Like most women, Leslie Howard thought the key to pelvic-floor health was Kegel exercises. So she dutifully isolated and contracted as often as she could — until her muscles were so tight that she couldn’t have sex with her husband.
“I learned the hard way,” says Howard, who had to spend the next year undoing the damage. The Bay Area yoga instructor has since dedicated herself to educating others about the female anatomy. She’s offering her workshop, “Yoga and the Pelvic Floor,” at Circle Yoga.
Her students typically show up expecting a curriculum in “advanced Kegels,” Howard says, but what they get is a look at a 3-D model of a female pelvis, a discussion of why society is ashamed by anatomy, and then homework to manually examine their own pelvises. Inevitably, a third of the group reports discovering excessive tightness they were never aware of.
Hypertonic — or too tight — pelvic-floor muscles are common and can cause terrible pain and other disorders, according to Kathy Pesavento, owner of PelviCore Physical Therapy in Vienna, Va., which offers a range of therapies.
“The pelvis is a complicated area. It’s the Grand Central Station of the body,” says Pesavento, noting that many women who experience pain are too embarrassed to tell anyone. Doctors tend to focus on organs rather than muscles, so gynecological exams often go by without any indication of a problem, she says.
One major contributor is stress, Pesavento says. Another is posture: “Tight muscles in the legs, back and belly can pull the pelvis out of line.”
So it was only natural for Howard to turn to her yoga practice for solutions. She’s found several she recommends to women in her situation, including squatting with a rolled-up mat under their heels and downward dog with bent knees (“So your hamstrings aren’t tugging on the pelvis,” she explains).
In both positions, the key is untucking the pelvis to promote a neutral spine, which is something women should strive for off the yoga mat, too. It’s easier to do standing than sitting, but it helps to perch at the edge of a seat, Howard says.
These moves are just as critical as Kegels for the pelvic floor. “The health of a muscle is how it moves through a range of motion,” Howard says. “You should be able to contract it, stretch it, soften it.”
But first, you have to be able to talk about it.