I attended an anatomy of yoga workshop over the weekend. Really, it turned out to be mostly a review for me. The studio that hosted the workshop also has a yoga teacher training. I was more or less just crashing one of these teacher training sessions. It was kind of cute to see all these new, fresh faced, yoga students who were just learning that psoas starts with the letter ‘p’. It was nice to hear someone teaching about applying anatomy to yoga to benefit the yoga student without causing injury. I feel like the concept of adapting the yoga pose to the individual body as opposed to forcing a body into the yoga pose, a concept I learned in teacher training years ago, is just now becoming a more popular idea in mainstream yoga. I did walk away from this workshop with two insights.
One? I undervalue myself as a yoga teacher.
The second insight was about the pelvic floor.
Raise your hand if know what the pelvic floor is and how to engage that pelvic floor.
I have known the anatomy of the pelvic floor since Anatomy and Physiology class in undergrad. If you think about your pelvis as a bowl, the pelvic floor consists of muscles that line the bottom of that bowl. They keep your guts from falling out when you stand up. They also give us control over the bladder and bowls. A weak or too tight pelvic floor can lead to incontinence. This group of muscles is part of the core muscles, which help the diaphragm expand and contract while breathing. I cannot tell you how many yoga classes I have been in where a teacher has said “engage your pelvic floor”. Another phrase I have heard from a teacher is “zip it all up!” None of these phrases have been helpful. I just shrug and squeeze all the holes between my legs as tight as I can muster. Jess once told me a story about a girl she went skiing with. They were on the ski lift and the girl looked down and then quickly back up and said “That made my tootie draw up!” That’s what I do when ever I am cued to ‘zip it all up’ or ‘engage the pelvic floor’. I draw up my tootie.
This is not engaging the pelvic floor. I mean, it kind of is, but not really, but this was the only thing I knew to do because I had no idea what my pelvic floor muscles even felt like when engaged. There’s an exercise I learned in training that builds arches in the feet. It’s basically lifting the toes, but part of it is to leave the big toe and the pinky toe down and just lift the three middle toes. I can almost picture some your faces while reading that because I made the same face when I was asked to do it. I had no idea what muscles to engage to just lift the three middle toes. I had to reach down and physically lift those toes with my hand so I could create a muscle memory for the action. I can’t really do that with the pelvic floor. Well, I can’t really do that in public any way.
The teacher on Saturday had us do an exercise that was meant to teach us about our pelvic floor muscles. She had us all press back into a wide legged child’s pose and on the inhale she told us to “feel the space between our legs expand and feel it contract” on the exhale. All the lights came on inside my brain at that same time. The pelvic floor and the diaphragm work together. The pelvic floor pulls down on the inhale (that expanding feeling) and then moves back up with the exhale. That’s an involuntary movement, but once you are aware of that movement you can do it voluntarily.
You might be wondering why you would want to be aware of these muscles. What’s the point of voluntarily contracting the pelvic floor? In yoga, the pelvic floor is what helps give you lift. Any time you hear a teacher say something like “lift the body up” it is the pelvic floor that helps you do this. Those seated poses where you lift your whole body up off the mat? Engaging the pelvic floor helps you do that. But also, being aware of how those muscles feel allows you to have better knowledge of how to stretch those muscles. We want strong pelvic floors that can also relax a little at times so we don’t end up needing diapers.
This anatomy workshop was worth the money just for the way she cued us to breathe in child’s pose.