Though yoga for pelvic health is a wider topic, for this article I’m going to focus on the muscles at the base of the pelvis, the region most often referred to as the pelvic floor.
These days I am trying to avoid referring to the base of the pelvis as the pelvic floor and instead use the terms pelvic diaphragm or hammock or even trampoline. Using the word floor makes this supportive tissue sound like something that should be hard and fixed, whereas using the word diaphragm, hammock or trampoline gives, I think, more a sense of how we really want this part of our body to be, i.e. supportive and responsive with the ability to contract and the ability to relax.
It’s a myth that weak pelvic muscles are the cause of all problems in this area. The muscles at the base of the pelvis can be weak but they can also be too tight and they can be weak and tight at the same time. For this reason, simply focusing on the strength of these muscles is not always the best strategy. Instead working in a way that not only strengthens but also teaches us how to relax and helps us to tune into a sense of when these muscles naturally want to lift and when they naturally want to move down has been shown to be more effective.
Yoga is then particularly helpful because we focus not just on strengthening muscles but also on relaxing muscles and in a fully rounded yoga practice we also spend time developing awareness and cultivating a sense of how our muscles behave and respond.
One of the ways we develop an awareness of our pelvic diaphragm muscles is through conscious breathing. In a relaxed state, healthy pelvic floor muscles naturally want to move in rhythm with the respiratory diaphragm as we breathe – when we inhale they want to descend and when we exhale they want to ascend. Breathing with conscious awareness encourages the muscles at the base of the pelvis to behave in a more responsive manner.
I’m sure you know that learning how to relax the body is a key part of yoga. The relaxation phase of any movement is seen to be equally important as the effort phase. This means that in a well-rounded practice we are unlikely to create tightness, including tightness around the pelvic floor. If our pelvic muscles are tight when we start yoga, our yoga practice can help those muscles learn to relax.
Of course in our yoga practice, we do also spend time strengthening the muscles at the base of the pelvis. Sometimes we work directly with actions like Mula Bhanda (the Root lock or valve) where we focus on activating the muscles and sometimes indirectly by moving on an exhale encouraging the muscles to naturally respond and engage. For example, when we are working in Dwipada Pitham (2 footed support pose) lying on our back with our knees bent, lifting the hips on an exhale helps to strengthen the muscles at the base of the pelvis.
Yoga for pelvic health is an area that I specialize in, so if you have any questions please do let me know.
Keep taking good care of yourself, Clair.