By Araxe Hajian
Miraval Resorts Body Mindfulness Series
Last week, we introduced you to the diamond-shaped foundation of our anatomy known as the pelvic floor. This week’s post takes a deeper dive into how we can use our breath to support it by helping it expand on the inhale and recoil with each exhale.
In yogic terms, the pelvic floor is the root chakra, or energetic center, that governs our physical energy, specifically safety. It is associated with our fight, flight, or freeze responses and correlates to foundational elements of our existence and security. Fear can influence holding patterns here, including pelvic floor tightness.
The pudendal nerve (the main nerve that innervates the pelvic floor) is part of the nervous system’s sympathetic branch. When we sense danger, it activates these nerves and muscles to prepare them to spring into action and support the body. However, if they remain activated and contracted, they can impact the pelvic floor long-term.
Think about what happens when we panic—we reflexively clench. If we brace ourselves for disaster or hold onto something tightly, the pelvic muscles respond to that emotional grip.
When you cough, laugh, or sneeze, your pelvic floor contracts to prevent anything unwanted from escaping. But if it’s already clenched tight, there isn’t room for it to contract more, and that mechanism starts to fail.
“Under stress,” Miraval Arizona Specialist Lyndi Rivers explains, “the pelvic floor muscles contract, and over time, this can be one of many contributing factors to the pelvic floor muscles shortening.”
Instead of being shaped like a cupped hand, your pelvic floor contracts into a fist. Then when you breathe, your pelvic diamond doesn’t have a lot of room to go, and when you cough, laugh, or sneeze, there’s no space for contraction. We assume that incontinence has to do with having an overly loose pelvic floor, but it can sometimes have to do with an overly active one that doesn’t have room to contract fully.”
Other things that contribute to pelvic floor muscle shortening include:
- Poor posture (sitting in a rounded position creates constant contraction of the pelvic floor muscle, contracted breathing, and a corresponding lack of blood flow).
- Poor breathing mechanics (more on this below).
- Stability and functionality of the surrounding muscles. For example, if your hamstrings are tight, they can affect pelvic floor tightness since they attach to the sitting bones and could impact the bony structure.
Wear Your Diamond on the Inside
The first step is to figure out where your pelvic floor is and imagine what it looks like.
Your pelvic floor muscles connect the pubic bone in front, tailbone in the back, and two sitting bones on either side, so it can be helpful to visualize it as being shaped like a diamond.
“As you inhale,” says Lyndi, “the diamond expands, and as you exhale, it recoils. It brings to mind the old saying that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Your pelvic diamond is your best friend (regardless of the gender you were assigned at birth) because it is responsible for so much.”
You can change how you move internally, how you support yourself externally, and how you hold yourself through awareness, visualization, breath, and subtle shifts.
The average person takes 12-14 breaths a minute—that’s more than 17,000 a day! We could spare a few of those to consciously focus on how they affect our bodies. Practicing diaphragmatic or whole-body breathing is crucial to having a healthy and well-functioning pelvic floor.
Lyndi suggests focusing on the ribcage when you begin to pay attention to your breathing. “You can see and feel your ribs move if you are breathing well. When your ribs are expanding or recoiling, so is your pelvic floor.”
Telling stressed-out people to take a deep breath is not always great advice. They literally can’t do it sometimes. “It might be better to ask,” suggests Lyndi, “if they can invite their breath to change and soften a little. In that invitation, you might be able to get that diaphragm to relax a little bit. Maybe instead of telling people to take three deep breaths, we should say three long exhales so they can focus on activating our nervous system’s relaxation response.”
No Pressure, No Diamond
The diaphragm and pelvic floor work in synch together in a coordinated dance to maintain optimal pressures in the body. When this relationship runs smoothly, we inhale, and the diaphragm contracts and flattens, pushing organs downward and increasing pressures in the abdomen and pelvic floor.
Correspondingly, the pelvic floor muscles lengthen and relax to accommodate the increased pressures above. At the same time, your ribs expand to make room for the descending abdominal organs.
On the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and lifts, decreasing abdominal pressure. The pelvic floor rebounds toward the abdomen, slightly contracting muscles to offer spinal and pelvic stability while maintaining pressure in your core.
When our breathing goes awry, we throw off this balance. If you increase the pressure in your abdomen without allowing your pelvic floor to relax and accept it, you force the pelvic floor and deep core to work harder, but not better.
This leads to a tight and weakened pelvic floor overall. And that can invite a slew of issues, including leakage or incontinence, pain in the pelvis, low back, or hips, GI issues, or chronic constipation.
Try this breathing practice created by Lyndi to release pelvic floor tension and lengthen pelvic floor muscles:
1. Rest your weight on your sit bones and keep your spine tall in a seated position. You can also lie down with support under your knees or get into a child’s pose if that is more comfortable.
2. Bring awareness to your breath by simply observing it and allowing an easy breath to emerge.
3. Notice how the breath moves your body without effort. This might look like the chest, rib, and belly expanding on the inhale and releasing or relaxing on the exhale.
4. Pay attention to the gentle movement for a few breaths.
5. Shift your awareness to your pelvis and imagine a diamond at its base.
6. As you inhale, this diamond receives the breath and gets bigger. As you exhale, it releases the breath and recoils.
7. The goal is not to feel this movement but to visualize it to support muscle functionality.
8. Add the following breath sequence 10-12 times:
-Inhale for a count of 5 (diamond gets bigger).
-Hold at the top of the inhale for a count of 3 (diamond holds the larger shape).
-Exhale for a count of 5 (diamond returns to original size).
9. Return to natural breathing
Try Lyndi’s Insight Timer visualization for a guided pelvic floor meditation and breath practice.
Check back next week for more about how you can use exercise to lengthen and strengthen pelvic floor muscles.
Book your next visit to Miraval Arizona and experience Lyndi’s new offering, Pelvic Floor Wisdom.
Araxe Hajian is a senior writer who covers wellness stories and specialists offerings at Miraval Resorts & Spas.
Source material from Lyndi Rivers Integrated Health Specialist at Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa.