The key to a strong core is in strengthening the pelvic floor.
You may have heard cues in class like “Engage your pelvic floor.” But when you stop to think about it, you may ask yourself what this really means. The answer involves many layers of complexity.
A healthy and functional pelvic floor involves the proper balance of strength, flexibility, and coordination. Strength comes from using movement and breath together to stabilize and strengthen the layers of the pelvic floor, the stabilizers of the pelvis, and the abdominal muscles.
Understanding the Pelvic Floor
The pelvic floor is a matrix of muscles that live between the pubic bone, tailbone, and the ischial tuberosities—the bottom of the pelvis that we sit on (commonly called the sits bones).
There are three muscle layers of the pelvic floor: the superficial perineal layer, the deep urogenital diaphragm layer, and the pelvic diaphragm. The focus of pelvic floor work is lengthening and strengthening the muscles known as the levator ani muscles (the pubococcygeus and iliococcygeus). These muscles are part of the pelvic diaphragm.
Pelvic Floor Stability
The primary stabilizers of the pelvis are the three gluteal muscles (the gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus); commonly known as the glutes. When healthy, these muscles support the containment of the pelvic bones. Without enough strength here, the pelvis can be unstable. Strength and balance poses practiced with awareness help build this stability.
Breath and the Pelvic Floor
Consciously connecting with our breath is vital for pelvic health due to the relationship between the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. (Remember that there is a group of pelvic floor structures known as the pelvic diaphragm!) As we inhale, the lungs expand and the diaphragm descends, which pushes the abdominal organs down and stretches the pelvic floor muscles. As we exhale, the diaphragm contracts, and the pelvic floor and the abdominal organs lift. A strong and flexible pelvic floor will easily expand and contract with the breath. When these actions are cohesive, we can feel the activation of the pelvic floor in yoga poses.
Connecting to the Corset
The Transverse Abdominus (TVA) is also known as the corset because it wraps around the lower torso. You feel the movement of the TVA when you exhale completely and draw in the lower abdominal muscles. In addition to facilitating our exhalation, the TVA supports the organs in the abdominal cavity. When the TVA is weak, load increases on the pelvic floor. Conversely, if the pelvic floor muscles are weak, the TVA cannot function properly. The connection between the TVA, the stabilizers, and the pelvic floor muscles is important. Throughout the sequence shared here, pay attention to coordinating the lift and release of the corset (the TVA) with the rhythm of the breath.
5 Poses to Stabilize the Pelvic Floor
In this sequence we establish the relationship between the pelvic floor and the diaphragm. Then, we will wake up the pelvic floor muscles and learn to strengthen them through “Kegels Done Right!” Finally, we will target the abdominal muscles while stabilizing the pelvis to encourage core strength that supports the structural integrity of the entire body. One of the key principles of this approach to engaging the pelvic floor is that it’s not just what poses you practice, but how you practice them, so allow yourself to fully feel your breath and pay attention to the pelvic floor throughout your session on the mat. Like any muscle, you’ll be able to train yourself to take these concepts off the mat into the rest of your day.
1. Child’s Pose
Begin in child’s pose with the knees as wide as the shoulders so the belly can easily rest on the thighs. As you inhale, feel the breath in the back body. Open the back and side ribs as the diaphragm and pelvic floor stretch. Visualize the pelvic floor muscles between the sits bones, pubic bone, and tailbone – feel them expand on the inhalation. As you exhale notice how the ribs naturally draw back to center and how the low belly and pelvic floor draw in and up. Repeat this awareness and gentle contraction10-12 times.
2. Happy Baby
Lie on your back and bend the knees into your chest. Reach for the outer edges of the feet or gently hold behind the thighs. Relax into the natural curve of the lower spine and inhale into the back body feeling the side ribs widen and back ribs press into the mat. Feel the pelvic floor expand. On the exhalation, notice the natural contraction and subtle lift of the pelvic floor muscles. Repeat for 8-10 breaths.
3. Kegels Done Right!
Sit in Sukhasana or Cross-Legged Easy Pose.
Visualize your sits bones (ischial tuberosities—the part of the pelvis that you sit on) as elevator doors that open and close with each breath. Repeat through 4 complete breaths after each exercise.
Part 1 Attention on the Sits Bones: Inhale and feel the imaginary doors open and release. As you exhale, draw these muscles closer to one another as if you were closing the elevator doors.
Part 2 Pubic Bone/Tail Bone: Imagine the pubic bone and the tailbone are the elevator doors. As you inhale, feel these muscles release allowing the virtual doors to open. On an exhalation, draw the muscles closer to one another as if you were closing the elevator doors.
Part 3 All Together! On the exhalation, draw all four points of the pelvis closer to center (the two sits bones, the pubic bone, and the tail bone). Release on the inhalation.
Part 4 Integration: When you feel as though you can fully draw all four points to center closing the elevator doors, attempt to lift the elevator up. Imagine that there are three floors from the pubic bone to your navel and with every exhalation, challenge yourself to see how high you can lift the elevator.
Note: It can take time—even weeks—to wake up the muscles of the pelvic floor and to feel the subtleties of this movement. Be patient. Try some of the following options if you’re having trouble engaging pelvic muscles.
Lie on the back with the knees bent and the feet planted hip width apart.
Lie in a reclined position with the back supported by a block and bolster.
Try different positions and then when the muscles are well awake—challenge them in the other positions that were previously less accessible.
4. All Fours or Neutral Spine
On hands and knees, position the wrists beneath the shoulders and the knees beneath the hips. Inhale into the back and side ribs as the sternum and tailbone reach to the sky. Exhale completely while feeling the pelvic floor draw in, the low belly become hollow, and energetically lift the inner thighs up into the pelvis. Repeat for 6-8 breaths.
5. All Fours Variation/Virbhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3) Prep
Maintain all fours neutral spine. Keep the pelvis neutral and extend one leg behind you at hip height, then extend the opposite arm forward. Continue with the same breathing pattern and hollowing of the belly as you hug the standing outer hip in and draw the inner thigh up into the pelvis. Hold for 6-8 breaths. Repeat 3 times on each side.
Now that you know how to breathe for better pelvic health, try using these foundational principles throughout your practice—and your day—to cultivate sustainable strength, suppleness, and integration of the pelvic floor and beyond.
Karly Treacy comes from a background of more than 20 years in yoga and fitness. This mother of three credits her teacher and mentor Annie Carpenter for giving her the tools to lead a playful, passionate, and mindful life. Through her own practice, Karly healed many of the injuries she developed from years of running marathons and the births of three children within three years. karlytreacy.com