The key to a healthy pelvic floor is one that allows us to do everything we want to do in life without getting in the way.
A healthy pelvic floor is one that simply does its job well.
Women associate issues with the pelvic floor mostly as a consequence of childbirth, but it can happen to us at any point in our lives. Men can also suffer from pelvic floor issues too; it is not just a problem for women.
When the pelvic floor is not working well, it causes pelvic floor dysfunction. A common example of this is stress incontinence but it can include other issues like organ prolapse, painful sex, flatulence, and constipation – to name a few.
My Personal Story
I suffered from a very dysfunctional pelvic floor after the birth of my second child and things got even worse after my third. I had to cope with the embarrassment of leaking whenever I coughed, sneezed or jumped. When I exercised I had to use a Tena lady. Well-meaning friends and family would tell me that it was to be expected:
‘You’ve had 3 children – things won’t be the same,’ they would say good-naturedly.
At the time the advice from well-meaning health professionals seemed a simple one-way street. I was told to simply concentrate on practising my pelvic floor exercises (Kegels) every single day, so that is precisely what I did.
However, after many months of trying, I still suffered from stress incontinence. I also noticed that I had a poochy tummy. It really looked as though I was still pregnant on some days. The whole of my trunk area felt like a vacant space; I honestly felt like I had no abdominals at all.
I was heartbroken. I felt old before my time and I lost a lot of confidence.
However, there eventually came a turning point when I decided not to let it beat me. I was going to find a solution because this was not the life that I wanted.
In an effort to fix things I saw various health professionals. To cut a long story short, I ended up having surgery.
The surgery was successful, and I was a new me. No more embarrassing leaks. It was such a joy to know that I could go on a trampoline with the kids without a Tena lady for backup. I felt free and rejuvenated.
However, the story does not finish there. Ten years on, I have learnt so much more about the key to a healthy pelvic floor. Had I known what I know now, I could have avoided surgery. So let’s dive into what it actually takes to keep our pelvic floor muscles functioning well.
The Key To A Healthy Pelvic Floor Is More Than Practising Kegels.
It was during my years studying to be a yoga teacher that opened up the door to a whole new depth of understanding about all things pelvic floor. As already mentioned, not only did I discover that I could have avoided surgery but I also learnt that Kegels are not the be-all and end-all for pelvic floor health and function.
Yes, you read correctly.
Kegels (alone) are not the key to a healthy pelvic floor
Please note, I am not for a second, saying that Kegels are bad and should be avoided. What I am saying is that Kegels do have a place but they are not the whole story.
Today, I have a wonderful relationship with my pelvic floor. It functions well and allows me to run, jump, cough, laugh, sneeze without any worry. I love my pelvic floor.
Before I tell you more about how I discovered the key to a healthy pelvic floor, let’s dive into what the pelvic floor is and how it works.
What is the Pelvic Floor?
The pelvic floor consists of a sling of muscles. There are three layers of muscles that make up this sling.
The first two layers lie at the bottom of your pelvic bowl and are closely linked to the workings of the three openings; the anus, the vagina and the urethra. If you are a male reading this, you just imagine the same thing but without the extra opening and the extra organ (the uterus).
The second layer lies a little bit higher up and consists of four main muscles that sit towards the top of the pelvic bowl.
The pelvic floor’s job is to support the pelvic organs – the bowel, the bladder and the uterus. The higher muscles also attach to the back of the spine so support our lower back. Incidentally, this is why some symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction can include back pain.
The pelvic floor is also part of our breathing system. Without getting too complicated about it, these amazing muscles work with the lower abdominals and the respiratory diaphragm (our main breathing muscle), to regulate our intra-abdominal pressure system. When we breathe we create movement and pressure changes in this system. These three ‘core’ muscles work together to manage these changes in pressure so everything inside our abdominal cavity (like our organs) stays happy.
Breathing is The Key To A Healthy Pelvic Floor
The best way to explain this is to think of your trunk as a balloon.
When you squeeze the balloon you can move the air around inside and make bulges in the balloon shape. Imagine that the top of the balloon (see pic) is the diaphragm and the bottom is the pelvic floor. The rest of the balloon represents the abdominal wall.
When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves down and out. This is the action that draws air into the lungs. The pelvic floor in response moves down and out (releases) to keep the space in the trunk. The abdominal wall also relaxes and moves outwards.
When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves in and up (helping the lungs to expel the air). The pelvic floor contracts and moves in and up and the abdominal wall contracts and draws in.
If the breath is restricted then this relationship is interrupted, and these three co-partners cannot move well. However, if we breathe well (and I will come to how to do that in a moment) then the relationship between them works beautifully. Most importantly, when it works well the pelvic floor stays strong and functional.
So, What Is The Issue With Kegels?
Kegels only focus on contracting the pelvic floor.
Too much contracting makes the muscle short and tight. If they are short and tight they cannot work well which causes stress incontinence!
I know it took me a while to get my head around this too. For the pelvic floor to work well must be able to lengthen to its full length as well as contract. It needs to behave like a trampoline so that it can successfully navigate the constant changes in pressure. Get this working well, and you have the key to a healthy pelvic floor.
Breathe Well for A Healthy Pelvic Floor
In light of the above, you can fix your pelvic floor if you can fix your breathing – it really is as simple as that.
Below is a short video where I explain a breathing exercise which is called the healing breath – I teach this to postpartum ladies as a way to reconnect to their core but it can be used by anyone who is looking to improve their pelvic floor function (including any guys who are reading).
If you have read this and are having problems with your pelvic floor know that you are not alone.
Also, know that you can empower yourself to reclaim control over your pelvic floor function.
All you need is a little know-how and patience.
I used yoga as a tool to connect and ‘fix’ my own and I am happy to share all I know with you. I offer yoga therapy 121 sessions so please don’t hesitate to reach out and contact me to find out more.