In the Western world, we are increasingly placing an emphasis on health and strength.
Fitness classes and gym memberships are on the rise as we focus on improving our external strength, but what about our internal health and fitness?
In addition to the superficial muscles that more clearly show strength and tone, we also have deep muscles that require our attention and engagement. One of these muscle groups is the muscles of the pelvic floor.
Composed of the levator ani and coccygeus, the muscles of the pelvic floor or pelvic diaphragm are important for overall health even if they aren’t targeted with the frequency of other groups.
We have leg days but not pelvic floor days so we should aim to increase our pelvic floor activation.
In discussions about pelvic floor strengthening, Kegel exercises are typically the first or only exercise option presented.
These exercises, which aim to tighten the pelvic floor, can be a good option but yoga may be a better option.
While Kegel exercises almost exclusively tighten the pelvic floor muscles, a variety of yoga asanas, or poses, work to tighten as well as lengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor in addition to those that balance out these muscles.
If you’re looking for a way to strengthen your pelvic floor or even if not, consider adding some of these poses to your practice.
There are a number of misconceptions about the pelvic floor, primarily that only pregnant women need to strengthen theirs, but this is not true. Women, pregnant or not, and men should aim to strengthen their pelvic floor for overall health.
What Are the Benefits of a Strong Pelvic Floor?
Often times we only give attention to our pelvic floor when we’re already experiencing a problem. The main categories of pelvic floor disorders are urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse.
Urinary incontinence presents as lack of bladder control, typically through leaking urine or having a strong urge to urinate. Fecal incontinence similarly is a lack of bowel control, often presenting as leaking stool.
Pelvic organ prolapse, which affects about one-third of women in their lifetime, is characterized by the pelvic organs descending or dropping into different areas of the body.
The organs of the pelvic area that may shift are the uterus, bowel, vagina, rectum or bladder. Different pelvic organ prolapse conditions are defined by the involved organ and location of the droop.
Cystocele, for example, is a condition in which the bladder drops into the vagina. This is one of the most common of pelvic organ prolapse conditions.
From these conditions, we can see that a strong pelvic floor helps us control our bowels and bladder while providing a consistent framework to keep our organs in place.
The primary pelvic floor muscle is the levator ani. When considered with the coccygeus, this group is referred to as the pelvic diaphragm. The sheet of muscles making up the levator ani includes the puborectalis, iliococcygeus, and pubococcygeus.
The pubococcygeus and iliococcygeus meet to form the levator plate which supports the pelvic organs. While at rest, this plate is horizontal and if this connection is loosened it may lead to organ prolapse.
Strengthening the pelvic floor helps protect against disorders such as these and also aids in gaining more internal muscular awareness. In yoga, for instance, contraction of the levator ani is part of how the Mula Bandha is engaged.
What Is the Mula Bandha?
In yoga practice, bandhas are energy locks that are engaged in different asanas to direct the energy flow.
The three bandhas engaged in a yoga asana practice are the Mula Bandha or root lock, Uddiyana Bandha or abdominal lock, and Jalandhara Bandha or throat lock.
Bandhas can be engaged independently or in conjunction depending on the poses and the energetic needs. In Sanskrit, Mula means root and while this energy lock is directly linked to the energy of the Muladhara Chakra, it can also refer to the root of a thought or action.
This understanding and the energy direction are why the Mula Bandha is most often applied, with instructors guiding advanced students to engage this lock through the full duration of some styles of yoga practice.
How Does the Mula Bandha Impact the Pelvic Floor?
On a skeletal level, engagement of the Mula Bandha draws stability to the pelvis by lifting the muscular floor. This encourages safe spinal movements which are particularly important in a number of backbends.
Muscularly, the Mula Bandha has a similar interaction to Kegel exercises with the additional engagement of the levator ani.
While Kegel exercises focus primarily on the muscles that control urination, the Mula Bandha provides a more complete engagement and toning of the pelvic floor by drawing up the levator ani.
Engagement of the Mula Bandha draws the perineum up and into the body for added strength in the pelvic floor. This constant engagement, particularly throughout a yoga class, provides subtle toning of the pelvic floor muscles without the forcefully clenching Kegels bring.
What Causes a Weak Pelvic Floor?
Like any muscle group, the muscles of the pelvic floor need to be strengthened but unlike many other superficial muscles, we don’t actively use these muscles as regularly.
For many, this is due to lack of body awareness around the muscles of the pelvic diaphragm and how to engage them.
Recommendations to exercise the pelvic floor are given to populations susceptible to pelvic floor disorders, particularly pregnant women, but everyone can benefit from additional pelvic floor strengthening.
Both men and women can experience disorders of the pelvic floor so it is important for everyone to get to know these muscles in their bodies.
With all of this discussion of Kegel exercise, it may seem these will resolve all pelvic floor concerns but over exercising can also lead to pelvic floor disorders.
When the pelvic floor has been worked and contracted it is possible to over tighten the muscles. A strong pelvic floor is balanced, not just tightened through unidirectional movement. This is why yoga can be a great option to lengthen and strengthen your pelvic floor.
While the Mula Bandha engages the pelvic floor muscles in many ways Kegels do, movement in many other yoga postures pull the muscles in other needed ways.
In Utkatasana or Chair Pose, for example, the muscles are lengthened as you lower into a seated position and lift as you draw your stomach in to raise to standing.
This dynamic action is helpful to provide muscles with a full range of movement. It is similar to how a complete arm workout will involve both contractions as in curls and lengthening in stretching.
Due to muscular insertions, there is also a connection between the pelvic floor muscles and glutes. Glute engagement balances out the pull of the sacrum caused by Kegel exercises.
So though seemingly unrelated, weak glutes can also lead to a weak pelvic floor.
Many yoga postures work to strengthen the glutes, providing another benefit of yoga for pelvic floor strength. Next, we cover the best yoga poses for pelvic floor problems.
The Best Yoga Poses for Pelvic Floor Problems: What Yoga Poses Help Tone the Pelvic Floor Muscles?
Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Hand to Big Toe Pose)
This challenging balance pose calls for active engagement of the Mula Bandha. From Tadasana raise your right knee and hold your toe with the first two fingers on the right hand.
Draw your perineum up and in, contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor, as you slowly begin to straighten your leg.
As the leg straightens you may also begin to feel a stretch in your glutes, lifting your leg higher to intensify the stretch. Be sure to balance out your body by completing this pose on the left side too.
Urdhva Dhanurasana or Chakrasana (Wheel Pose)
While it’s easy to just focus on the back while doing backbends, there is still a lot happening in the lower body while pressing up into wheel pose.
As you push through your heels and lift your hips you are engaging the muscles of your pelvic floor. If you find yourself clenching muscles in your butt, refocus on lifting your hips while keeping your spine elongated.
A good way to ensure you are engaging your lower body properly is to hold a block in between your thighs as you lift your hips.
Holding this block in place will help ensure you stay active in your legs and pelvis throughout the pose.
If Urdhva Dhanurasana isn’t in your practice the same lower body engagement can be achieved in Bridge Pose or Setu Bandhasana. This can also be practiced with a block to confirm engagement is maintained.
Another pose combination that is often considered just for its spinal benefits is the sequence of cat and cow pose, typically used together as a spinal warm up at the beginning of a practice.
Cat and cow provide steady movement of the spine to promote healthy spinal health and also tone the pelvic floor.
To maintain lengthen as you curl and round your spine, you must actively draw the belly in towards your spine throughout the movement.
This activation of the Uddiyana Bandha also coordinates with the activation of the Mula Bandha. Though more passive than in other poses, this engagement brings gentle toning to the pelvic floor.
Malasana (Garland Pose or Birthing Pose)
Bring your feet to the other edges of the mat, toes spilling over if needed, and begin to slowly lower your hips into a yogi squat.
When performed in ideal alignment with a long spine, your pelvic floor muscles will stretch in controlled extension as you lower closer to the floor.
Janu Sirsasana (Head to Knee Forward Fold)
The primary difference in this forward fold is the leg drawn into towards your pelvic area. These alterations add an additional stretch with your muscle engagement.
As in Paschimottanasana or Seated Forward Fold, you are drawing your pelvis upward. The addition of the bent leg also stretches those deep muscles subtly to the side.
Tadasana (Standing Mountain Pose) with Block
Yoga props are great ways to ensure you are fully engaging the correct muscles in yoga poses.
As in Setu Bandhasana or Urdhva Dhanurasana, placing a block in between your thighs while standing in Tadasana will challenge you to energetically draw your legs together.
This connection engages your glutes, the muscles that balance those in your pelvic floor. Remember pelvic floor health comes from toning all muscles that support the pelvic girdle.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Utkatasana is a great example of a posture that connects with all aspects of the pelvic floor rather than just contracting as in Kegel exercises.
With your feet either hips width apart or together, begin to sit your hips back. This pose can also benefit from the addition of a block between your thighs.
Holding the block steady confirms that the thighs are engaged and the pelvic floor is lifting. These muscle stretch as you lower down and lift as you rise back to standing.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
As another balance pose, it is recommended to engage the Mula Bandha when entering into Vrksasana. The right knee is drawn in towards the chest and extended to the side so that the sole of the foot can be brought into contact with the inside of the standing leg.
While holding this and other balancing poses, it is helpful to find a Drishti, or point of focus, to help steady the mind and maintain balance.
The engagement of the root lock may also draw in the engagement of the abdominal lock for more core toning. The muscular contraction in your pelvic area helps maintain balance with your leg opening to the side.
The list of poses that require the engagement of the pelvic muscles and glutes is extensive and these poses are easily integrated into even a brief yoga practice.
With the consistency of Mula Bandha engagement and gluteal toning in many standing poses, yoga is a wonderful tool for improving pelvic floor health.
While these are the best yoga poses for pelvic floor problems, slowly moving through postures requires static holds that strengthen but don’t overload the muscle groups.
If you are concerned about pelvic organ prolapse or other disorders linked to the pelvic floor consider engaging in a weekly yoga practice to lengthen and tone your muscles.
Even a practice of twenty minutes may help you gain body awareness to better engage your pelvic floor muscles and ensure continued pelvic floor strength.