The “mysterious” pelvic floor

Many yoga teachers mention the pelvic floor in their classes, mostly in connection with the practice of moola bandha (“engage your pelvic floor in this pose”). Yet for numerous people this area of our body is a bit of a mystery. Let’s make sure we are all on the same page!

Many yoga teachers mention the pelvic floor in their classes, mostly in connection with the practice of moola bandha (“engage your pelvic floor in this pose”). Yet for numerous people, unless they had a closer look because they or their partner have been pregnant, suffer from incontinence or practice certain tantric techniques, this area of our body is a bit of a mystery. Let’s make sure we are all on the same page!

What is the pelvic floor and why is it important?

What we call the pelvic floor is, essentially, a set of crossed muscles creating a “hammock” at the bottom of our pelvic bowl, between our legs.

The deepest layer is the pelvic diaphragm, forming a cupola shape. The next layer is the deep transverse perineal muscle, stretching across the pelvic outlet from side to side. The superficial layer surrounds the openings in the pelvic floor in the shape of a figure of eight, connecting the front and the back. In practice, the terms “pelvic floor”, “perineum” and “pelvic diaphragm” are often used interchangeably or mixed up. A minority of yoga teachers take issue with the term “pelvic floor”, arguing it is not really the “floor” of the body, they prefer the term “pelvic muscles”.

Male pelvic floor :

 

©A.v.Lysebeth, “Tantra”)

Female pelvic floor:

 

(© Wikipedia)

The muscles of the male pelvic floor are stronger at the front to support erection, whilst in the female the muscles are stronger at the back. The urogenital hiatus allows the urogenital “apparatus” to pass through the pelvic floor into the perineum below. In males, this is the passage of the urethra. In females, it is the passage of the urethra and the vagina. As you can see in the female drawing, there is a connection with the gluteus maximus, the “buttocks”.
Which means two things: 1) sometimes when we think we are working on the pelvic floor, we are actually just squeezing the buttocks – so learn to differentiate, use a mirror if need be. And 2) strong legs and glutes do support a strong pelvic floor – to the point that female dancers, horse riders etc. sometimes have a pelvic floor that is excessively toned and cannot relax… as they discover in childbirth.

What does the pelvic floor do?

It is involved in three very basic functions of the human body: urination, defecation, and sex / reproduction. The first two explain why keeping the pelvic floor elastic is so important to prevent or heal incontinence (which manifests as leakage when sneezing, laughing, or running, for example). The sexual function explains why practitioners of certain tantric techniques (used to reach higher states of consciousness through specific sexual practices) and modern sex therapists insist on training it (improving vaginal muscle tone has been scientifically proven to cure many cases of “frigidity” in women whose muscles in that area were less reactive).

It also supports our inner organs against the downward pull of gravity – hence its importance in the context of internal organ prolapse.

At the energetic level, moola bandha, the root lock, keeps the energy inside, directing it upwards, (also important for yoga: protecting the lower back, together with uddiyana bandha) Last but not least, the root chakra, “mooladhara chakra”, which is associated with our most basic human needs (shelter, food) is situated there.

What can affect the pelvic floor?

Pregnancy and childbirth, frequent and strong coughing (in case of a chronical lung condition for example), slouching on chairs/ sofas (which pushes the internal organs down), repeated incorrect lifting of heavy loads, chronic constipation (leading to forceful pushing, aggravated by modern toilets, on which we sit as on a chair, instead of squatting as nature intended), and incorrect “hyperpressive” abdominal exercises are all stressors to the pelvic floor muscles. Also, a symptom of menopause is that tissues tend to lose some of their elasticity through hormonal changes.

How to keep it healthy?

Basically, as with any muscles, you can’t just focus on toning, you must also relax. Some people need more relaxation, others more toning, so it’s not “one solution for all”. But the rule of thumb is still “use it or lose it”.

In the case of pregnancy and childbirth, practicing specific pelvic floor exercises which focus on elasticity of these muscles such as taught in the pre- and postnatal classes, and perineal massage in the last weeks before giving birth, are proven to be helpful.

If you suffer from stress incontinence, it can be beneficial to “squeeze” your pelvic floor pre-emptively when you feel a cough, a sneeze or a good belly-laugh coming.
Also, both men and women who are interested in maintaining a healthy sex life for many more years will benefit from basic tantric practices to keep their pelvic floor active.

And this goes for everybody: when practicing any physical exercise or lifting heavy loads, remember to engage the pelvic floor muscles, draw the abdominal wall up and back towards the spine, and lift the diaphragm (you may see your belly bulging if you’re not doing it correctly and pushing your internal organs down). This is one reason why we mention moola bandha and uddiyana bandha in yoga classes.

To learn more about this issue, we encourage you to join us for the “Pelvic floor Magic” workshop with Susanne at Yoga Creation.

Posture of the month: CROW POSE (BAKASANA)

Bakasana is often the first arm balance that people learn. It’s a great feeling once we get lift off in this pose, but it can take a leap of faith the first time, a willingness to trust ourselves and overcome our fear of falling.

Bakasana is often the first arm balance that people learn. It’s a great feeling once we get lift off in this pose, but it can take a leap of faith the first time, a willingness to trust ourselves and overcome our fear of falling.

Preparatory poses

Plank pose and Vasisthasana are useful for building some upper body strength.

Cat Pose, Child’s Pose and Garland Pose (Malasana), are useful for allowing the spine to gently round

Baddha Konasana and Malasana are also useful for opening the inner groins and hips prior to performing Bakasana.

How to Perform
  • From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), inhale and raise the arms up and exhale and fold forward, bending the knees as much as you need to, placing the hands flat on the floor shoulder width apart, and about 10 inches (25 centimetres) in front of the feet, with the middle finger pointing forward and the other fingers spreading out from there.
  • With the feet close together, come on to tip toes, begin to bend the legs, widening the knees whilst keeping the bottom lifting high.
  • Begin to bend the elbows a little, lift the heels higher off the floor, and shift your weight forward into the hands to bring the knees on the upper arms as close to the arm pits as possible.
  • Strongly press the knees in against the upper arms, engage through your abdominal muscles, and trust in the support of your arms. Once the weight is in the hands, lift the feet fully off the floor, and straighten the arms as much as possible, pushing the floor away.
  • Keep the feet together and active, pressing through the ball joints of the big toes, and draw them into towards your buttocks. Keep the bottom high and allow the spine to round upwards.
  • Stay for 5 to 10 breaths, engaging mula bandha and keeping the head up and the gaze on the tip of the nose to help with your balance.
  • To exit the pose, either carefully lower the feet back to the floor and inhale to come back to standing, or lightly step or jump back to Chaturanga Dandasana and continue via your Vinyasa flow into your next pose.
  • In the second series ashtanga sequence, Bakasana may also be jumped into directly from Downward Facing Dog, although this take a great amount of control and lift through the bandhas, and therefore many years of practice for most people.
  • Bakasana can also be entered from Three Point Headstand, but that’s a story for another day . . .

Benefits
  • Strengthens the wrists, arms, shoulders and abdominal muscles
  • Quietens and focuses the mind
  • Helps to face and conquer the fear of falling forward, which can help build confidence and courage in other areas of our lives
  • Helps to build the strength and focus required for more challenging arm balancing poses
Modifications
  • To begin with, do not try to straighten the arms but keep the elbows bent as you learn to balance.
  • Practice transferring the weight back and forth from toes to hands, without actually taking the feet off the floor.
  • If you are worried about falling, place a large cushion in front of your hands to relieve the fear.
  • If it’s difficult to get lift off, try taking a block under the feet to give yourself a little extra help
Contraindications
  • Not suitable for those with current wrist injuries
  • Those with a current shoulder injury shoulder injury should also proceed with caution
  • Not suitable during pregnancy

Posture of the month: Shoulderstand

Turning your body up side down builds strength and elasticity in the musculature, ligaments and connective tissues of the spine and rib cage. Improves posture and energises our vital organs.

Salamba Sarvangasana : supported Shoulderstand pose

In yoga Headstand is sometimes called th King of yoga and Shoulderstand the Queen of yoga. The postures are so beneficial in whole that it is no wonder they’ve been called King & Queen of yoga.

Benefits:

Turning your body up side down builds strength and elasticity in the musculature, ligaments and connective tissues of the spine and rib cage. Inversions help  improve posture and energises our vital organs.

Physical level: stimulating the endocrine glands and the thyroid. Helps rebalancing hypoactive thyroid. Relieves reparation problems such as asthma congestion and sinusitis. Reduces stress to the musculature and organs of the torso, improving digestion, respiration and circulation. Inversions bring relief to tired, strained legs. Reduces water retention in the legs.

Mind level: calms the mind

Emotional: relieves stress and can helps with mild depression
Chakra: awakens vishuddhi chakra (throat chakra)

Cautions:

People suffering from high blood pressure, heart disease, enlarged thyroid, during menstruation or excessive toxins in the system shouldn’t attempt inverted postures. If you are pregnant and you have practised sarvangasana before your pregnancy regularly you can do the asana, but listen to your body as every woman experience it differently.

How to:

  1. Lie in a relaxed supine position
  2. Then bring the legs together, palms of the hands on the floor beside the body
  3. Raise the legs, bringing them a little behind the head, so that the back rises, and support the back with the hands
  4. Raise the legs in the air, feet towards the ceiling
  5. Support the lower back with the hands, keeping the elbows behind on the floor
  6. The hands can be adjusted so that you are steady, elbows can come towards each other
  7. Keep neck long
  8. Concentrate on the throat centre

Coming out: slowly lower the back onto the floor, keeping the legs raised. Keep the palms of the hands on the ground and slowly lower the legs.

The posture is more intense if you apply Ujjayi breath.

Modifications:
Vipareeta Karani (upside down): Major difference to shoulderstand is the angle of the back to the floor. In sarvangasana the back and legs should be perpendicular; in vipareeta karani the back is at a forty-five degree angle to the floor and legs.


More modifications:
Variation I:
  

Variation II:


Next step
:
Niralamba shoulderstand : unsupported shoulderstand

Try to maintain same angle back to floor as in the supported shoulderstand, but place the palms parallel on the floor with straight arms.