridge pose is a larger heart opener that is accessible to most bodies. It is contraindicated for those with neck injuries. Seek help from a qualified teacher if this pose causes you any neck pain.

To begin: Lie on your back on the floor with your arms along side you, your knees bent and your feet parallel. Notice the presence or absence of a lumbar curve, the space between your low back and the floor. Beginners may choose to practice low bridge and pelvic tilting: alternately press your low back into the floor with your exhale and let the low back rise with your inhale. Keep your sitting bones on the floor for this variation. The core all back bends is the arching of the spine towards the front of the body and the lifting of the heart into the front of the awareness.

After practicing pelvic tilts find 'low bridge:' the position where your buttocks and shoulders remain on the floor while the back is arched toward the ceiling. Engage your abdominal and back muscles here to support your lumbar spine as you press your feet into the floor and lift your pelvis upward into bridge posture. Continue to open the front of your spine, lift your heart toward the front of your body and maintain strength and support in your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. You can work with the arms alongside you or clasp your hands together on the floor under your pelvis. In either case press the arms bones firmly into the floor for additional support. Hold the pose for three to five long smooth breaths. You'll want to repeat the posture about three times.

There are two common ways to come down from bridge posture. You may reengage your supporting muscles and lower your back to the floor while you maintain the arch of the low back thus bringing the sitting bones to the floor before the low back. This method improves low back and abdominal strength. Alternately, you may slowly drop one vertebrae at a time to the floor from your upper back to your tail bone. This method improves spinal articulation and mobility. Both are good.

Jay in Supported Backbend

For times of deeper grief or when you need restorative rest choose a supported variation of bridge posture. Lie face up on the floor with knees bent and place yoga blocks, folded blankets or a firm pillow under your pelvis. The basic form of the pose is the same and you can release the work of the pose and relax into gravity. If it is comfortable on your shoulders you can let your arms rest in 'cactus' alongside the head and place an eye bag on your eyes and forehead. Remain in supported bridge for five to ten minutes or as long as your low back is comfortable.

The goal of heart openers is not to avoid grief. Rather, to be present for grief, to accept grief, and to weep. Then to wipe your tears away, stand up and embrace life knowing that the more deeply we fall in love the more opportunities we will have to grieve. And the more fully we grieve our losses the more deeply we can fall in love.