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 :
Female pelvic floor:
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.