After having my daughter Ella, I changed the first question I ask new mums. Instead of ‘How’s the baby?’, ‘Are you feeling okay?’ or a more general ‘How are you doing?’ I now usually go with ‘How’s your vag?’ (by which I mean, how is that whole area of vagina and pelvic floor). Honestly, this was a question that I loved receiving after Ella’s birth, because my answer was long and complicated, I didn’t really know where to go for support, and it was a relief not to have to be the one to bring it up.
I know I am not alone, because when I have floated my plans for The Village with many of you, it is this section of thought and discussion that most people have said they are looking forward to. In this initial week on the Pelvic Floor, I hope to lay down a foundational understanding of what exactly it is, and why it matters, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. My hope is that by understanding and appreciating this part of our bodies in a deep and holistic way, we make it easier to find the time and patience to dedicate a few minutes each day to its care.
For this week then, we will look at ‘What it is’. Next week we will discuss the principles for any strengthening or rehabilitation work. The following week I will outline some foundational exercises to incorporate into your every day, before a final week of looking at how to evolve and develop those exercises to sustain you for the rest of your life.
I should just say, that my only qualifications for delivering this information are the 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training that I completed at Yoga on the Lane, and being a mother of two. There are many better-qualified folk already in The Village, and indeed some of them are the yogis who taught me! So please pipe up with advice, expertise, and information that can build on what I share here.
Let’s begin by considering the pelvic floor from an anatomical perspective: The pelvic floor is a group of muscles at the base of your core. Made of muscles, tendinous muscles, and connective tissue, the pelvic floor functions as a hammock for your internal abdominal anatomy, supporting vagina, bladder, rectum, and uterus.
However, while we can consider the pelvic floor as simply ‘a group of muscles’, any of us who has experienced strain, damage, or severe trauma to this part of our body will know that it brings with it wide-ranging emotional and psychological discomfort, as well as ‘simply’ physical upset. I believe that we can understand precisely why this happens, by considering the pelvic floor jointly through the lenses of anatomy (as we have outlined), Chakra theory, and of course the ancient philosophy of Yoga.
The chakra system originated in India between 1500 and 500 BC, and was first found in in text in the Vedas. (We even have a Sanskrit scholar in The Village, so please add in any wisdom in this area too!) I’ll start by hopefully allaying any skepticism – if you harbour any – by asking you to consider the chakras as ‘just’ another language, a way of describing or seeing the bodies we inhabit. I’m sure many of us have a much more nuanced understanding of our own energy centres than we realise, we just describe it in a more ‘modern’ way: gut instinct, head over heart, mental exhaustion, a real punch in the guts etc.
The chakra that equates most closely to the pelvic floor, is our root chakra. This energy centre is concerned with our most foundational sense of self and belonging – having a home, feeling at home in who we are, feeling settled, grounded, and rooted in our lives. Root chakra, or muladhara, located at the base of our spine, is responsible for our security and stability; if our body is the home we live in, our root chakra is our right to be here.
Turning then to yoga philosophy, we can consider the pelvic floor through the lens of ‘the bandhas’, energetic locks or seals that we work with physically in our asana and breath-work practice. The bandha that equates most closely to the pelvic floor, is Mula Bandha (sometimes described as a subtle lift of the pelvic floor, sometimes described less subtly as ‘squeezing your anus’. Lovely.). A nuanced and clear-sighted relationship with Mula Bandha enables many of the strongest and most challenging poses to be achieved, but also brings with it a steadiness and integrity to the most uncomplicated movements. I have always loved Matthew Sweeney’s writing on Mula Banda (a well-known ashtanga yoga teacher), declaring it ‘a loving relationship to your body’. Sweeney says that in order to practise Mula Bandha you need an open heart and an open mind – it goes far beyond the physical then.
By considering the Pelvic Floor as a group of muscles, the site of our Root Chakra, and the place where the support and strength of Mula Bandha resides, it makes sense that damage to this part of our selves can rock us in such a deep and emotional way. We feel unsteady, untethered, unsure, perhaps weak, unworthy, not sexy or desirable, adrift from pleasure, ashamed or guilty, and in general at odds or disconnected from who we are.
If we understand the pelvic floor in this more holistic way, as physical, energetic, and spiritual, we can begin relating to this part of our bodies with a deeper reverence: The balance between strength and openness that characterises the female pelvic floor is a perfect encapsulation of female strength. Female strength is balanced alongside the ability to open and let go. We bring new life into the world, by allowing it to pass through us. It is an expansive softening, rather than a constriction or holding on. I would even go so far as to say that how we feel about our pelvic floor is a direct reflection of how poorly female strength is valued by society – is yours over-tight, hypertonic or slightly numb? When doing your pelvic floor exercises (when and if you do them) do you only focus on the lift? The drawing in? Our society does not value the opening, the release, the letting go. To value softness and openness at this deep, private, and embodied level, is a radical revolution against a capitalist society’s endless pursuit of masculinity, productivity, ‘success’.
At a more personal level, engaging daily in a relationship with our pelvic floor, is a pure and sacred act of self-love. Whether we admit it or not, the majority of the physical exercise we do, has a connection to the external, to how others perceive us. Sure, I have a spiritual yoga practice, but I also have a physical one, one that believes my body looks better when I am practising regularly. (This value on the external, is also the reason that I often prioritise Asana over pranayama or meditation.) It is unlikely that somebody is going to say to you ‘wow, your pelvic floor looks amazing today’ (if they do, I would suggest you need to consider who you are hanging out with). Spending just FIVE minutes on this part of your self every single day, is a commitment to self-love entirely separate from any external standards of beauty or appearance. Of course there are other physiological reasons that it is better to focus on pelvic floor strength before building up our abs (we will get to this next week) but for now let’s consider our pelvic floor as the root of our strength and vitality, our sense of belonging, our sexual function and pleasure, our basic right to continence and dignity, and ultimately our ability to conserve energy. When it is damaged, we become a leaking vessel, with our sense of self, our life-force or Prana, evaporating in the wind.
I hope that by understanding the profound importance of this part of our bodies, and our relationship to it, it is easier to find those five minutes every day.