Updated: Jun 29, 2020
I want you to come on a journey with me. Let’s travel to a yoga class, one in which you’re in your flow, landed in your body and breath, inseparable from your intention. Ready for that next cue, you hear: “exhale, contract your pelvic floor.” What do you do? Do you scratch your head? Look up at the ceiling and squeeze the living bejesus down there? Does a circus of interrupting thoughts arrive? With, “How?” “What the hell is that?” “Am I doing it right?”
Maybe you’ve actually been here before. I have. And as a pelvic floor specialist, I wanted to facepalm. I can’t tell you how many times women come into my office after reading they should do 100 kegels a day with their kegel weights, arriving with new symptoms of pelvic pain, urgency, and even incontinence. Many women are completely unaware that they already hold tension in these muscles. Of course, I don’t blame them. This area of the body is not a hot dinner table topic, and it’s complex. These muscles are intimately woven in our bodies, hidden from our view, and frankly, are hard to feel without practice.
Kegels, the holy grail of pelvic health, the solution to all of your problems, the one-size-fits you and you and...NO, PLEASE! Casually encouraging people to blindly “contract the pelvic floor” can be dangerous and counterproductive. Let’s take a moment, zoom out, and stop passing this fad saying along before anybody else gets hurt. (But seriously, doing kegels can be damaging).
If I had to have one slogan, it’d be: “Kegels, don’t try them at home!” Of course, with the subtext of, “without a pelvic floor therapist.” Yet, avoiding kegels all together isn’t helpful either, so I have something you can try at home as a first step. By the end of this article, I’ll have you connecting with your true core in one simple exercise. But first, I want to provide you a foundational understanding of your pelvis so that you can connect with your pelvic floor for real strength.
Why is the pelvic floor important?
You may have experienced something in your life to make you more aware of the pelvic floor: leaking during exercise or with a sneeze, urinary urgency or frequency (going more than seven times a day), bowel issues like constipation or IBS, or pain. Did you know that low back pain is often correlated with a weakened pelvic floor? Often, pain in the sacro-iliac (SI) area, or pain in the lumbar spine is due to instability in the pelvis, which is held together by your pelvic floor muscles.
During pregnancy, or in your postpartum recovery, you most certainly became aware of these muscles. Tearing, or an episiotomy (a purposeful cut to the perineum) sometimes occurs because of the lack of awareness, control, and ability to completely coordinate and relax down there. Hormone changes at any stage in a woman’s life can reveal that these tissues are susceptible to change, causing microtears, dryness, and discomfort in sex. One thing is for sure: whether or not you’ve had to pay attention to these muscles before, they tirelessly work for you, providing you some of the most essential support for your organs, posture and movement.
What is the pelvic floor?
The pelvic floor is a hammock-like group of sixteen muscles that are suspended in the pelvis, woven around the vagina, anus, clitoris, and urethra. The pelvic floor musculature provides three of your most essential functions:
Support: the pelvic floor muscles support not only your most vital organs (bladder, uterus, and rectum), but also the weight of your head.
Elimination and continence: the pelvic floor muscles help control the bladder and bowel by relaxing to let waste come out, and contracting to hold things in when you need to.
Sexual Appreciation: the pelvic floor muscles help you to experience comfortable intimacy. One muscle, for example, erects the penis or clitoris. The muscles down there also need to relax and contract properly to achieve climax.
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Amazing, right? But there’s more to what makes this such an essential part of our body. What most people don’t know is that it is one of three diaphragms in our body. It is the upside-down parentheses to our respiratory diaphragm. Like a trampoline, these muscles are buoyant and respond to our breath to make room for more air in our abdominal canister, and to simultaneously maintain healthy intra-abdominal pressure.
When you inhale, the diaphragm drops down like a parachute, and the pelvic floor responds by lengthening and softening. The pelvic floor also coordinates with your diaphragm on exhale, by gently shortening and compressing in and up. These two diaphragms coordinate when you breathe, and are connected through two other muscles, the transverse abdominis and multifidus.
The core is more
When most people think of the core, they think of the rectus muscles, or the “six-pack” muscles. But what really supports our spine and respiration are the deep core muscles. I call them the “core four:” the pelvic floor, transverse abdominis (TA), multifidus, and respiratory diaphragm. The TA muscle is deep, and connects to the ribcage and the pelvis. It is also connected through fascia, or connective tissue, at the diaphragm muscle and to the lumbar spine. If you’re a visual learner like me, you’ll appreciate the following images.
Permission to use copyright image from Pelvic Guru, LLCpelvicguru.com
All together, the “core four” close the abdominal container, and coordinate to maintain healthy pressure internally to protect the vital organs for elimination and sex. They also work to manage added pressure when you exercise, lift your baby, or sneeze. Without this core stability, pressure can escape up (acid reflux much?) or can press down on our pelvic floor muscles.
Continuous pressure downward can result in the muscles becoming fatigued, weak, tense, and even painful. The muscles are like an overworked employee; they are constantly being recruited to hold against this pressure. The muscles, overactive, get knots of tension from constantly straining, just like muscles in your shoulder or neck. Over time, these strained muscles can no longer hold things together effectively, and eventually lead to dysfunction like incontinence, pelvic pain, and even organ prolapse.
Kegels: the good, the bad, and the ugly
So, wait, why wouldn’t you want to go home and pump some iron down there? Don’t those muscles need to get stronger? Imagine holding a ten pound weight in your hand, and continually pumping the bicep muscle without ever giving it a break, or letting your elbow completely extend. Would that create a strong muscle? No. In this example, if your elbow doesn’t extend to its full range of motion, the bicep muscle never turns off. It will keep working and working, and the muscle will get tighter and tighter. To get stronger, these muscles need a break.
Posture is also a major component. Remember when I told you we have sixteen muscles down there? Even a minor imbalance in your pelvis can pull one side of the muscles to have more tension and be overly tight, while the others get stretched and weak.
Most patients I see have overactive muscles, or a combination of underactive and overactive muscles. Even postpartum moms have tension patterns that develop - either from carrying the baby or from postpartum healing. Doing 100 kegels a day, especially without proper core awareness and a full breath, tightens the tight ones more.
Of course, kegels aren’t all bad. Done properly, they help pump blood and oxygen down to your organs. Practicing kegels at certain stages of pregnancy can help increase awareness of the muscles and coordinate the muscles consciously. Yet, no amount of kegels will help you unless you’re able to relax your pelvic floor completely.
Focusing on just these muscles without the support from the “core four” is tiring for the muscles, and can just make them tighter. And, by focusing just on the contraction of these muscles, the muscles become less buoyant and flexible. The pelvic floor is reflexive in nature, and as long as the muscles are able to fully relax, they’ll spring to the rescue. Let’s get your inner core online, so that you can experience the natural rhythm of the pelvic floor muscle, and release any tension.
Try this at home
First things first, let’s get you to connect to your true core. Go ahead and try this at home:
Start by lying on your back, with knees bent and soles of the feet on the floor.
Place your hands on your belly inside your front hip bones, and take several rounds of breath inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Allow your belly to expand on the inhale and stay soft on the exhale.
Once your belly is soft (think: Buddha belly), exhale with a “shhh” sound until you can’t exhale anymore.
Stay soft; let the belly drop from the exhale, but without gripping or pulling it in.
Keep the ab muscles relaxed and keep exhaling to feel your deeper, inner core. You may feel under your fingers a deep core muscle turn on; the TA may press out into your hands.
If you don’t feel it, you can lift just your head off the floor 1-2 inches and you will feel the TA activate. This deep core muscle should feel firm, but should never dome, cone, or “poof” the belly.
Now that you’ve felt it, try to use the technique above to contract the TA without lifting your head.
Now, let’s find the pelvic floor.
Bring your awareness to the muscles between your sitz bones. As you breathe deeply with the “shhh” breath, notice any change in pressure in your perineum (space between your vagina and anus).
If you don’t feel it, place your hand at your perineum for feedback, and focus your awareness there. You can also sit up on a yoga ball or chair, with a rolled up towel under your perineum for extra feedback.
If you feel tension down there that won’t fully release, this is your practice.
If you feel like the muscles are very relaxed, you can use an exhale to contract the muscles, pulling them in and up. Hold for 3-5 seconds or until the muscle fatigues.
Are you able to fully relax after the contraction? Try taking those muscles down an elevator to the ground floor, and then the basement.
If you notice increased tension down there that is hard to let go, your muscles are likely overactive and you’ll need to just use the first breathing exercise above.
If you’re able to fully relax them, you can do 5-10 repetitions.
Don’t go crazy, unless you’ve gotten clearance to do so. Do use them to increase your awareness down there, and try to focus more on the relaxation or release afterwards.
Just like our breathing, the pelvic floor muscles are reflexive, their response automatic. They are already connected to our breath. And like our breath, they already know what to do. The only thing in the way is us - in our constant gripping of the abs, learned tension patterns in the body, and limits in taking a full, deep breath.
The secret is to let go. Our entire body has a natural rhythm. Sometimes we need to relearn that rhythm. One thing I can promise you, is that it is often that simple. Once a woman is able to fully relax her pelvic floor, that next pelvic floor muscle contraction is much stronger. My clients are amazed when they realize, all they had to do was drop the weight. It isn’t about working harder. Most of the time, what is needed is relaxation or full range of motion of the muscles, so that the pelvic floor muscles can switch on when they are needed.
Whether you are a pregnant or postpartum woman, or you’re a person who has experienced any kind of pelvic dysfunction, becoming aware of your pelvis is an exciting opportunity. These muscles, organs, and structures, communicate to us when there is a problem, so that we can come more into balance with them. Health is a lifelong pursuit. Maybe you didn’t notice before, or maybe you even ignored the signals, but now you have the knowledge to get the support you need and to optimize your pelvic health. Take it as a jump-off point.
So next time you hear a teacher say “contract your pelvic floor,” I encourage you to slow down, soften, and bring your breath all the way down there. Relax any clenching and give your floor a break. Allow for its expansion on the inhale. The power in your pelvic floor muscles is in their full range, their flexibility. You’ll likely be surprised to find that in your softness, you already have the strength you need.