The Pelvic Diaphragm

I’ve been in bed with the flu for the past couple of weeks. When it turned into bronchitis, I went to the doctor and started a round of antibiotics. Back home on the couch, I lay down and waited for the drugs to take effect.

And they did. Suddenly, I began to vomit. At the same time, my hacking cough was trying to clear out my lungs. Have you ever tried to vomit and cough at the same time? It’s not fun. I’m not even sure it’s physically possible, but my body was trying. And as if that wasn’t enough, my bowels began to evacuate. In my haste to get up quickly off the couch and into the bathroom, I felt a wrenching pain in my lower back.

When my gut settled down, I could hardly move. I had an excruciating pain in my low back near the sacrum and even the tiniest movement caused me to shriek with pain. I literally crawled back to the couch, where I hoped someone would come along soon and put me out of my misery.

The next day I managed to get to my chiropractor and described what happened. “Sounds like both your diaphragms went into spasm during your little adventure,” he said. I nodded mutely. Wait, diaphragms? I thought I only had one diaphragm, the one under the ribs that helps you breathe.

The Pelvic Diaphragm

The Pelvic Diaphragm

But actually, the pelvic floor functions as a second diaphragm. The pelvic floor consists of muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues that support the pelvic organs against gravity and  pressure from the abdomen. The pelvic floor must be able to relax this support when you urinate or void your bowels.

Imagine me doubled over, contracting my upper diaphragm while retching and coughing, while the pelvic diaphragm is trying to relax enough to void the bowels, except that I won’t let it. Something, somewhere, had to give. And so my pelvic diaphragm went into spasm, causing the pain in my lower back.

My chiropractor massaged the tissues of both my diaphragms–extremely uncomfortable but for a good cause. He also adjusted my spinal vertebrae. Afterwards he asked me to bend forward and I was able to get into Uttanasana for the first time in over a week. I had tears in my eyes when I straightened up, I was so grateful to get back into a yoga pose.

I am slowly getting over the bronchitis, and the back pain is better but not gone. I attempted a full practice this morning and was astonished at how difficult it felt after a couple of weeks of inactivity and injury. What I noticed most was how weak my core felt, as if my guts could just spill out.

What can you do to maintain the tone of the pelvic diaphragm? Good ol’ Kegel exercises are a good place to start, especially for women, but practicing mula bandha, or “root lock”, will help strengthen the deepest pelvic muscles.

Stand in Tadasana-Mountain Pose with your pelvis anteriorly tilted, then lightly lift first the pubic bone and then the pelvic floor as you lengthen the groins—this is Mula Bandha. To find it from the posterior position, draw your hips slightly back until the buttocks relax and the lumbar spine regains its natural curve. As you do this, lift the pelvic floor and lengthen the waist and groins—again, this is Mula Bandha.

There is much more to be said about Mula Bandha, but we’ll save it for another post.

Be well!

Loving Your Buddha Belly

Leafing through the latest glossy yoga magazines I wonder, “Where are all the bellies?” Images abound on the pages, mostly of women, yoginis contorted into poses most of us will never get near, and looking so lean they have a concave space where their belly should be. Can they breathe like that? How can the prana circulate in a belly that tight?

Western society bombards us with images of flat bellies, “abs of steel”, and “six packs”. Most of us walk around “sucking it in”, ever conscious of how our bellies look. We equate having flat abs with success, good health, and fitness, yet anxiety and antacid medications are some of the most proscribed drugs in the United States. Flat abs don’t necessarily mean you also have a relaxed nervous system, which most of us would also equate with wellness.

This is not a Buddha belly.

This is not a Buddha belly.

Yes, having toned abdominal muscles and core work is important to your overall health, but most exercise targets only the muscular core. Yoga helps you access the energy core, as well.

Your gut has a wisdom of it’s own. Call it the Belly Brain, or the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is located in the sheathes of tissue that make up the esophogus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. The ENS is linked with the Central Nervous System, where our rest-and-relax responses live, along with our fight-or-flight reflexes. What happens in our gut affects our mood, and vice versa. A strong energetic core anchors the mind in the body, and helps establish our boundaries. When the belly is relaxed, so is the nervous system.

There are over 100 million neurons in the gut, more than in the spine. These neurons help make two-thirds of our immune defenses, along with many other vital functions. They also help you access the intuition, literally your gut wisdom. If you’re hyper-aroused, or thinking about pulling in your gut all the time, you can’t access your intuition as readily. It’s like you’re cutting off communication between the mind and the brain, not to mention the flow of the breath and prana.

Check out this Buddha statue and notice–is he sucking it in? No, he’s got a little soft roll of tummy tissue. He looks very relaxed. And notice, his left hand is indicating the relaxed belly as if to say, “Pay attention to this.” A little buddha belly is desirable.

Buddha's hand invites you to check out his relaxed belly.

Buddha’s hand invites you to check out his relaxed belly.

A few things you can do to love your Buddha belly:

  • Instead of pulling the navel straight back to the spine as we do countless times in a yoga class, think of lifting it up and in. Try it both ways and see which way feels more supportive of the spine.
  • Practice variations of plank to engage the muscles and energy of the core. Make sure you keep breathing.
  • Do some restorative work such as savasana with a folded blanket placed over the lower belly.

Flexibility, strength, and stability are key when practicing yoga, but don’t lock up your belly. Let the breath and energy, the prana,  flow in the belly, and everything else will follow.

The First 500 Times Don’t Count

“The first 500 times don’t count.”

I heard this advice somewhere along the way on my yoga journey. I can’t remember if I read it in a book, or who said it, but this advice has steered me well along the way in my asana and meditation practices.

This anonymous suggestion gave me permission to not get things perfect the first time, or the first 10 times, or even the first 100 times. It allowed me to slow down and get to know myself better, to gauge my energy levels and needs with each daily practice, and to discern when I needed to push myself a little harder and when I needed to rest. I didn’t have to race to an imagined finish line. It helped me accept that whatever I gave my practice each day was enough.

This freedom also made room for the inevitable obstacles to practice to arise and be dealt with. Obstacles should be expected along the path. We are imperfect humans striving toward divine perfection, but we have a lot to work out.

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Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras list nine obstacles (1.30) one might encounter on the inner journey:

  1. Disease
  2. Inertia
  3. Doubt
  4. Negligence
  5. Laziness
  6. Cravings
  7. Misperceptions
  8. Failure
  9. Instability

Every one of these obstacles could be a discussion in itself. The stanza that follows (1.31) describes the conditions that grow out of these obstacles:

  • Mental and physical pain
  • Sadness
  • Frustration
  • Unsteadiness of the body
  • Irregular breath.

Doesn’t sound fun, does it?

There are many days I have to wrestle myself into the studio for one reason or another. There are some days when I don’t make it at all. I think the important thing is that you just keep stepping back onto the mat, beginning again wherever you are.

I surely have passed the 500 mark by now, but I continue to take this advice to heart. The real benefit of a spiritual or yoga practice is in the doing, not the achieving. It is in the daily dedication and work that my “perfection” is unfolding. There is no “arrival”; it is a process of dynamic becoming.

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