The Pelvic floor in Yoga
Of all the mysterious aspects of yoga practice, perhaps one of the most mysterious and poorly understood is mula bandha, the root lock or the activation of the pelvic floor. There are many unfortunate ways teachers talk about the pelvic floor. These range from the distracting, to the bizarre, to inhibiting the very poses the root lock would hope to support.
Before we talk about the action of the root lock, it is helpful to know what exactly we are talking about.
Often the pelvic floor or mula bandha are confused with muscles that relate to the sex organs or the organs of elimination. Though the pelvic floor muscles are integrated with these passages and organs, we are not specifically talking about them. So contracting the anal sphincter, kegel muscles or muscles that control urine can bring general awareness to the pelvic floor. However, each of these is an incomplete awareness of the pelvic floor.
The pelvic floor is in fact a floor (I learned this from Erik Franklin). It is the floor that the structure of the body is built upon. Humans, as bipedal, upright animals are unique in this respect. In quadripeds, the abdominal muscles are the floor that supports the organs. In humans the abdominal muscles for the wall, and the pelvic floor forms the floor (go figure!). So in a very real sense, the pelvic floor is the root or supporting structure for the rest of the body.
This relates in a beautiful way to the yogic understanding of the root or muladhara chakra. I struggled with understanding the root chakra for a while, where it is and how to feel it. It is my understanding now that this energy centre relates to the pelvic floor. (Chakras are not anatomical structures, however they do have relationships with the anatomy, musculature, organs and emotional resonances of an area).
To facilitate movement, our sitting bones have the capability to widen apart and narrow towards each other. The pelvic floor is the muscle group that supports this movement, and it is not merely tightening or slackening the pelvic floor. We need support in both widened and narrow positions and the transitions between. Also, pelvic floor muscles are also part of the breathing aparatus, and mirror the movement of the diaphragm facilitating deep breath. If the pelvic floor is constantly tightened or lifted up, we are not allowing for the internal movements that facilitate breathing.
HANG ON A MINUTE. Isn’t facilitating deep breath and synchronizing breath and movement the whole basis of yoga posture practice? And holding mula bandha inhibits that?
The answer is yes. Pelvic floor muscles need to be strong in both concentric and eccentric contractions. (Read more about that here) That means both when the muscle is long and the sitting bones are wide apart from each other (as in a squat) and when the sitting bones are narrow, the muscle needs to support the body and the organs. On the inhale, when the pelvic floor moves down and on the exhale when it moves up, it still needs appropriate mobility and tone. Telling yourself to lift up and contract the pelvic floor all the time actively stops that from happening, inhibiting movement and breath.
So what is a yogi who has been taught to engage mula bandha to do?
Firstly we can look at the image as a metaphor. In certain texts when mula bandha is referred to it is “located” within the body either between anus and testes for men or near the base of the cervix for women. We could use that image as a way of focusing on a centre point, not a specific muscle area. Bandha is translated as lock, as a lock on a canal. These type of locks do not only stop flow of energy, they direct it appropriately, opening and closing when needed for specific purposes. So we can take the action of the mula bandha as a way of smoothing, controlling and releasing energy when needed to facilitate concentration or postures. Secondly, we can use it as a point of concentration, rather than something we have to engage and hold (it will engage itself, when the whole body moves and works effectively, and in order to hold that point as a point of meditation in movement, we have to sharpen our powers of internal awareness to a huge degree.) To deepen our sensitivity to be attuned to the subtle movements of the pelvic floor would be an incredible focus for meditation.
Lastly, we can explore the effects of holding the root on our movement, and choose when it is helpful and when it is a hindrance to our yoga posture practice. We can become skillful in our choices of how we do what we do, opening ourselves to the experience of the practice, rather than just doing it.
This is a really interesting lay person’s experience of a tight pelvic floor, which is recommended reading for anyone with pelvic floor, prostate or uterine issues. Although the story is a specifically male experience, it is likely there are women with similar experiences.