Pull up that pelvic floor

In a yoga class you will probably here expressions like “pull up your pelvic floor” and “engage your core”…but what does that mean? In today’s blog, I’m having a look at core stability muscles and hopefully making it a bit clearer on how to find them!

The core stability muscles

The core muscles are essential for spinal health and help to provide support for the whole body (1). However, sometimes the way we tell you to “engage your core” in a yoga class can be misleading. It makes it sounds like the “core” is a rigid cylinder of muscles, but this isn’t the case. Having good core stability means that the muscles are strong and flexible – capable of supporting movement – definitely not a restrictive, rigid tube!

The major core muscles are the abdominals, pelvic floor muscles, spinal extensors, and the diaphragm (1). The minor core muscles are the lattimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius (7). However, when we talk about “core stability” in yoga, we are typically referring to the transversus abdominis, lumbar multifidus, and the pelvic floor muscles.

Figure 1: The core muscles

Transversus abdominis (Figure 1): extends from the abdomen to the back, originating from the thoracolumbar fascia (as well as the iliac crest, inguinal ligament, and lower ribs), and wraps around like a corset (but a flexible one!). It supports the internal organs through compression of the abdomen.

Multifidus (Figure 1): the multifidus is a transverse muscle which originates from the sacrum, lumbar, thoracic and lower four cervical vertebrae (2). Multiple insertion points occur along the spine from the fifth lumbar vertebra upwards (2). This “multi-muscle” helps stabilise movement and extends, laterally flexes, and rotates the vertebrae (2).

Pelvic floor muscles: these muscles include the levator ani (the largest muscle of the pelvic floor), pubococcygeus, iliococcygeus, puborectalis, and coccygeus (1,3). The pelvic floor muscles support the abdominal and pelvic organs, maintain bladder control when coughing or sneezing, and fix and brace the trunk when doing forceful movements with the upper body, such as weight lifting (3). So you can see that when we activate the pelvic floor we ate focusing on a sling of muscles, not just one. It is possible to work on different areas of the pelvic floor (more on this in a different post).

Strong core stability muscles provide support and stability for the spine and are a source of strength and balance (4). They enable us to protect our spine while we lift heavy objects and perform complex movements.

Activating the pelvic floor and abdominals

Lying down

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
  • Place your hands on your pelvic crests (to find these, place your fingers at the level of your belly button and move them out to the sides towards the hip bones – the first boney bits you reach on each side are the pelvic [iliac] crests; basically the top of the hip bones).
  • Bring your fingers just inside your pelvic crests.
  • On an out-breath, pull up your pelvic floor (as if you are trying to stop yourself going to toilet mid-flow) and hollow in your lower abdomen towards your spine (bringing your lower back in connection with the floor).
  • Notice how the deep abdominal muscles contract beneath your fingers –keep breathing and hold for 10 seconds (at this point if you hum, you might feel your muscles contract a little more).

Standing up (in Mountain pose [tadasana])

  • Stand on the earth and imagine that the ball of the foot below the big toe and the little toe are two of the prongs on a three pin plug. The third pin is the heel of the foot.
  • Visualise plugging the feet into the earth, each prong entering at the same time and to the same depth. Feel the strength as you plug into the earth. Ease on the pelvic floor during an out-breath (like trying to stop going to toilet mid-flow).
  • As you gently bend into the knees, imaging the spine directly travelling down into the earth, you will probably notice that the pelvis tilts forwards (upwards).
  • If you are finding this difficult, it sometimes helps to imagine the pelvis is like a bowl holding water – you are trying to keep the bowl level to avoid spilling the water (not too far forward or back – in neutral).
  • To engage the abdominals more too, as you straighten the legs (without locking the knees), draw in the muscles as if you are trying to do up a tight pair if trousers!
  • Lift up through the spine, imagining space between each vertebra and light flowing up the spine.
  • Lift the sternum upwards as if the heart is bring drawn forward and upwards in a diagonal line.
  • Allow the chin to be parallel to the floor and lift through the crown of the head, relaxing the shoulders down. It’s as if you are being suspended from a golden thread attached at the occiput (base of the skull).
  • Enjoy standing in this active manner for as long as you feel comfortable.

I hope you enjoy exploring your strength, flexibility, and stability! Have a fabulous day. Namaste.

References

1. Striano P, Striano P. Anatomy of a Healthy Back: a Chiropractor’s Guide to a Pain-Free Back. Heatherton, Vic.: Hinkler Books; 2012.

2. Jarmey C. The Concise Book of Muscles. Chichester, England; Berkeley, Calif.: Lotus Pub. ; North Atlantic Book; 2008.

3. Abrahams PH. How the Body Works. London: Amber Books; 2012.

4. Stephens M. Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books; 2012.

What’s happened so far

Thanks for joining me on my first week of blogging! Just in case you’ve missed anything, here’s a quick summary of what’s happened so far over the last nine days!

So here goes!

I hope you’ve been enjoying the posts so far and have found them useful! Tomorrow I’m going to look at the chakras – hope you can join me! Namaste.


 

Yoga poses – spotlight on natarajasana (dancer)

Yoga poses…so many to choose from! In my first blog of the 30 day challenge, I talked about my favourite pose – Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance or dancer pose). You might know that there is usually a story behind a yoga pose…so what’s the story of Natarajasana?

The story behind Natarajasana

To understand the story behind Natarajasana, we first need to be introduced to Shiva. Shiva is one of the three Hindu deities that form the Trimurti (the other two being Brahma and Vishnu). The Trimurti are responsible for the cycle of creation, maintenance, and destruction. Brahma is the creator of the universe, Vishnu sustains it, and Shiva destroys it to clear a path for renewal and transformation.

Shiva as Nataraja

At the end of each age, Shiva becomes Nataraja and performs the Natana which includes the dance of destruction (tandava) and creation (Lasya). He dances inside a circle of fire called samsara which represents the pattern of birth, life, and death.

In his Nataraja form, Shiva is often seen with four arms which represent the four directions (north, south, east, and west). Two of the arms represent the balance between creation and destruction. Creation is represented by a hand holding an hourglass-shaped drum (damaru). The drum signifies the passing of time, the sound of creation (Aum/Om), and both genders. Destruction is represented by a flame in the palm of another hand, which is also symbolic of knowledge (vidya). Shiva also gestures with one hand in the abhaya mudra (representing fearlessness). The remaining hand points to the raised lower leg, symbolising release from the cycle of birth and death. This hand also forms the gaja-hasta mudra which represents Shiva’s son, Ganesha (the remover of obstacles).

Shiva dances on a dwarf/demon called apasmara-purusha (the man of forgetfulness) or Muyalaka. This tiny figure represents ignorance, which Shiva crushes. Around Shiva’s necks is a cobra (Naga) which symbolises the past, present, and future, and also Shakti. The venom of the cobra has also been said to represent the toxic nature of ignorance (avidya).

There’s a lot more that could be said about Shiva’s dance but let’s look at the pose before I get too carried away!

Natarajasana – Dru style

How to perform Natarajasana

  • In tadasana (Mountain pose) find a point to gaze at.
  • Shift weight onto your right leg – ensure your core is engaged as you breathe out.
  • Breathe in and raise your left leg (bent at the knee) and right hand (into the abhaya mudra) – maintain your balance and focus.
  • Breathing out, flow your left hand from your left knee to the left shin and then on to your ankle or foot.
  • Breathe in, draw your left foot behind you (like a quad stretch).
  • Breathe out as you extend your left leg backwards and right arm outwards and upwards – make sure your hips are flat and do not come out of alignment.
  • Feel energy move through your whole body to your fingertips then create the Jnaana mudra.
  • Reverse the movements to come out of the posture and bring the Jnaana mudra to your heart.
  • Repeat on the other side and then finish in tadasana.

If you would like to see a video of the pose, then please go to YouTube: Natarajasana – Dru style.

Health considerations

Always work within your own ability and remember that yoga shouldn’t be painful!

Take care if you have knee cap issues (anterior knee pain), knee problems or balance issues –work gently and use modifications as appropriate.

Modifications

  • Try a standing variation without the strong balance.
  • Use a strap to support the foot.
  • Use a chair or wall for support.
  • Seated with a focus on the arm extension to the Jnaana mudra.
  • Visualise the process.

Benefits

  • Stretches spine.
  • Improves balance
  • Tones leg muscles.
  • Opens chest.
  • Performing Jnaana mudra links with creativity, calmness, and concentration and directs the prana for increased focus and connectedness.
  • Builds strength, releases fear, and allows us to stand in our own power

Tips

  • Do preparatory stretches for the iliopsoas, quadriceps, and pectoralis muscles before you begin the pose.
  • Before starting, stand for a moment in Tadasana and visualise breathing into the heart and out into the earth. Imagine roots extending down into the earth and see your legs strong like the trunk of a tree.
  • Find a point that does not move and look at it with a soft, focused gaze (drishti).
  • Make sure you have activated your core and transferred your weight to the standing leg before starting to move.
  • Spend a moment at each stage to make sure you have your balance – try not to rush the pose.
  • Use the Jnaana mudra as the Dru point (still point) during the pose.
  • Enjoy your practice!

I hope you enjoyed reading about my favourite pose, Natarajasana – a Lord among yoga poses!