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The Low Down on Pelvic Floor Exercises

The Low Down on Pelvic Floor Exercises

In the last post, we discussed mula bandha and the importance of having proper tone in the pelvic floor. As mentioned also in the last post, the pelvic floor, or pelvic diaphragm, is a group of muscles that includes the 3 muscles of your levator ani (pubococcygeus, puborectalis, and iliococcygeus.), the coccygeus and the connective tissue that complete the diaphragm. These muscles form somewhat of a sheet with open spaces for the urethra, the vagina and the anus. Sometimes the muscles can interdigitate with some of these other structures, which is perhaps why in some cases stopping the flow of urine may cause these muscles to contract for some people. BUT, since we now know that stopping the flow of urine DOES NOT necessarily cause these muscles to contract… then what do we do to tone these muscles?

First of all, we have to identify these muscles and be sure that we are contracting them. One of the easiest ways to do this is to familiarize ourselves with their attachment points, the tailbone and the ischial tuberosities (sitz bones). If you are not sure where these places are in your body, sit on a hard surface and rock side to side. Those bony things are your ischial tuberosities. If you lean back far enough and roll behind those guys (as long as you are not clenching your glutes to do so), you should feel a singular pointy bone (that may be rather uncomfortable to roll over) somewhere near the center (or slightly off to one side for some people). This is your tailbone (hopefully). In your mind draw and imaginary diamond between your ischial tuberosities, your tailbone and your pubis (the hard thing at the front of your pelvis). When you contract the muscles of the pelvic floor properly, it may feel like the center of this diamond is lifting upwards towards your head. Since the muscles are on the inside of your pelvic bowl, if you feel muscles contract on the outside of your pelvis (outside of this diamond), like the glutes or adductors, you are not doing it correctly. Sometimes, just like any other deep skeletal muscle, if you are not familiar with this area, these muscles may not be easy to access. You can try a more subtle and concentrated contraction. Or if this is WAY too subtle for you, sit on a golf ball. I’m not kidding. Make sure you are wearing comfortable pants, place a golf ball on a hard surface and sit on it so that it is between your genitals and your anus (yes, this works for dudes too and is REALLY IMPORTANT for you guys). Try to physically squeeze and lift the ball to feel like you are drawing it upwards towards your head. If all of this is gross to you, incontinence is a lot grosser, so keep that in mind… If you need a better motivator than that, it will make your sex life better. There, we said it.

Once you figure out how to contract these muscles, you can start toning them. Here are 3 different pelvic floor exercises that I learned from my birth educator, Sandra Jamrog, when I was pregnant. They are in the order of least difficult to most difficult (sort of… if you know anything about muscle mechanics, you will know it is more complicated than this, but I am not getting into that now…). During my pregnancy and post-natal, I did these exercises every day. I still do them about 3 times a week for maintenance (yes… they are skeletal muscles and need to be maintained, especially if you pushed a baby through there). This is NOT to say that this is the ONLY kind of muscle work you need to be doing to keep this all intact. Deep squatting is also nice as well as lunges, etc.

1) Sit on a hard surface in a comfortable position (cross legged or sitting on a wooden chair) as long as you can feel your bones on the seat. Contract the muscles and release. Then contract and release again. Keep doing so and see how quickly you can contract and how quickly you can release. Once you can get a pretty good rhythm, see if you can do 10 contractions. Then next time 20. Then 30. Once you can do this for about a minute, make this your regimen. After doing so, to “stretch” these muscles (which is equally as important), lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees bent and breathe in such a way that your belly protrudes outward. Try to breathe lower and lower until you can feel your breath push on your pelvic floor. Take 5 or 6 breaths like this and then relax.

2) Sit on a hard surface in a comfortable position. See how intensely you can contract these muscles without compensating outside the pelvis (make sure that you can breathe while doing so…). Once you figure out your threshold, contract and hold for as long as you can keep it up. Try to increase the time and intensity each day. Repeat the breathing “stretch” from step 1.

3) Now for the fun part, see if you can differentiate the 3 different muscles of the levator ani (or at least pretend to). By now you should have a pretty strong sense of how this contraction feels and where it takes place. Now imagine that the center where the contractions take place is an elevator shaft with 3 floors. You may be able to differentiate 3 different levels of contraction. Imagine the elevator can lift from the first floor to the second, second to third, third down to second, and second down to first. Try to stay at each of these levels for a second or two before moving on to the next. This one is very subtle, but once you can do it, you will understand it better.

That’s all for now. If you have any more questions about any of this, please feel free to contact us or comment below.

WTF is Mūla Bandha: Let’s Talk Pelvic Floor, Baby!

WTF is Mūla Bandha: Let’s Talk Pelvic Floor, Baby!

If you have taken more than a handful of yoga classes, the chances are that you’ve heard the term, “Mula Bandha,” also known as the “root lock.” Teachers will sometimes instruct you to  pretend to “stop the flow of urine” in order to help you perform Mula Bandha. But what is MB really? Wikipedia quotes Iyengar for an explanation: “A posture where the body from the anus to the navel is contracted and lifted up and towards the spine.” It seems that Iyengar is using a language that attempts to describe an experience, but unfortunately his anatomical reference is incorrect.

This particular form of miscommunication is common in modern-day yoga classes. Why? Simple: cultural (mis)appropriation. The truth is that even though we can (and we will) talk about the anatomical structures that make up Mula Bandha, the language used to describe it is easily muddied, when we try to communicate our individual experiences about a physical action whose origin is embedded in the “mystical” and is part of a practice, in which the intention is to explore our energy-selves. (Stick with us, people.)  What Westerners consider the more esoteric side of a yoga practice often involves kriyas, bandhas and even pranayama.  Our cultural perspective will influence how we perceive and interpret our engagement with these particular practices. This is why the language that tries to convey a culturally foreign experience is often inaccurate; we are limited by the nature of our English language that tends to focus on physical experiences as separate from spiritual, mental or emotional ones.  The key word here is “diachronic.

 We at SMARTer Bodies, often try to embed or contextualize yogic practices in concrete, scientifically-minded language to convey the validity of these experiences to those of us who only dabble in yoga classes that focus on Asana.  Mula Bandha is a practice that begins to cross the line or blur the lines for typical Americans who are not used to connecting the physical, mental and emotional bodies (or for some, even a spiritual body). Yoga teachers in the United States are meeting an almost insurmountable challenge in trying to teach these practices in a few 45-60 minute classes.  A 200-hour teacher training can only introduce concepts from a culture in which we did not grow up (i.e., concepts such as chakras or bandhas, which are energetic centers of the body). In the West, we focus on gross anatomy, as opposed to the subtle anatomical relationships that usually provide the context for yoga. Attempting to put these Eastern, energetic concepts into the Western perceptual framework is sometimes like trying to describe a car by what it tastes like. Only recently a number of Americans, who acknowledge and adopt ancient yogic practices/concepts as valid have grown sufficient enough that there is a demand to describe those practices/concepts by an empirical language that many people find authoritative and secure.  Again, “diachronic.”

 

So, for those of you who aren’t going to study yoga seriously or take years to properly interact with these concepts, we are going to try and explain MB to you quick and dirty (Yeah, just how SMARTer Bodies like it.  Yeeeeeeah…sorry.)  A properly executed Mula Bandha may feel the way Iyengar describes it (and may even energetically correspond to the entire area he refers to), but what you are really engaging is your pelvic floor. This is an important distinction to make since YOUR PELVIC FLOOR IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR STOPPING THE FLOW OF URINE! It is your urethral sphincter and your external anal sphincter that are responsible for controlling the stream of urine. Therefore, pretending to hold the stream in an attempt to access your entire pelvic floor DOES NOT WORK.

Your pelvic floor, or pelvic diaphragm, is a group of muscles that includes the 3 muscles of your levator ani (pubococcygeus, puborectalis, and iliococcygeus) and your coccygeus muscle. Some refer to the entire pelvic floor by referencing only one of the muscles (the PC muscle, the ones that help us use those sphincters to stop our urine). Both men and women have these muscles, and just like any other skeletal muscle, they need to be conditioned for both sexes. Unconditioned pelvic floor muscles can lead to prolapsed organs, incontinence, more subtle breathing issues or the inability to properly create intra-abdominal pressure for core work.

A well-conditioned pelvic floor will be helpful for birth labor, core strength and organ health. Regardless of the cultural context, this muscular work is important and relevant to every human being. In our next blog post, we will talk about pelvic floor conditioning.

Kim Talks About Your Knee In Pigeon Pose

What does it really take to keep your knees safe when doing Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, (Pigeon Pose)?  A key element to a pain and injury free pigeon is finding external rotation in the hip.  This is a video I caught of Kim in the midst of a rant while we just chillin’ and talking about the body, so that’s why the footage looks a little raw. We’ll be adding more vlogs about the body, yoga and healthy movement to our YouTube channel that will be much more refined.

The Book of Yoga Contraindications: Good? Bad?

There is a new e-book on the yoga scene called, The Contraindication Index for Yoga Asanas.  The synopsis goes like this:

The Contraindication Index for Yoga Asanas is an essential reference guide to injuries, ailments, and medical conditions that can be exacerbated by certain yoga postures.

It’s organized according to the medical condition, rather than the posture and provides guidance as to whether a position should be avoided altogether, or can be modified and practiced with increased safety. It cross-references extensive research on 35 common medical conditions, injuries and ailments and 112 fundamental yoga poses, explaining which ones should be avoided, which ones can be modified and how.

Clearly this a well-intentioned book!  This yoga teacher wants to create safe practices and with the ever-increasing concern for safety surrounding mainstream yoga (asana) it seems like it couldn’t have come too soon.  But we are more likely to lean towards what Amy Matthews, movement educator and general anatomy genius says, “There is nothing inherently negative or beneficial to a shape we make with our bodies in the context of yoga.”  This may be anathema to what many of us yoga teachers have learned from teachers, books, workshops and teacher trainings.  We’ve all been told, “forward bends are calming,” “don’t invert when menstruating,” “do shoulder stand to help your headache.”  There are many reasons as to why this kind of formulaic reasoning should no longer be the foundation for the choices we make as yoga teachers.

There are many people that the above edicts apply to, but more importantly there are many more people to whom their experience is contrary to what we have previously learned as truths across the board.  “There are always exceptions to the rules,” Amy assures us when we worriedly bring up how to approach a student that presents complications (as most of us have in some form or another).  As teachers, our goal should be to approach a movement practice so that an individual can connect to their bodies, what makes them unique and how to experience integration and freedom within their bodies and within their practice.  Limiting someone or making them afraid of something may not be the best way to allow for that kind of experience.  That being said, common sense should not be ignored.  If someone has a neck injury then until that gets resolved full-on shoulder stands are probably not a good idea.  BUT that does not mean that the essence of that particular posture should be denied to that person.  In fact,  exploring how we would approach that particular posture might hold a clue as to how a neck injury occurred in the first place.

Basically, a practice based on limitations also limits experiences that may be beneficial.  Yes, sometimes it is necessary to proceed with caution, but proceed you must. Pain, particularly chronic pain, is a neurological issue.  Telling a client to avoid something can put them in a state of fear/anxiety, which can actually trigger that particular feedback loop and he/she may experience pain by just thinking about the movement to be avoided.  It is our job as movement educators to help our clients face their limitations and work with them.  If you aren’t comfortable with that process than you need to get better educated.  This is exactly why there needs to be a more indepth study into the science behind yoga and how it relates to the body, every body.  We are not saying telling you not to buy this book.  BUY THIS BOOK, but use it for what it is:  a starting point to a necessary dialogue that contributes to an informed movement practice that focuses on what to do as opposed to what not to do.

Music to Move You: Sometimes Doing Yoga Means Dropping it like it’s Hot

As feminists we can’t agree or support the whole “slapping bitches and hoes (or is it ‘ho’s’…whatever)” thing that happens too often in popular music.  There is always the eternal conflict of hating the marginalization of women that is all too common in these genres while being pulled in by the irresistible beats and hooks that have allowed such behavior to become somewhat acceptable.  Women have often struggled to find equality and respect in the music that was born of social revolt and became the voice against oppression and racism both personal and institutionalized. Despite the contention that has often surrounded the music, the stories that arists tell are invaluable.

That being said…”Drop it Like it’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg is the shiz…shizzle?…hmm, either way it’s good.  So put it on and get on the mat.  Confront the conflict described above and any others you may be trying to resolve.  Dealing with conflicts is pretty much the constant physical and mental negotiation that makes up much of a yoga practice (the “yolking of opposites,” anyone?).  If that’s getting too deep just put it on and move!  (Sorry, could only find the censored version, but you know the words.)

Yoga is for Everybody and Every Body

See even frogs meditate.

A new student of Melissa’s, Valentina, recently shared this photo.  She said, “Look! Yoga is for everybody.”  Love that!  It’s a beautiful thing when people begin to see and feel their yoga practices in all aspects of their lives.  This observant and sweet woman asked a fantastic question after class, “Why do we do yoga?  What is it about really?”  Oh how we love to have those conversations; as you remember from the posts we wrote about yoga and the state of it in the U.S..

Regardless of the polemics that surround the current yoga debate we want for everyone to have at least tried yoga.  There are so many obvious physical benefits to the practice like integration of the physical body, a better command over your nervous system and the ability to relax, improved balance and coordination…honestly the list can go on forever.  But with everything that could be said about yoga’s benefits they really all stem from the number 1 real reason we practice:  To better know ourselves!

Long-time practitioners are probably nodding their heads in agreement (although, there’s always exceptions).  Newbies may be thinking, “I thought yoga was about stretching.”  Whatever physical attributions yoga may have the core of the practice is getting to know ourselves in the physical, mental, and emotional states that we transition through as we move.  It really is an invaluable practice and words often fail to describe it to those who have yet to experience the magic of it all.  *ahem, cue the song*

Yoga can help you get in touch with your inner voice, guide, intuition, creative muse…all that is totipotent within you.  Sounds a bit cheesy and over the top.  But it’s true.   As Olivia sings, “I’m guiding you through every turn.  I’ll be near you.  Come anytime you call.  Catch you when you fall.”  Wouldn’t it be nice to have that personal guide to help us through tumultuous moments?!  Well, it’s in there, inside of you!  Trust it is there, probably just been covered up by years of experience, drama, trauma and preconceived notions of what and who you need to be.  Don’t feel bad, we all arrive at this mucked up place.  Some of us have just found yoga as a way to peel away the layers and find the bright and shiny voice inside that can make you believe you are magic.

It doesn’t matter if you are inflexible (which by the way SUCKS as an excuse not to practice, so please stop saying that), or aren’t coordinated, or have intense physical handicaps.  Yoga does NOT  have to look like what you see on calendars or magazines.  With the right teacher yoga is just getting to connect with yourself and better inhabit your body, so you can better inhabit your life.   We have an excellent list of teachers for you to find the right one and you could always contact us.  So in the name of Xanadu don’t wait anymore to cultivate a deeper and healthier relationship with yourself!  Move SMARTer, Live Better.

Take a Harder Yoga Class!

Students often demand “harder” classes.  That’s fair.  Most people want to be confronted by a real challenge.  The feeling of moving towards a higher bar than what they usually meet is important and can be a fun and rewarding experience.  That being said, it would be nice if we were all better at contextualizing what a “harder,” “more advanced,” or “difficult” class is.  For example, a class that explores primal movement patterns can be really difficult for someone who doesn’t have a strong connection to some of these more basic patterns.  A class that is full of plyometrics (jumping) can be very difficult for someone who has does not have strong aerobic endurance.  Weight lifting can be hard for someone who hasn’t done that before…etc.  You get the idea.  This understanding is important for people to create a physical practice that supports total body wellness.  In that philosophy:

Mel (of SMARTer Bodies™) has great aerobic endurance and can jump/run till the cows come home.  But her strength needs development, because push ups still suck way too much.  Conversely, Kim (of SMARTer Bodies™) has typically displayed more aptitude in the strength department and needs to work on the cardio/aerobic endurance. (Please note: things change as Kim is now riding her bike about a million miles a week and Mel has recently given a 180lb. man a piggy back ride for an impressive distance.)  So we are sure to practice in the areas we have identified as weak in comparison to our other abilities in order to create a more balanced picture (for our individual fitness goals).  This is the philosophy in which we try to work with our clients to help them do the things they need to better.

Recently, one of us taught a yoga class and was asked to make it “really hard.”  Obliging the students’ request the class was filled with kick-ass combinations of movement and asana that left people shaking, sweating, huffing/puffing and generally exhausted, but very satisfied with the difficulty level, because there was still room for play (all torture is not necessarily the best way to teach).  That’s wonderful and everyone was happy.  But then a student asks, “That was really good!  That was harder than the last time…right?”  See that’s the kind of question that raises a small red flag for us.  You should know what’s hard for you, not what is dictated or defined as more difficult by a teacher in a class.  Especially in NYC, people want to work hard and fast otherwise they feel it’s not worth doing at all.   Those who apply this standard to a daily movement practice/workout are typically the ones who are so proud of the calories they’ve burned, but:

  • Still can’t balance as well on one leg versus the other.
  • Don’t know how to articulate through the spine (You wouldn’t believe how challenging a slow roll up is for some people).
  • Can’t tell the difference between the sensations of muscular effort or attachments tearing and joints crying/screaming.

Those three points of weakness mentioned above all share a common thread: not enough body-mind practice.  Imagine how much better everything else would be if someone didn’t have such strong discrepancies from the left side of their body to right side, or didn’t get totally confused or lost when asked to perform subtle and fine movements in the body, or get frustrated when asked how something feels.  Many times people say, “I don’t know! How does it look to you?”  Yes, even though, as teachers we can look from the outside in to help guide you wouldn’t it be better if you could also do this for yourself? When outside observation isn’t available you need to be able to rely upon powers of proprioception (observing/sensing from the inside); this can apply to all aspects of life from working out to performing well at work!

This is why it is so important to incorporate practices that get you back in touch with your internal landscape and strengthen the body-mind connection.  That’s why yoga is an easy go to for fulfilling this purpose.  Let’s be clear, we are not talking about yoga that is taught for the purposes of seeing how far back you wrap your leg behind your head or how many chaturangas you can do before dying.  The yoga we’re describing is the kind taught by teachers interested in the EXPERIENCE you are having while moving.  We want to help you find out what is happening on the INSIDE, so that the next time you do something like weightlifting or running or ANYTHING you can do it happily and safely.

So we ask that if you are caught up in the pattern of, “every time I take a class I have to work out hard and burn as many calories as possible, sweat as much as I can and push myself to the edge,” we support that, but know that there is a whole other way of thinking about movement that you can practice to support what you usually do and help you to perform better.  Go to a class (like a yoga class) that is about slowing down and exploring the spaces inside you haven’t yet.  You’d be surprised at how nicely your other movement practices and daily activities will improve when you take the time to reconnect and just play with sensing and feeling what’s going on inside of you.

This is also not to say that yoga is the only way to do this.  There are plenty of ways to enhance the connection to your insides.  It really all depends on the teacher.  But we have found great results with yoga as taught by the teachers we list on our site as well as awesome training programs like M.E.T. that are based on neuroscience.  All these practices are intent on teaching you the ability to stay connected to what is going on in your body while progressing.  Not in an obsessive, “What is happening to my spleen while doing this dead lift,” kind of way.  (Although, some people might benefit from that if they could properly manage the experience.)  But we’re talking about a connection that allows you to work and play without hurting yourself.  So don’t be afraid to try the movement without the weights to correct your form and make it solid before you move on to grabbing the weights.  And don’t be afraid to slow down and reconnect to your breath before you move into vinyasas that have you turning purple and almost passing out.  Ask yourself if you take enough breaks from performing to allow yourself space for experiencing.  Can you find subtle connections in your body as well as you can run that treadmill?

REDEFINE WHAT YOU BELIEVE MAKES YOU AN ADVANCED STUDENT. 

When it Feels Impossible Dance Anyways

So many times we are disappointed with how our physical bodies perform or look.  Discouragement and frustration can ruin a great work out.  Defeat can be the poison one suffers from in a yoga practice.  We’re human and these moments are normal.  So it can be helpful to draw inspiration from seeing others triumph over their physical challenges.  It’s in that spirit that we present this video.  The final production is quite stunning and beautiful to see.  But what you should really take away from this piece is that these are performers who suffer from extreme phyiscial handicaps. Yet, they have found a way to overcome them, form new and innovative relationships with their bodies to express through dance despite incredible challenges.  You’ll see the blind stepping in time and unison driven by the sound of their canes.  Deaf dancers standing near speakers to feel the vibrations of the music they must interpret.  The truly inspiring way one boy is able to work and dance with no arms.

This isn’t to belittle whatever challenge you are facing.  Even if it is not as extreme as blindness or a missing limb watching this can help you to find hope in the face of difficulties.  And if your challenge is as difficult as being deaf or missing a part of your body than the lesson is the same:

If you live in the mindset of possibilities then what seems insurmountable in one moment can become manageable the next.  We had a blog post recently all about that.  Read about how your brain and attitude can really dictate how well you do in any situation, but especially when working with the body.  Stop being your own worst enemy.  What you do and how well you do it is up to you!

Use Your Other Foot!

We found an article that helps explain the importance of balance, a concept we have been trying to impress upon our students for years.  Not just balance, meaning doing the same muscular activity on both sides of the body, but also by creating balanced neuro-muscular patterns and balanced sensory perception.

By the way, symmetry does not equal balance (more on that in another post soon to come).  But it is important to create balance in the body. Repetitive muscular activity creates a neuro-muscular pattern.  In other words, when you practice a particular movement over and over you establish a communication between the brain and muscles responsible for executing that move.  A SmarterYoga practice that utilizes sequences that repeat on both sides can reveal imbalances in one’s ability to execute a particular move on one side vs. the other.  In yoga it is particularly relevant to the concept of balance to also not start every practice or sequence on the same side of the body.  Learn to initiate movement with the foot you wouldn’t normally.

Imbalances must be properly addressed to ensure that you are moving with each side of your body and each half of your brain communicating effectively to avoid injury or performance issues.  Don’t believe us?  Read the article’s abstract in this link.  Runners, you’ll find this particularly interesting.