Do you ever wonder why it is important to relax your pelvic floor? Even if you know you should, do you find yourself wondering how to do so?
As a pelvic floor physical therapist, I often have patients who wonder what the value is in being able to relax the pelvic floor. In a culture that places most value on exercises that strengthen, it is important to understand why and how relaxation is just as important.
If you are someone who is just interested in building strength, I will speak to that first. In order to have muscles that can generate a good amount of power, it is also important that those muscles have what is called a good “length-tension” relationship. This term means that when muscles sit in too short of a resting state, they are not able to produce effective power. In other words, a tight muscle is not a strong muscle. If your pelvic floor is tight throughout the day and you never allow it to relax, you will not be able to build strength.
If you are someone who is in pain, relaxation is key to your recovery. When muscles are tight and shortened, it decreases the ability for blood and oxygen to get to those areas. This makes both the muscles and nerves in that area unhappy and painful. Another aspect of the body that is affected with tight muscles is the fascia. You can read more about fascia and its role in pelvic pain here. When fascia is tight, it also decreases blood flow and oxygen, contributing to pain. In order to help your pelvic floor muscles be happy and healthy, you need to be able to relax and release.
Now that I have hopefully convinced you that relaxing your pelvic floor is important, the big question is how! Here are five ways you can get started on your journey to relaxation:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing
The importance of breathing and its relationship to the pelvic floor cannot be stated enough. Unlike other muscles in the body, the pelvic floor muscles are directly influenced and impacted by how we breathe. You breathe approximately 20,000 times a day, so it’s a good investment to make sure you are doing it right!
With diaphragmatic breathing, the goal is to expand the diaphragm by breathing into the rib cage and belly. Try walking through these steps:
- Lay on your back with your knees bent so your low back can rest in a neutral position.
- Place your hands on your rib cage and try to expand the ribs into your hands as you breathe in through your nose.
- Breathe out through your nose slowly, making the exhale longer than in the inhale while letting the rib cage and belly softly fall. Repeat 10 times.
This breath is powerful for two reasons. The first is that your diaphragm and pelvic floor like to copy each other. If you are able to successfully expand and drop the diaphragm as you inhale, your pelvic floor will also expand and drop. You may not feel much during this exercise, but if you can visualize the muscles expanding without feelings of tightening or contracting, you are at a good place.
The second reason this breath is powerful is because it helps to regulate your nervous system. You can learn more about the importance of this with muscle pain and tightness here.
- Child’s Pose
Many yoga-inspired poses can help with relaxation of the pelvic floor. One great pose for this is child’s pose:
- Start on hands and knees and bring your feet together while widening your knees.
- Slowly send your hips down to your heels- if they do not touch, place a bolster or pillows underneath to support your hips.
- Walk your arms out long and lower your head onto the floor- place a pillow under your head if you do not make contact with the floor.
- Breathe into the back of your ribcage (diaphragmatic breathing) and imagine your sitz bones (boney ends of the pelvis) separating gently on every inhale.
- Hold for a minimum of 30 seconds while continuously performing diaphragmatic breathing. Repeat 1-2x a day.
During child’s pose, you have a great opportunity to play with visualization of the pelvic floor. As you imagine the sitz bones separating on every inhale, you may begin to develop a sensation of the anus bulging or expanding. This can be a signal that your pelvic floor muscles are relaxing. If you do not feel this right away, try not to get frustrated. Just like any other exercise, this work takes practice and patience.
- Happy Baby
Another great pose for stretching and releasing the pelvic floor, happy baby can feel nice if child’s pose does not feel accessible to you at this time.
- Start on your back and draw your knees into your chest.
- Reach along the inner thighs with your arms to grab each ankle or inner arch of your foot, whichever is accessible for your body.
- Open your feet to the sky while continuing to bend your knees and drive them into your armpits.
- Breath into your rib cage and belly while imagining the pelvic floor expanding and releasing.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat 1-2x a day.
If happy baby does not feel relaxing, play with propping yourself to provide support. This could mean putting a bolster underneath your hips, or even placing your feet on a wall or couch/chair so you do not have to feel like you are straining to keep your legs up. As with any exercise, if this does not feel good on your body, do not force yourself to stay in this pose.
- Yogi Squat
If you would like a pose that you can just drop into in the middle of the day without having to fully get on the ground, yogi squat may be for you. This pose requires more hip, knee, and ankle mobility so it is not appropriate for everyone. If you have discomfort, please modify or try the other poses in this list.
- Start standing with your feet a little wider than hip distance apart and the feet turned out about 45 degrees.
- Slowly bend your knees until you can sit all the way down while keeping your heels down. If your heels cannot stay down, try placing a pillow or half-cut foam roller underneath your heels for support.
- Once you are down, bring your hands together at your chest and use your elbows to gently push the thighs wide, feeling a stretch at the inner thighs.
- Breath into your rib cage and belly, and visualize the pelvic floor dropping and expanding with every inhale.
- You may do this against a wall to support your back, or even sit on a bolster or yoga block to let your body release into the pose without tensing.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat 1-2x a day.
Yogi squat is excellent for overall mobility of the lower extremity joints as well as the back and the pelvic floor. If this pose is available to you, dropping into it a few times through the work day can help keep tightness from building up throughout the day.
- Sphinx Pose
One area that is important to release when dealing with pelvic floor tightness is the abdominals. The abdomen is directly linked with the pelvic floor and often when one area is tight it influences the other. Trying a gentle abdomen stretch with spinal extension, such as sphinx pose, can be beneficial in finding full release.
- Lay on your stomach with your elbows bent right underneath your shoulders.
- Feel a gentle lift in the chest with the collarbone wide while keeping your hips grounded to the earth.
- Feel the soft stretch at the abdomen and notice if you are gripping your butt muscles.
- If there is any tension, wiggle your hips or your torso to shake it off.
- Return to your diaphragmatic breathing and notice any sensations of dropping or release the pelvic floor.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds and repeat 1-2x a day.
Pay attention to how your spine feels in the posture. Some people may not tolerate extension at the spine in which case the recommendation is to skip this pose. If you feel your gluteal muscles tightening and you are unable to get them to relax, just try squeezing and releasing those muscles for a few rounds before connecting it to the pelvic floor.
As with any generalized exercise program, some of these exercises may not be appropriate for every individual. We all have unique bodies with their own stories. It is important you listen to your body’s boundaries and respect limitations rather than try to push through them. This is deep, mindful work that requires truly connecting and engaging with your body’s intuition of what feels right.
If you are a visual and kinesthetic learner, I have also created a video that goes over each of the exercises so you can follow along! If you are still interested in learning more about what is right for your individual body and want more feedback, please consider booking a virtual appointment with me. I am now offering one-on-one movement sessions to help you create a movement program that is right for you. These sessions can also serve as a guide to help you return to movement classes you might be interested in, such as yoga or pilates.