Yoga & Your Pelvic Floor: An Integrative, Gender Affirming Approach (Part I)Jul 23, 2022
by Avery Kalapa
The inner pelvis is a powerful site of healing, reclamation, and integration not only in our physical bodies, but mental, emotional, energetic dimensions, and every layer of our being. The “pelvic floor” (although truly, it is more of a "dome" than a floor; only cadavers have hammock shaped pelvic floors!) refers to the dynamic layers of muscle which span the inner pelvis. Exploring this area requires courage; cultural conditioning, trauma, and shame often must be faced when turning towards this special area. However, the gifts of such work can be truly liberating.
A note on centering you own care:
Now, many of us are survivors and have pelvises, bodies, and inner selves that have been through a LOT. This work can be vulnerable, and yes, triggering.
So even as you read through, I invite you to pause often, breathe, check in with your body and heart. You can always glance away, take a stretch break, put it down and come back later. As much as possible, extend compassion and a sense of celebrating yourself in turning towards this work. Minimize self criticism or pathologizing your body or past. Embrace that exploring embodied healing is a life long (many lives!) journey where there's no urgency or competition other than what our mind creates.
Divesting from Harmful Cultural Norms
Dominant cultural beliefs about the pelvic floor - and even the attitude of many yoga teachers and practitioners - are based on some level of assumption that this area is weak and needs more tone, especially for people who have a pelvis capable of birthing a baby. Many don't question this assumption because of patriarchy and cis-hetero expectations placed upon our bodies: (cringe) untrue narratives that people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) are inherently weak, and that a primary function of a vulva is to be tight and pleasing to a penis.
The same oppressive ideas about gender and sexuality that bolster the common belief that AFAB people are too “loose,” and need more tone in the pelvic floor, also socialize people assigned male at birth (AMAB) into thinking it's better not to relate to, feel, or talk about the pelvic floor. Folks gendered as boys, especially in areas heavily influenced by white cultural norms, learn at a young age that movement, expression, and even learning about the pelvis is "feminine," shameful, and should be restricted. This, of course, creates a myriad of problems in body, mind, and spirit. Sadly, the stigma many people AMAB feel when pelvic issues arise, such as pelvic pain or prostate cancer, prevents their access to care at statistically staggeringly high rates.
There's no such thing as an objective "female" or "male" pelvis.
Add onto this the extra layers of complexity trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people face when exploring pelvic healing. It's very rare to find a doctor, book, yoga teacher, PT, or other pelvic health resource that doesn't heavily gender bodies, pelvises, and people. This is a major barrier.
The fact is, the major difference between types of pelvises is whether they were designed with the capacity to birth a baby, and this is not inherently connected to gender. If you are someone who feels empowered gendering your pelvis, body, etc. - awesome! I'm cheering on your empowerment. But especially if you're cisgender (not trans) that doesn't mean your experience and language should be piled onto others in harmful ways. Some women have penises, some men birth babies and have uteruses, and some people aren't men or women. We all have bodies that are sacred and worthy, bodies that deserve care and healing, which can practice and explore asana for pelvic floor health.
We can practice yoga for the pelvic floor in nearly every pose.
What about Mula Bandha?
A common way yoga students get curious about the pelvic floor is when they have learned about Mula Bandha. Unfortunately this is usually misunderstood as a gross physical action rather than a subtle, energetic technique: people vaguely instruct students to "squeeze everything down below," which for many folks means tightening an already stressed, over-gripped area.
Mula Bandha ("root lock") is an ancient, powerful, esoteric yogic technique aimed at containing and lifting kundalini energy through the central channel, or sushumna nadi, which burns the seeds of karma, or samskaras, stored in the chakras. However, if such energy is activated without supremely refined subtle alignment, the energy will activate and awaken these seeds, rather than dissolve them. For most people, if this were actually to occur, it would probably result in a psychological breakdown. In some modern yoga classes, Mula Bandha is taught casually and interchangeably with lifting the pelvic floor muscles.
But I digress.
We want to have healthy muscle tone, of course, but in the context of decompression and good circulation via skeletal support.
A tight muscle is a weak muscle.
A hand always in a fist won't be able to grasp effectively; a muscle that lives in a habitually dry, contracted state won't be able to engage when we need it. Through functional posture, position, and movement in the pelvis, the pelvic floor muscles can relax and receive good circulation. These tissues become nourished and so when needed, can contract and engage effectively.
While some people have hypotonic pelvic floor muscles, where lack of tone and postural misalignment cause issues, many people (even postpartum birthing parents!) have too much tone in the pelvic floor muscles, and because of that tightness, the pelvic muscles are weak. When this area is not able to be both strong and relaxed, serious health issues can develop.
What about Kegels?
Pelvic floor specialist Leslie Howard says Kegels are "urethra-sphincter-centric, 60 years old, and named after a guy." When people try to do Kegels, they are usually indiscriminately gripping, often focussed on the action of “stopping pee,” constricting the urethra. Spoiler alert: a key function of the pelvic floor is to let things flow through - it's not healthy to restrict your urethra!
Pelvic floor yoga is focussed more on learning to sense the three layers of muscle that make up the pelvic floor, create functional alignment in our structure (ie, bones!) to support this area, and then using specific actions, poses, and breath work to release and/or tone those muscles so that they can function optimally, with good circulation, strength, and the ability to be very strong AND relax fully as appropriate.
But wait, which poses are the right ones for you?
If this hypertonicity/ hypotonicity approach rings true to you, as you may have guessed, if you are on the tighter side, or looser side, (and this may change depending on which layer of muscle you are focussing on) your work will be quite different depending on what you need, since you have a specific goal, in any given pose.
When we practice specifically for our body's needs to address the challenges and asymmetries that have developed, then our yoga practice can truly become transformative and healing.
In part II of this post, we will dive further into the anatomy of the pelvis, ways to foster greater pelvic awareness, and yoga postures to support and/or relax the muscles of the pelvic floor.
Do you feel drawn to experience Avery's teaching for yourself? They'd love to connect! Yoga with Avery offers private sessions for pelvic health and more, 4 weekly asana classes, and a Sadhana Support Collective: a membership that helps counter-culture yoga lovers break the burn out/ overwhelm cycle and be truly nourished, strong, and spiritually powerful through affirming, committed yoga practice, without bypassing their body or the wisdom of their lived experience. Try a first class free! Learn more at yogawithavery.com and say hi on IG: @yoga_with_avery.
Avery Kalapa (they/them) is a yoga practitioner, community weaver, queer & trans wellness advocate, and Certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, eRYT500, YACEP, BFA, with over 20 years experience. They hold several specialized certifications, including Yoga for the Pelvic Floor.
Avery's approach is rooted in anti-oppression: yoga for inner healing + collective liberation. They love creating affirming embodied spaces that don't require assimilation. Everyone should have access to the revitalizing nourishment of deeply informed, classical yoga that goes beyond fitness.
Avery offers a vast knowledge of adaptive asana, integrative functional anatomy, stability, and counterculture yoga philosophy that empowers students to experience tangible, profound transformation in body, mind, and consciousness.
Celebrated for their enthusiasm, accessibility, and spiritual devotion, their teaching reflects deep gratitude for the Iyengar Lineage.
Avery is involved in various yoga justice organizing. They're a gardener, artist, & parent of 2 awesome kids. Avery is a white, queer, trans, nonbinary settler grateful to live on unceded Tiwa land, in Albuquerque NM.
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July 25, 2022
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