But since it mentioned a connection to menstrual pain, I went. At the very least, I figured a workshop on the pelvic floor would mean an afternoon talking vaginas, which for me = fun times.
Which turned out to be very true. What struck me most was how very full the workshop was. I don't remember this workshop being especially heavily advertised, yet I have never seen the studio as full as it was that day.
And every person there, I'm sure, had a story to tell. Leslie, the yogi running the workshop, asked some of us to introduce ourselves and volunteer reasons why we were here. There were folks who'd had hysterectomies, epistiotomies, pelvic organ prolapse; folks who had long-running battles with incontinence, interstitial cystitis, painful sex; people reclaiming parts of themselves after sexual and/or medical trauma. What got to me was the repeated sentiment that the speakers' issues were "strange" or "embarrassing."
Which, between what I heard there and what I read everyday on VP, I know that's not the case. Without devaluing the validity of those emotions, I think it's because society does not allow for open discussion of these issues that makes people feel freakish or alone. (Oh, and yes, before anybody asks, I absolutely took advantage of the opportunity to evangelize about VP.) ;)
Also, it turns out, I did not need to worry about the workshop being insufficiently physical. The next thing we did was learn about the anatomy of the pelvic floor muscles. Yes, there was an actual 3-D model whose name was Ruby. Yes, I got to touch the inside of Ruby's pelvis. ;)
I'm not sure about the rest of you, but I'm used to diagrams of pelvic floor muscles that look like this or this:
Where I'm still left wondering, "WTF do the muscles actually look like?"
Now I know they look like this or this:
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. And because kegel exercises mostly work on the more external layers of the pelvic floor, kegels by themselves aren't really strengthening pelvic floor muscles completely.
But. Google "pelvic floor exercises" and try to find some that are not kegels. Not easy. I wanted to try to find some diagrams that depicted the pelvic floor locating (because figuring out what it feels like when each "layer" of muscle is activated is Step 1) and strengthening (which includes both voluntarily contracting and relaxing/stretching the muscles) exercises we did. However, after 45 minutes of searching, the best I found was this page that covers some of the same material. (I do know that Leslie Howard recommends the books she links to and sells here, and they do have pelvic floor exercises -- but that's not the same as me being able to show you.)
We did talk about some things, though, that people can do to improve pelvic floor health:
1) Get to know your pelvic floor. -- First, imagine your vulvovaginal area as a clock, with 12 up by the pubic bone and 6 toward the perineum, like this:
Insert a thumb (trimmed nails recommended) its full length into your vagina; by doing this, you're accessing the deeper pelvic floor muscles. Going from 3, back to 6, and around to 9, gently press outward on the vaginal canal. (You're actually pressing into your pelvic floor muscles.) You may feel the muscles relax and move pliantly; you may feel some pain at the site of your pressing, especially if those muscles are "clenching" when they shouldn't be. Or, you may be like me and feel pain in more distant places. When I press back to my perineum, there's a sharp pain at the front of each hip bone; when I press either side, there's a sharp pain in my sacrum. (My personal hypothesis is that years of spending menstrual periods clenched in the fetal position have made portions of my pelvic floor hyper-vigilant. I am currently working on getting set up with a pelvic floor physical therapist to get a professional opinion on this.)
2) Check your sitting posture. -- If you're familiar with yoga or pilates, the idea of moving the flesh from under your seat so you're sitting on your sit bones is probably also familiar. If not, the analogy Leslie used was to imagine you're a cat (or a dog) and never sit on your tail. Basically, the difference looks like this: When you're sitting on your sit bones, your spine is at its neutral point (whether it's 100% straight or not), the back and abdominal muscles are lightly engaged, and the pelvic floor can relax. When you're sitting on your tail, it's harder to engage the rest of your core, and so the pelvic floor is crunching and contracting when it maybe shouldn't have to.
3) Get a poo stool and/or squat to shit. -- Okay, this was maybe not the advice with the biggest impact, but it was far and away my favorite. The idea is that squatting "straightens the path" for poo elimination and reduces the need for straining. Less straining, in turn, means less downward pressure on the pelvic floor. Yes, squatting really was recommended if you could do it safely on your toilet. Looking at my toilet, I knew that trying to squat was just begging for an embarrassing 911 phone call, so I tried the alternate suggestion: a poo stool. It raises the thighs to approximately the same angle they'd be in a squat, also achieving the corresponding rectum straightness.
Anyone who knows me, I'm sure, recognizes that I was overcome with fecal fascination and could not wait to try this out. Fortunately, I poop a lot, so I didn't have to wait long. (Though I didn't purchase a stool since our bathroom garbage is about the right height.) And you know, I have a high fiber diet and didn't think I really had elimination problems before. But let me tell you -- even with that, this is So. Much. Better. I have not been this excited about a "down there" development since... menstrual cups. No shit. ;)
So that is my long and arduous tale in learning about the pelvic floor. If it's convenient for you to check out one of Leslie Howard's pelvic floor workshops, I definitely recommend them. And if you're in the Tucson, Arizona, area, I ♥ Tucson Yoga for hosting events like this.