I’ve noticed a problem in the yoga world ever since I’ve joined it, and I’m thinking it’s time to talk about it.
Have you ever been to a yoga class before and heard a teacher say “engage your mula bandha”??
Maybe your teacher explained it as an energy lock or seal that you should learn to activate for better body-mind connection and focus. The mula bandha correlates to the root energy lock, which is your pelvic floor, a group of muscles that actually create the base of your core that sits at the bottom of your pelvis.
If you think about the core as a house, your diaphragm is the roof; your transverse, oblique and rectus abdominals are the walls; your pelvic floor is the foundation. You cannot have a resilient core without resilient pelvic floor muscles (PFM).
The reason I say resilient, and not STRONG, is because there is such thing as being so strong that you get too TIGHT. This happened to my pelvic floor. Being a yoga practitioner and teacher, I heard and used to say “engage your pelvic floor or mulabandha” and would myself contract and lift so much, that I got way too tight. I created a situation where I actually aggravated my pudendal nerve, the nerve that innervates the PFM, and gave myself a form of urinary incontinence (UI) called urge incontinence. I felt like I had to urinate every 5 minutes, and when working as a physical therapist with patients at the time, going to the bathroom to try to find relief was not ideal. It was actually painful and felt like what would have been a urinary tract infection (UTI).
So I called a friend, a pelvic floor PT, and asked her what to do. She advised me to relax, breathe, and work on releasing my pelvic floor through some self manual work. I did it and it worked!
So why should you be concerned with having a relaxed- or better yet, resilient- pelvic floor? From what I’ve read and heard from fellow yoga teachers is that yoginis (female yoga practitioners) tend to have the worst and longest child-birthing experiences. This is in part because of the great emphasis on Kegels aka engagement of the mula bandha during class, but none for the relaxation. That is huge and needs to change. Luckily, here are a handful of amazing yoga postures that help facilitate relaxation as well as activation, so that you are working on the FULLEST range of motion of your pelvic floor. If you practice moving through the contraction, relaxation, and the lengthening, these postures could help the tightest PFM relax when paired with the right breath cues.
CHILD’S POSE // BALASANA
Spread your knees apart, big toes together. Sit your hips back on your heels and reach long through your arms. Imagine your pelvic floor muscles lengthening and relaxing as you breathe in. On exhalation, imagine them drawing your tailbone to your pubic bone.
YOGI SQUAT // MALASANA
Start with feet wider than hip width distance apart with your toes turned out for more accessibility. Sit your pelvis low and maintain a neutral spine. Hands can remain at heart’s center while you close your eyes. Inhale and imagine your pelvic floor lengthening down towards the floor without straining or bearing down. Exhale and feel your navel gently engage towards your spine while you imagine drawing your sits bones (ischial tuberosities) together. Maintain that connection to your pelvic floor as you breathe. Sit on blocks (as many as you need!) if you’re working with tighter ankles, knees, or hips.
HALF WIND RELIEVING POSE // ARDHA PAVANAMUKTASANA
Begin lying on your back. Draw your right knee in towards your right shoulder. Inhale and think about relaxing your PFM towards your left heel. Exhale and imagine picking a grape off of a vine with your PFM. Hold at the top and release the muscles again as you breathe in. Repeat on the left side. If you’re pregnant, this supine posture might not feel as accessible. Go back to the yogi squat, or try this posture reclined on a bolster.
HAPPY BABY POSE // ANANDA BALASANA
Begin on your back, hug your shins to your outer rib cage. Compress downward while lengthening your tailbone and sacrum to the ground for a more neutral versus rounded spine. Guide your shoulder blades down your back and draw elbows wide to feel your hips and inner thighs opening. Breathe in, relax your PFM to their lowest resting tone fully. Breathe out, imagine closing curtains and then lifting your PFM gently towards your head.
There you have it. Sounds counterintuitive to sync your inhalation to relaxing/lengthening and exhalation on contracting, but when you think about how the diaphragm works in sync with your pelvic floor (remember roof and foundation?) it makes sense to create as much room in your lungs with the intra-abdominal cavity pressure. As you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and pulls down so your lungs can inflate, pushing the pressure downward. This allows you to relax and lengthen the PFM. As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and rises to expel air out of your lungs. This makes it easier to contract the PFM “shut” and gently lift up.
This is not just about having a tight vagina or pelvic floor. It’s about resiliency. The ability for your body, pelvic floor included, to support you in life when there is impact, be it a jump squat, or a baby that makes its way through you to come into this world. Strengthening is important, but so is lengthening and relaxation. Next time your yoga teacher instructs on the mula bandha energy lock, remember the way to release it.
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. If you have any pain, bowel, bladder, or sexual dysfunction, please see your medical provider or closest pelvic floor physical therapist.
Written by: Brittney Ellers, PT, DPT, RYT