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Why Pelvic Floor Fitness is Important for Women and Men

Written by: Tracy Renee Stafford, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

How important is it that we know our pelvic floor and how to nurture its optimum health?


Well, considering that increasing pelvic floor strength & connection can help both women and men:

  • decrease lower back, pelvic & hip pain

  • improve digestion & elimination

  • boost sex drive, performance, & pleasure

  • recover from childbirth (obviously, for women only)

  • reduce incontinence & prolapse

  • accelerate recuperation from all pelvic surgery (including prostate surgery), and

  • increase vitality through the whole body

It behooves us to empower ourselves with solid knowledge & healthy practices for this foundational place in the body.


Traditionally, pelvic floor exercises were only taught to women for post-childbirth pelvic health and to help with issues of incontinence & prolapse. More recently, the conversation has expanded to include increasing women’s overall sexual health & satisfaction by regularly performing ‘kegel’s - the contractions of the pelvic floor first designed by Dr. Arnold Kegel in the 1940s. However, it is increasingly being recognized that these same kinds of exercises can not only also benefit men, to treat issues such as erectile dysfunction, and to help with recovery from prostate surgery, but that everyone can benefit by increasing pelvic floor fitness, for all of the benefits described above, and more.


Exercises to activate, tonify & stretch the pelvic floor have been part of the yoga tradition for centuries. Breathing exercises and muscle contractions similar to Kegels have been documented as early as the 12th century as a way to improve health, increase energy, and attain clarity of mind. In this article, once I explain more about what the pelvic floor is, I will share some basic breathing exercises that may provide you with all of these benefits as well!


Please treat this article as an entry point to pelvic floor health and an invitation to learn more. Physiotherapy & related modalities are increasingly adding pelvic floor treatment to their scope of practice, which may also be helpful for anyone suffering from any of the issues listed above.


What is the pelvic floor anyway?


The pelvic floor is the part of the body that we sit on. The bones of the pelvic floor make a diamond: the pubic bone is at the front, the tailbone is at the back, and the 2 bones on either side are commonly called ‘the sitting bones.’ The pelvic floor is all of the muscles within these 4 bones. Some of the muscles travel front to back, some side to side, some on the diagonal. The superficial layer of muscles, closer to the skin, serves more for its role in sphincter control, and the deeper muscles, higher up in the pelvis, serve more for organ support. You can actually feel the superficial layer of muscles best if you touch just inside each sitting bone. When you do, you may notice that there is a difference in the tension, or tone, from one side to the other - this is quite common. It is also very common that the muscles at the front of the pelvic floor, near the pubic bone, are weaker & looser than the muscles at the back of the pelvic floor, near the tailbone. While not all of the muscles look the same in the male & female pelvis, we all have the same muscles, and perhaps surprisingly, they all have similar functions. While childbirth is unique to women, and male & female pelvises (or if you prefer, pelves) experience sex differently, there is a syndrome that is common to both men & women:


Disconnection


Most of us, regardless of gender, are not familiar with our own bodies, which is such a tragedy. Because of our generally repressed culture, we seem to enjoy either fetishizing or shaming the body (especially the pelvis) and sexuality along with it. As a result, the most common issue we all share is that the muscles here are weak, tight, and generally beyond our conscious control.


It does not need to be this way.


A holistic, reverent connection to the body is not only possible. It’s necessary if we want to have more agency over our own health & well-being.


Breathing: the Gateway to Pelvic Power


The pelvic floor muscles are often called the pelvic diaphragm because they engage similarly to the thoracic diaphragm in our ribcage. As we inhale, the thoracic diaphragm contracts downward toward the abdomen to help pull air in. This causes the abdomen to expand outward, in what is known as ‘belly breathing’ or ‘diaphragmatic breathing.’ On the exhale, the thoracic diaphragm relaxes up to help release the air out. This causes the abdomen to draw in. The pelvic floor is meant to do the same action as the thoracic diaphragm: slightly stretch down on the inhale and slightly lift up on the exhale. The problem is that we are usually breathing so shallowly in the upper chest that this natural action is not happening, or even worse, backward! As we breathe in, we may ‘suck in’ our stomach, tighten our hips, and lift our chest - all in an attempt to possibly look thinner, or taller, or more ‘in control.’ When we do this unnatural and ungrounded way of breathing, we deprive our abdomen of the massage that it could be receiving, thus affecting our digestion & elimination. Our nervous system is signaled to stay in a stressed state rather than relax with a relaxed breath. Our pelvis & hips stay clenched tight, leading to chronic pain, reduced mobility, poor balance, and even further disconnection of the body from our awareness.


Breathing is something we do all the time. Just a few moments of conscious, relaxed breathing each day can begin to awaken our awareness to our pelvic floor and be the doorway to reducing low back, pelvic & hip pain, improving digestion & elimination, boosting sex drive, performance & pleasure, and all the other benefits listed at the top of this article.


Step 1: A Relaxed Breath

Come to sitting upright, with equal weight on the sitting bones, and the spine tall & comfortable, so that the pelvis, ribcage, and head are balanced one on top of the other. Bring attention to the breath without needing to change it. Let the breath do what it naturally wants to do. Simply encourage a feeling of relaxing the body - the jaw, the shoulders, and the chest.


Let the abdomen also relax so that it can respond very naturally to the breath. Let the hips & glutes (buttocks muscles) relax. Now, bring attention to the pelvic floor - the muscles between the pubic bone, tailbone, and the 2 sitting bones. Have the intention to relax the muscles here, allowing them to respond to the breath naturally. At first, you may only notice a very subtle sensation here - let that be. You may notice some muscles contracting, others relaxing - let that be also. Simply observe what happens when you intend to relax the muscles here so that they can respond as naturally to the breath as possible.


This in itself can begin to unwind tension and allow us to breathe with more ease & depth. Spending a minute or 2 here each day - sitting in your car at the stoplight, standing in line at the grocery store, or even lying in your bed winding down to go to sleep - could have huge health benefits.


Step 2: Toning the Pelvic Floor

The tone is different from tension. Tension is not useful, while the tone is - very.


Toning could also be called ‘strengthening,’ but I prefer to say ‘toning’ because I want to emphasize our ability to both engage these muscles and relax them - consciously. Our pelvic floor is often weak, but it is often also tight. Women are often taught to ‘contract’ or ‘tighten’ the pelvic floor to do a proper kegel, but that’s like asking someone who has their shoulders up to their ears to strengthen the shoulders by raising them even more. We need to learn how to let the muscles relax fully to feel their full range of strength. This actually creates more power (Pelvic Power Go!) instead of more tension.


In this exercise, we will exaggerate what happens naturally as we breathe to increase the muscles' engagement and tone.


Start sitting in a comfortable posture as described in the first exercise. Inhale, intending that the pelvic floor lowers & widens, like a trampoline stretching down & wide or like an elevator going down. Remember, the thoracic diaphragm is also moving down, and the abdominals are also expanding slightly out. Exhale intending that the pelvic floor muscles lift up and slightly narrow, like a trampoline rebounding up or an elevator going up. Remember, the thoracic diaphragm also moves up to push the air out, and the lower abdominals gently draw in and up. You could also imagine the very center point of the pelvic floor (the center of the diamond) slowly lowering on the inhale and lifting on the exhale.


To recap: Inhaling, the diaphragm moves down, the abdomen moves out, and the pelvic floor stretches down. Exhaling, the pelvic floor rebounds up, the abdominals draw in, and the thoracic diaphragm lifts.


Remember, this is not a ‘technique, but rather the natural engagement pattern of the pelvic floor with the breath, and we are simply exaggerating it.

Allow and notice, rather than make or force.


I recommend taking time just to sense this before moving onto any other kind of pelvic floor exercise. If you are breathing very shallowly, you will not notice much pelvic floor activation. But, if you practice breathing slower than your normal pace, you may start to notice more activation of the abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor. While I recommend that you start with a very relaxed energy, ‘allowing’ the activation of these muscles, rather than ‘making’ them activate, you are welcome to ‘gently encourage’ this trampoline-like movement down and up, especially if it is very new to you. You need to get a sense of the movement. Over time, especially as the breath gets slower and deeper, this activation can become more accessible & alive.


No Clenching!


When the pelvic floor is being isolated, the feeling is internal, subtle, and smooth. A common error is to clench the glutes (the buttocks muscles) instead - but please, no clenching of the buttocks ever! In fact, there should be no clenching of any kind - not in the pelvic floor, abdominals, neck, shoulders, or jaw. This engagement should have a smooth flow, like the tide of the ocean moving in and out. We need to distinguish ‘toning’ the muscles from ‘clenching’ them. Toned muscles are engaged but allow for circulation of breath and blood, whereas clenching cuts off all energy supply and is not helpful in any way.

Stretching is the key.


Because tightness of the pelvic floor (and the hips) is common, whether there is a weakness or not, I recommend a little bit of stretching every day. A simple exercise could be lying on the floor with the legs up the wall and opening the legs out to the sides of the room. Many yoga poses & pilates exercises also focus on stretching & strengthening the hips, which greatly affects pelvic floor strength & flexibility. Bringing the awareness to the pelvic floor relaxing with a relaxed breath will increase the effectiveness of any stretches you do.

Knowledge is Power


Not only do I hope that this post benefits you, but I also hope that you share it with your dear ones. Pelvic floor issues affect over 50% of the population — both men and women — but we often do not address them because of cultural and social norms. My mission is to demystify the body and reclaim it so that no part of our physicality is out of our awareness, control, and enjoyment.


If you would like to know more, sign up to receive my 5 Day Introduction to Fully Embodied Living, where I not only got more into detail about how to use the breath to tone the abdominals & pelvic floor, I also provide stretching for the hips, neck & shoulders, and daily guided meditation for reducing stress & deepening self-compassion.


Follow Tracy on her Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and website for more info!


 

Tracy Renee Stafford, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Tracy Renee Stafford is a coach in Fully Embodied Fitness — a weave of yoga, pilates, dance, & functional exercise - and in Fully Embodied Living based on 4 Pillars of Well-Being: Connection to Body, Nourishment, Presence & Growth. Her mission is to help people discover how they can make self-care a celebration, rather than an obligation, & enjoy the body for how it feels, rather than just for how it performs or looks. She ran her own studio in the Canadian Prairies heartland for 20 very rewarding years - where she taught various forms of fitness, with a specific interest in injury prevention & rehabilitation and empowering students with information on HOW the body works best. She is a Mindful Movement, Holistic Living & Nutrition Coach, weaving together all of her expertise into her Fully Embodied Living Programs. She currently lives in Buenos Aires and keeps her passion for dance alive by studying Argentine Tango.

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