The pelvic floor is generally a part of the body that we rarely give thought to.
That is, until we experience a problem with it, such as incontinence or lower back pain.
But hey, that’s true of most things, right?
We only pay attention, once our body (or another part of our life) starts screaming at us.
If the infamous pelvic floor is not on your radar yet, let this blog invite you into the new relationship with this powerful web of muscles.
If, on the other hand, you’ve gone on a journey with your pelvis, then let this blog dispel the myths that may have led you to believing things that aren’t exactly true (or helpful).
Because while I hate to say this, much of what you will read on the internet about the pelvic floor, and much of what is taught by so-called ‘experts’, is largely incorrect.
So are you ready?
Ready to learn the truth about your pelvic floor?
Then let’s begin with the pelvis.
The pelvis is literally the foundation of our body; it’s what everything else extends out from.
The pelvis is responsible for how balanced and stable we feel in both our physical body and in our emotions.
Inside the pelvis, is where we find the pelvic floor; a group of 16 muscles that are weaved together to form a diamond-shaped structure that has three holes in a woman (for the vagina, urethra and rectum) and two holes for a man.
In a healthy body, these layers of muscles work seamlessly together like an incredibly strong trampoline, that stretches from the tailbone to the pubic bone (front to back) and from one sitting bone to the other (side to side).
Now, did you notice me mention ’16’ muscles?
Many people have no idea that the pelvic floor is not just one muscle, but three layers of muscles – 16 in total – that come together to create stability.
There is a lot of confusion over the true role of the pelvic floor, so let me clear this up for you…
The main role of the pelvic floor is stability.
We move and this muscular diamond engages and releases to support that movement.
Yes, the pelvic floor plays a key role in how we perform all our daily activities.
The pelvic floor is a dynamic system that responds accordingly to meet the changing needs of our body.
It helps maintain balance through keeping the pelvic girdle and lumbar spine stable so we can easily maintain healthy posture, stabilising our hip joints.
The pelvic floor remains passively engaged, and then it relaxes to let out urine and poop, and babies, and it also relaxes to let in things like penis’ and fingers for sexual play!
It’s also the pelvic floor’s job to act as a sump pump to help enhance lymphatic movement and rid the body of toxins.
When its functioning well we tend not to notice it; the three layers of muscles work seamlessly together, but when it’s not functioning so well, it can impact us in a myriad of ways.
Ways that may seem unrelated to our pelvic floor are things such as back pain or a heavy feeling in the pelvis or reduced pleasure in the bedroom (because the deeper muscles are involved in orgasm).
You might have more obvious signs like wetting your panties when you sneeze or laugh or bounce on a trampoline.
If this is the case for you, check out my blog: Incontinence: Do tears run down your legs when you laugh?
When the pelvis and its contents are off balance, everything on top of it – the torso, shoulders, neck, head – and everything below it – groins, legs and feet – can be off balance, and prone to injury, as it isn’t being supported from deep within.
A pelvic floor that’s under stress could also make you feel emotionally unbalanced or unstable, scattered or ungrounded.
This is why you want to have a deep connection to these core inner muscles.
OK, so we know this area of the body is important.
Let’s get to know it a little better, by dispelling some of the common myths you may have heard.
Myth 1: The pelvic floor is a ‘floor’ at the base of the pelvis.
It’s this myth that leads many women to believe they need to develop a pelvic floor of steel, so their sexual organs don’t fall on out of them!
With a name like pelvic ‘floor’ of course we would think of it like a floor, right?
But this is only true when a person is not standing in their natural anatomical alignment.
You see, when women wear high heels or slouch or suck in their belly, it irons out the curve in the lower back (the lumbar curve) creating a tucking of the pelvis, that does in fact position the pelvis so that the pelvic floor acts like a ‘floor’ at the base of the pelvis.
The problem is, this group of 16 muscles is not designed to act like a floor and hold our sexual organs in.
It’s not built to bear that kind of load.
This is the job of the pubic bone and the abdominal wall.
When a woman stands in what I call Natural Womanly Stance – feet hip-width apart, belly relaxed, heart lifted, shoulders relaxed down her back, so there is a nice lower back curve – this tips the pelvis on a 30 degree angle, so that the pelvic floor is no longer acting like a ‘floor’ at the bottom of the pelvis.
Instead it’s more like a slanted back wall of the pelvis.
When this happens, the more naturally robust structures of the pelvis – the pubic bone and the abdominal wall – take the weight off of your sexual organs, so the pelvic floor is free to do all the jobs it is designed to carry out.
It’s only when we stand in an unhealthy, unnatural posture, that the pelvic floor becomes a make-shift floor.
And if I’m to be honest with you, this totally stresses the pelvic floor out, and causes it to dysfunction.
Myth 2: A healthy pelvic floor is rock hard.
There is a big misconception that the pelvic floor needs to be strong enough to hold the pelvic organs in.
Yet, as we just discussed, it’s not the pelvic floor’s job to hold organs inside the pelvis!
No amount of strengthening these muscles is going to make it strong enough to hold your organs inside, if you’re tucking your tailbone and losing that all-important 30-degree angle of the pelvis.
Organs begin to shift out of place – what we call ‘prolapse’ – when the ligaments above become weak and stretched and the walls of the vaginal canal become weak.
Therefore Kegel-style exercises designed to strengthen the pelvic floor don’t do much.
They’re essentially just cinching in at the bottom of the pelvis to try to hold things in, as opposed to working with the actual ligaments, muscles and tissues that are responsible for holding your organs up.
Any exercise practice that only focuses on the pelvic floor to hold sexual organs inside, demonstrates a misunderstanding of its role within the pelvis.
It’s exercises like Kegels that also create a lot of tension, as with any strength building practice, there needs to be an equal focus on the release as much as on the squeeze.
A healthy pelvic floor is one that is toned yes, but also supple and elastic.
Think of a trampoline.
It’s strong but stretches.
It needs to have that ‘give’ so that it can birth babies.
If it’s tight – if you have an overactive pelvic floor (hypertonic) – it means there is a lack of relaxation in the those muscles, and this actually creates weakness in the adjoining muscles and tissues.
This kind of tension ialso makes it extremely hard to birth a baby.
You can’t push a baby through a solid structure!
You need strength, but you also need flexibility.
There needs to be a balance between the two.
Myth 3: The pelvic floor is shaped like a hammock.
It’s true that the pelvic floor is shaped like a hammock… in a dead person!
That’s what they see in cadaver dissections.
However, this is not true in a person who is alive and healthy.
A person with a healthy pelvic floor, has a pelvic floor that is ‘dome’ shaped.
Not as pronounced as the respiratory diaphragm, but a dome none-the-less!
As you inhale the dome moves down, flattening out, and as you exhale the dome moves back up into its original dome shape.
A healthy pelvic floor will help you exhale.
It will be able to contract on its own during the exhale.
You may be able to sense this if you place your attention in your pelvis when you breathe.
The movement of the pelvic floor is subtle, but it’s possible for everyone to feel.
You simply need to be wiling to cultivate the ability to feel it move within you.
And yes, that does take conscious practise.
Of course, if your pelvic floor is weak, then yes, it may be flatter or even drooping, more like a hammock.
But this ‘hammock-like’ image of the pelvic floor is not the image of a ‘healthy’ pelvis.
Unfortunately most of the pictures you see flying around the internet, are drawn as a result of cadaver dissections.
Hence the confusion.
What’s really interesting about the pelvic floor being shaped like a ‘dome’ is that it matches the other domes in our body; we have a dome at the top of our head, we have a dome at the roof of our mouth, we have a dome created by our cervical muscles at the base of our neck, the respiratory system is a dome and the arches of our feet are domes (as per the image).
There is a synergistic relationship between the pelvic floor dome and other domes in our body, meaning that if one dome isn’t functioning well, it will likely be mirrored in other domes of the body.
For example, if you have flat feet, chances are your pelvic floor won’t be as healthy as it could be.
It may be on the flatter side.
Any change in conditions in one area of the body has effects in another.
That is a whole topic in itself, but it helps you realise how the health of your pelvic floor is vital to how the rest of your body functions.
People with flat feet, for example, can experience foot and ankle and, yes, ‘stability’ issues.
See the connection?
What’s important is that all domes of the body talk to each other.
They move and dance together.
And when one dome is happy, the others respond in kind.
OK, let’s recap!
The pelvic floor is a group of 16 muscles that weave together to form a dome at the lower back of the pelvis.
It’s involved in many basic life functions as varied as digestion, elimination, reproduction, breathing, but most importantly, balance.
The healthier your pelvic floor, the more health you’ll notice in all of these areas.
A healthy pelvic floor is one that is toned, supple and flexible.
How do you get a pelvic floor healthy like this?
Well, unfortunately Kegels – like most women are advised to do – are NOT the answer.
The way Kegels are generally taught, they focus on one, or just a couple of these pelvic floor muscles, as opposed to the the pelvic floor at as whole, which runs the risk of creating instability in the pelvic floor, how it operates as one structure and how it operates together with the rest of the pelvic structures that support our every movements in life.
You can read more about the problems with Kegels in my blog: Kegel exercises: Do they really work?
The pelvic floor needs to works in harmony with the rest of the contents of the pelvis, and any pelvic floor toning exercises need to include three things:
- A focus on releasing tension, otherwise any contractions will simply build tension upon tension and create more weakness
- Engaging ALL muscles of the pelvic floor along with the muscles, fascia and organs of the entire pelvis
- A pelvic contraction that is married with the breath AND full body movements, because remember, the pelvic floor helps create stability in all areas of the body, therefore you need to be training it to interact with whole body movements.
This is the focus of my online program Yoga for the Vagina.
You learn how to engage your pelvic floor in a way that supports, not only your whole pelvis, but your whole being.
I also teach you now to perfect the Natural Womanly Stance so your pelvic floor is free to do its primary functions (as opposed to trying to hold in the organs, and in the process, fatiguing itself).
A lot of pelvic problems are due to instability.
Because women have an extra hole in their pelvic floor – for the vagina – this adds to that instability.
This is why it’s so important to develop a healthy relationship with your pelvis, where you know how to release tension, you know how to build healthy tone, and you know how to heal any imbalances within the internal structures of your pelvis.
If we look at statistics 1 in 3 women are at risk of pelvic floor disfunction.
And this includes yoga and pilates teachers.
Research has shown that it’s often more common for yoga and pilates teachers to have pelvic floor issues, due to the drawing down of the tailbone in postures and the ‘tighten tighten tighten’ approach, without a focus on restoring length in the pelvic floor and letting go.
I hope this blog serves to help you understand your pelvic floor more intimately.