“Do your kegels!” – a phrase uttered by many a well-meaning helping professional, friend, family member, and/or advice column. The concept and practice spread like wildfire years ago. The popularity of conveniently being able to do them “anytime, anywhere” led to even more interest. For some reason, the phrase “do your kegels” led everyone, everywhere to believe that they of course have a weak pelvic floor. “That’s why I have incontinence (unable to “hold it”), right?” Maybe.
It might be that you have a weak pelvic floor, and it might actually be that you might have an overly tight/overworked pelvic floor…. Or both. Kegels, believe it or not, are not for everyone and most likely if you’re doing kegels, you’re doing it incorrectly.
There are different types of issues with the pelvic floor muscles (PFM):
Hypertonic: overlightly tense
Hypotonic: overly relaxed
Both: one can have both an overly tight and overly relaxed PFM in different areas of the rather large area of muscles that make up the pelvic floor.
Yep. In fact, many many of us actually have hypertonic (overly tense) pelvic floor muscles. We live in a fast-paced, stress-celebrating society. Why wouldn’t our pelvic floor be affected by our habits of stress, busyness, go-go-go, poor posture, sitting for too long, lack of vacations, history of trauma, and more?
I can’t believe kegels aren’t for everyone.
I HEAR YOU! The first time I heard this I was shocked. I was also 4 months pregnant. My doctor, my friends, even the pregnancy apps on my phone were telling me to “do my daily kegels”.
It makes so much sense that there is not a “one-exercise fits all” approach when it comes to caring for one’s pelvic floor. It depends entirely on where you are starting out (hyper or hypo tonic) and what the symptoms and circumstances concerning your PFM are.
If I’m expected to push a human baby through my nether regions, why in the world would I want it to be super tight and constricted? Granted, gaining weight through pregnancy does take a toll on the downward pressure of the PFM, thus often created a relaxed and strained muscle…maybe. Just like any muscle, it is beneficial to be strong, especially for child birth However, in the words of Lyndi Rivers, C-IAYT specializing in pelvic floor yoga therapy: “tight muscles are not strong muscles, tight muscles are weak muscles.” It’s common sense, and we know this from every other muscle in the body. We need flexibility and agility in order to access our strength.
In some yoga practices/lineages/certain teachers, it’s encouraged to tighten/hold/engage your pelvic floor muscles (mula bandha) for much of a yoga practice. Even if that’s not what you have been taught/are teaching – are you also teaching students how to properly relax their pelvic floor muscles? If not, why? Would you flex your bicep for hour(s) on end and not relax it? Would you teach a yoga asana class that was only strength-based with no focus on flexibility and relaxation? How about tense your shoulders up to your ears without dropping them down to soften? No. That would be painful and harmful. Okay, well why in the world would you even consider doing such a thing to your pelvic floor muscles then? Exactly…..don’t! It is a disservice to ourselves and others to not be teaching, and practicing, relaxing the PFM.
We need flexibility as much as we need strength. In our fast-paced society, we typically find that many are suffering from a lot of tension. We usually need flexibility and relaxation, especially in the pelvic floor, more than we need tension. Say “bye bye kegels!” and hello to more practical application and a combination of both relaxation and strengthening of the pelvic floor.
Relax your pelvic floor muscles.
The pelvic floor is the region that spans front to back from the pubic bone to the tailbone, and side-to-side from sits-bone to sits-bone. Visualize the pelvic floor muscles as a trampoline. Practice syncing your breath, and respiratory diaphragm, with your PFM. As you inhale, the belly expands with breath, causing the respiratory diaphragm to flatten downward. At the same time, your PFM muscles are relaxing and spreading down and out, ever so subtly. Visualize the trampoline pressing down toward the ground. As you exhale, the belly contracts, causing the diaphragm to float upward. At the same time, your PFM muscles are gently contracting upward. Visualize the trampoline springing back up.
This is a gentle and subtle practice. No need to overdo it. Practice and repeat while simply sitting, with good posture, and/or lying down, perhaps with knees bent. Deep and synchronized breathing is key. This is a practice of self-study and understanding. Once you understand the practice while you’re still, then you can also begin to practice with gentle asana as well.
Build strength in, and around, your pelvic floor muscles.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of synchronizing breath with the relaxing and strengthening of the PFM, then you can also incorporate pelvic floor focused yoga postures. Think about what poses stabilize, strengthen, and increase helpful flexibility around the lower half of your body: core, gluts, adductors/abductors, …just to name a few. A few examples of strengthening yoga postures are: bridge, chair, and warriors. Some examples of flexibility of the PF area with yoga postures are: (supine) pigeon, pelvic tilts, (supine) butterfly, and yogi squat/horse pose.
Of course there are postures, sequences, flows, and more that can incorporate and focus on both strengthening and increasing flexibility in the pelvic floor. As with any practice, before you teach something, study it for yourself. Learn what works for you, and what doesn’t. Get familiar with your pelvic floor muscles: hyper or hypo? Practice breathing with the trampoline visual, or another visual of your choosing. Experiment with poses and inquire with yourself about how the mechanics of each work. In the end, the application of this practice will not only help you, but also help your students and clients.
Pelvic Liberation: Using Yoga, Self-Inquiry, and Breath Awareness for Pelvic Health by Leslie Howard
lyndirivers.com: Lyndi Rivers, C-IAYT Pelvic Floor Yoga Therapy Specialist
Bryana Cook, MSW, LGSW, RYT 500, is currently in the 800 hour C-IAYT Inner Peace Yoga Therapy program. She is a practicing mental health provider in a small rural Minnesota counseling office, working towards completing her LICSW. Bryana teaches group yoga classes and schedules private sessions, through her nomad business Northern Namaste Yoga and co-leads yoga retreats in beautiful places with her partners in Boreal Bliss Yoga Retreats. She lives in Longville, MN with her husband, dog, and cat, where they do their best to live an intentional life of simplicity in nature.