This often-neglected part of the body has a lot to say if you know how to listen.
You probably haven’t thought too much about your pelvic floor unless you’ve had some sort of issue with it—painful sex, lower back pain, chronic hemorrhoids, or that fun thing where you pee a little when you sneeze. But even if you’ve never had the chance to meet your pelvic floor and try to figure out what the heck is going on with it, this is a part of your body that you should be paying attention to. It is related to your physical, emotional, and sexual health, and getting to know it better is valuable—not just when something goes wrong.
The pelvic floor surrounds your genitals, from the pubic bone to the tailbone and between the two sitting bones. It supports your pelvic organs, hips, and back, and plays a major role in bowel and urinary functions, as well as sexual function—including orgasms. It’s made up of several structures of muscle and connective tissue, but we can think of it as a coherent whole. Women tend to have more issues with their pelvic floors, mostly due to childbirth, but it’s the same structure in all of us.
The pelvic floor is obviously important from an anatomical perspective, but it’s also vital on the emotional and energetic level. The pelvic floor can provide us key information about whether we feel safe—and it’s only when we feel safe that we can effectively tap into our desires. When we tune into this part of our bodies, we can learn a lot about what we need, what we want, and how we feel.
STRESS AND THE PELVIC FLOOR
Since the pelvic floor is a key part of our core, the moment we feel afraid it contracts. The muscles brace as a part of the fight-or-flight instinct. When we start having problems in this region, many of us assume we need to strengthen and tighten the pelvic floor, so we do Kegels—lifting and squeezing the genital area—to try to get this group of muscles to contract properly. Kegels can be helpful in the right situation, but for some of us, especially those with chronic stress or trauma (especially sexual trauma), the pelvic floor may be gripping on for dear life. Squeezing these muscles more may only tighten and weaken this part of the body when it needs to be able to relax and recover. Squeezing the pelvic floor can not only exacerbate our tightness, but also our stress.
We all experience stress, and we know we should somehow reduce it in our lives. Some stress is healthy. Acute stress is a normal reaction to external stimuli. You have to make a presentation, you’re in a fight with your partner, or you have too many things to do in too few hours—that’s all normal, healthy stress. The body produces the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to help us face the challenge ahead. Acute stress is a cycle that can be completed—the presentation is finished, the fight is resolved. We sigh, shake it off, or hug our partner, and the stress cycle completes. Adrenaline and cortisol drop. Our body returns to a relaxed baseline.
Toxic stress happens when we don’t return to that baseline, and many of us never do. We’re drenched in a 24-hour news cycle that is curated to make us feel afraid—so we watch more news. We’re constantly scrolling through social media, triggering our fear of missing out and our tendency to compare ourselves to others. We don’t ever feel good enough. We can’t ever stop trying and just relax. We’re steeped in a cultural tea of chronic, toxic stress.
A healthy nervous system needs to be able to move fluidly between appropriate stress states and times of rest and relaxation. While we are at rest, our bodies are tasked with important things like muscle repair, hormonal balance, sexual function, and digestion. Trauma is a major cause for getting stuck in a negative stress state, but so is living in a world with way too much information at our fingertips. No wonder our pelvic floors can never relax.
SEX, SAFETY, AND THE PELVIC FLOOR
The pelvic floor can provide important information for us that we can’t access when we are disconnected from it. In the chakra system, this area is called muladhara chakra, the root, a space that is related to home, safety, and earth. It is also the center of the physical core of the body, the place where our physical power originates. When we are able to hear this part of the body, we can learn something about how connected (or not) we feel to our sense of personal power.
This source of safety, grounding, and power is also, vitally, the home of our external sexual organs. This is the gateway to physical, sexual, and spiritual connection with other human beings. In that sense, our sexual responsiveness is inevitably linked to our sense of safety and personal power. When we don’t feel safe, the pelvic floor tightens instinctively to protect us. When this area is tight, it slows blood flow into this part of the body, which can go a long way toward shutting down appropriate sexual responsiveness. During orgasm, a healthy pelvic floor contracts and releases rhythmically, and the stronger and healthier the pelvic floor is, the more powerful those orgasms can be.
In her book Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski explains the latest science on sexual responsiveness and makes crystal clear that stress has a negative effect on sexual function for everyone—even for that 10 to 20 percent of us who tend to get turned on when we feel stressed. Even if we want more sex when we’re stressed, that stress still messes with our ability to completely release into pleasure and orgasm.
Sex therapist Peg Burr, quoted in Jonathan Margolis’ book O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, agrees that sex and personal power are related. Specifically, she argues that for women who have a difficult time orgasming, it comes down to “a lack of efficacy and control in one’s life. Orgasm requires becoming vulnerable and open.” Burr suggests that women might more commonly have issues with accessing orgasm precisely because our culture disempowers women in so many different ways—by criticizing our weight, by denying us equal pay, by teaching us that we must be dependent on men to survive. She writes, “Women have less personal power in (and over) their own lives, due to social roles which teach them to be passive and non-assertive. They therefore may (unconsciously) exert control where they can, over their own bodies, and unfortunately, limit their own sexual pleasure.”
When we don’t feel connected to our sense of power and control in our own lives—when we don’t feel strong at our physical and energetic core—we can’t surrender enough to fully experience pleasure.
THE WISDOM OF THE PELVIC FLOOR
The good news is that even when we have unconscious patterns of stress, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, or powerlessness, there are plenty of ways to shift out of those habitual states. Tuning into the pelvic floor can give us a lot of information about how we feel subconsciously, even if our rational minds feel just fine and dandy. Tapping into this part of our bodies can help us feel more grounded, more at home in our bodies, and more connected to the source of our power, which was within us all along.
So many of our emotions are held in the pelvic floor, especially the ones that we do not feel safe expressing externally. Our sexual desire is here, naturally, but so is our anger, the emotion that wants to help us protect our rights and show us our boundaries and limits. Our passions are here as well, those life desires that want to move us toward growth and change. When we become able to listen to the pelvic floor, we can check in with it when we are trying to make a decision. The pelvic floor can cut through the stories we tell ourselves about what we think our lives should look like and reveal a little bit more about what we really want and need.
When we allow ourselves to breathe into the pelvic floor, we are reminding it of the natural, healthy rhythm that allows us to feel safe, feel strong, and let go. We can interrupt the constant rhythm of stress and anxiety that surrounds us. We can connect to our power, our pleasure, our desire, and our willingness and ability to stand up for ourselves. When we do this regularly, we can catch ourselves more quickly when we’re getting stuck in a stress rhythm and gently, lovingly unstick ourselves.
One of the symptoms of an overly tight pelvic floor is vaginismus, a condition that provides a good example for how stress and physiology interact. Vaginismus causes the pelvic floor muscles to contract or spasm with any kind of penetration, including with a tampon, for a pelvic exam, or during sexual intercourse. A person with vaginismus might very well want to be having penetrative sex with their partner, but there is an involuntary, unconscious stress response that causes these muscles to contract, preventing penetration. This is stressful for the person, of course, but also stressful for the relationship—which only makes the contractions worse.
A big part of vaginismus is muscular dysfunction, but it’s also deeply related to emotional experience and the person’s history—it often comes along with past physical or emotional trauma. Treating vaginismus requires muscular retraining, but it must also involve emotional processing and learning stress management skills.
Pelvic Floor Breathing Exercise
If you do have dysfunction in your pelvic floor, find a pelvic floor physiotherapist in your area who can help you. A really good place to start is with some awareness, some kindness, and a simple breathing exercise that you can try today.
Set a timer for 10 minutes. Lay down on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Widen your feet a bit so that your knees fall into each other. Place your hands on your low belly, below your belly button if you can. Close your eyes if that’s comfortable.
Take a few deep breaths and try to relax your belly as much as you can. Feel your belly press up into your hands as you inhale and gently fall back toward your spine as you exhale.
Allow your breath to come into a natural rhythm with your lips closed, breathing in and out through the nose. Don’t count the breath in any specific way. Just see if you can allow your breaths to lengthen a little bit so you have a nice, soft, easy, slow breath.
Focus your awareness on your pelvic floor. As you inhale and feel your belly press up into your hands, notice this area around your genitals also pressing down towards your feet. Your belly is like a soft balloon, gently inflating as you inhale. The genital region is the bottom of the balloon. As you exhale, the balloon gently deflates inward, so the area around your genitals relaxes inward towards your heart.
Do not engage any muscles right now—this is not a Kegel exercise. Don’t squeeze or bear down. Simply notice the natural movement of your pelvic floor. Notice if it is easy or difficult to feel this gentle rise and fall with your breath. Notice if you are holding a lot of tension here or if you can let go for a moment and then grip on again. Notice if any other sensations or emotions are coming up, without need- ing to do anything with that information right now. Simply feel this area, honor it, and offer it some love, attention, and acknowledgement.
If you can, practice this breathing every day. It’s fundamentally beneficial for your nervous system to do this because you will be practicing entering the healing parasympathetic rest state. Over time, you will develop a relationship with your pelvic floor that will help give you some information about how you feel, what you want, and how connected you feel to your personal power.