Months ago, in a series I thought would take me weeks, I began talking about the core as a box of muscles:
I spent a long time — I’m talking years, counting from the time I started practicing yoga — hearing the term “pelvic floor” but not really knowing what it was. I mean, I knew that it was “those muscles at the bottom of the pelvis” or “the ones you use to kegel,” but I couldn’t envision structure or function in the same way I could picture, say, my biceps and triceps working as I moved my arm. It didn’t help that when I did research, a lot of diagrams ended up looking like this:
Which do very little to illustrate WTF is going on down there. Then, about a year and a half ago, I attended one of Leslie Howard’s pelvic floor workshops, and for the first time, I got to see what the pelvic floor actually is and does.
For starters, there’s more than one muscle; in fact, there are layers of muscles. There are layers that are deeper and more superficial, but basically, they form a sort of diamond shape that attaches to the pubic bone (at the front), the “sit bones” (at each side), and the tailbone (at the back). Because this diamond encompasses so much — in terms of how far forward, sideways, back, and deep it extends — it influences a lot more than just the vagina. The main function of the more external layers involves contracting and relaxing whatever orifices are present (urethra and anus for pretty much everyone, vagina roughly 50% of the time) while the deeper layers tend to be more about support for the pelvic organs. (Side note for now: This does mean that exercises that involve contracting pelvic orifices — like kegels — don’t activate all of the pelvic floor muscles. More about that in future posts.)
Though this video focuses on the pelvic floors of people with vaginas, it does a good job of explaining the anatomy and basic categories of potential problems:
(Video by Hold It, Sister! via YouTube.)
Additionally, like other muscle groups, pelvic floor muscle tone includes both the ability to contract (i.e., strength) and to relax (i.e., flexibility). In a lot of the sources I read, including those focused on yoga and on sexual health, there’s a lot of discussion about what people can do to have a stronger, tighter pelvic floor. But a pelvic floor can be too tight, which can ironically lead to some of the same problems as a pelvic floor that isn’t tight enough. Functional strength includes the ability to yield.