How To Breathe For Better Pelvic Floor Health
I believe that it’s important to treat causes and not symptoms when it comes to treating a pelvic floor issue (or any other musculo-skeletal condition). Where you are hurting is often not where the issue is actually being created.
Sometimes people are surprised to come to one of my pelvic floor classes and never once do a kegel, or anything resembling one.
But the thing is that your pelvic floor weakness is probably not caused your pelvic floor muscles – it’s just a symptom. The cause is your whole body movement patterns. Something about the way you move is creating forces that have resulted in short, weak pelvic floor muscles. The fix isn’t to strengthen just the muscles down there, but to step back and improve the way your entire body moves.
For instance, the way you breathe makes a huge and direct impact on your pelvic floor health.
Did you know that there are actually three main strategies that you can use to breathe? Your thoracic cavity and lungs are like a container, and you have to change the size of this container in order to draw air in and then push it out.
There are three ways to change the size of your container and you can test these all out:
First, try chest breathing – inhale by elevating your shoulder girdle. Here, the air goes mostly into the top part of your lungs because you’ve increased the space at the top of your thoracic container.
Next, try rib breathing – put your hands around your lower ribcage and inhale to expand your ribs out to the sides. As you breath out, the ribs contract in. This time, you’ve enlarged your container by increasing its circumference.
Finally, you can breath by dropping your diaphragm, creating space in the bottom of your container. Your belly will rise as you inhale – this is the way you breathe when you do ‘belly breathing’ in yoga class.
All three of these strategies get air into your lungs, and all of them have their uses. However, I like rib breathing the best as a main strategy. That’s because if you spend all your time breathing into your chest or your belly, you can create some undesirable side effects.
When you breathe primarily with your upper chest, you create an upward ‘smushing’ force that compresses and damages the discs in the neck. So that’s no good.
When you breathe mostly with your diaphragm, you create a plunger-type effect, pushing pressure down into your abdominal cavity. This in turn puts pressure on your pelvic floor. Over time, this constant pressure can overload the pelvic floor and it can’t do its job any more – stuff starts to leak, or to hurt.
This means that if you have a pelvic floor issue, one of the first things I want to help you learn is how to use your ribs more when you breathe. And to do that, you need to fix the reason why you’re breathing poorly in the first place.
Which is in part your tight shoulders and in part your ribcage alignment.
So that’s why when you come to one of my pelvic floor classes we’re going to spend some time working to lengthen your chest and shoulder muscles. You’ll learn what dropping your ribs means, and how to do it. And you’ll also learn better breath mechanics. And a whole lot more stuff that will have a major impact on the movement habits that are the true reason that your pelvic floor is failing.
Rib Breathing Practice
In case you can’t make it to a class, here’s a chance to see what it’s like to breath with your ribs. You’ll need a resistance band of some sort (though you can use your hands if you don’t have a band).
Start by sitting or standing with the best alignment you can attain – pelvis neutral, and ribs dropped. How do you drop your ribs? Keeping your pelvis still, curl your chest forward so that your lower ribs sink into your torso. But go easy on this – best not to force anything!
Take your band and tie it around your mid-chest – as tight as you can without discomfort.
Breathing through your nose, direct deep breaths into your back and side ribs. Focus on feeling your ribcage push out against the band as you inhale, and get smaller as you exhale.
Practicing this for a couple of minutes a day will get you on the road to better breathing mechanics, and will help to decrease downward pressures on your pelvic floor.
Just remember when you practice this that it’s an exercise! You practice the exercise, you change how your breathing happens, and then go out in your day and let your body do its thing. Super simple!
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Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body - and she's always happy to chat about it. She's on the road right now, travelling the world and moving in as many ways as possible. When she's not out exploring or working on her movement practice, you can probably find her hanging on some monkey bars.