Emotional and Physical Stability: A Firm Foundation
A Firm Foundation
By Shari Friedrichsen
Sometimes, struggling to get up in the morning, I need to remind myself that if I do my practice, my day will go better. I don’t know what surprises each day has in store for me, but I do know—through my own memory of what works and what doesn’t work—that if I do my practice, the surprises are easier to deal with, and sometimes even delightful. I know that my body will feel better. I know my mind will be clearer. I know my life will be slightly easier if I do my practice than if I don’t. I have learned this and committed it to memory. And even when my mind is trying desperately to convince me I should stay in bed, something in me knows I will feel better if I do my practice.
I also know to settle my mind, I will need to work first on my pelvis. When my pelvis is stable, strong, and flexible, it anchors me to myself in whatever I will do that day. A steady root is indicative of a steady mind.
When I guide the breath to my pelvis, my mind slowly turns toward its own center, the eye of the hurricane, and begins to take refuge there. The more I work with my pelvis in asana, the easier it is to access a resting place inside my head. The more stability I have in my pelvis, the clearer my emotions. I am more thoughtful in what I say. My life is more peaceful and fulfilling.
The pelvis is the body’s foundation. If I am weak in the pelvis, I often have aches and pains in my lower back. I worry more. I react more easily to life’s dramas and stories. I am more likely to make decisions based on fear or old habit patterns. When the foundation is faulty, it shows up everywhere.
The more time I spend strengthening and stabilizing the floor of the pelvis, bringing in the breath, practicing hip openers, strengthening muscles that hold the pelvis in place, the quieter my mind becomes. I make decisions based on a sense of knowing, rather than a sense of dread and multiple choice. My emotions are feelings rather than storms.
And so I begin.
The Pelvic Floor
To achieve a stable foundation we have to focus on poses that strengthen the pelvic floor and work on them over time. If we find that we are too tight in the pelvic floor, we must begin to relax those muscles, along with the habits, fears, or injuries that have caused them to tighten.
First, get comfortable. Rest with your back on the floor, knees bent, and feet flat. As you exhale, contract the muscles of the pelvic floor—the anal sphincter muscle, the urethra sphincter muscle, and the perineum—as if you were stopping yourself from urinating and defecating. Hold this for one full inhalation and exhalation, then release on the second inhalation. Do it again.
Contract on the exhalation and release on the second inhalation. Hold the contraction for one and one-half breaths. Exhale/contract; inhale/hold; exhale/contract deeper; inhale/release completely. Take several easy breaths. Then repeat the entire sequence 5 times.
You can do this simple practice almost anywhere, anytime. As you build strength in the pelvic floor, you can repeat the sequence 10 or even 15 times. And you can do it several times a day, though it is best avoided during urination, menstruation, or forward bends. Your goal is to support the natural functions of the pelvis without putting stress on your organs, in particular the urethra, bladder, or uterus.
The Lower Abdominals
Moving upward, take your attention from the pelvic floor to the lower transverse abdominal muscles. With your hands, gently press and release the area between the pubic bones and the front hip bones. You may be able to feel the transverse abdominal muscles between the skin and the internal organs. This deepest layer of the abdominals is horizontal. Now contract these muscles—you should be able to feel them tighten under your hands. Now release the contraction.
If these muscles are strong, they not only support the pelvic organs, they also help contain emotional energy, including sexuality and desire, without suppression. But often the lower abdominals are weak because of a lifelong habit of holding in our bellies, and either suppressing or spilling our emotional energy. This constant contraction weakens the muscles that support the organs and is detrimental to our psyches. When you practice with awareness and intelligence, yoga strengthens your internal image of yourself, so there is less reliance on outer signs of approval—which are inherently unstable. Your internal sense of self is supported by toned and relaxed muscles, particularly here in the lower abdominal region.
Now that you have felt them, the next step is to strengthen the deeper abs. Continue to lie on the floor with your knees bent; keep the natural curve in the lower back. Then exhale and strongly contract the lower abdomen without flattening the back. With your hands on the abdomen you will feel the difference this contraction makes in the lower abdominal muscles.
On an exhalation, while holding the contraction, pick one foot up 2 inches off the floor. Replace it as you inhale. Exhale, lift the other foot. Replacing it, inhale. Continue, alternating sides for at least 8 to 10 rounds.
When you are strongly contracting and the foot is lifted, exhale. Releasing the foot while holding the contraction, inhale. There should be no rocking in the pelvis. Rocking indicates that the pelvis is not being stabilized by the transverse abdominals, another indication of how emotions get spilled. The abdominals need more work—make the contraction stronger and go slower.
When you have completed 8 to 10 rounds, relax with the back comfortable on the floor and the abs soft. Breathe deeply, letting the breath fill the entire pelvic basin—bones, muscles, organs, and glands. You can repeat this exercise 2 or 3 more times. Then release the abdominal contraction, separate the feet, and rock the knees gently from side to side to relieve any tension in the lower back.
If you find the previous series easy and there was no rocking in the pelvis, you can challenge yourself a bit by stretching the lifted foot out along the floor until the leg is straight and hovering an inch or two above the floor. Bring it in without releasing the contraction of the lower abdomen, place the foot on the floor, and switch sides, stretching the opposite foot until the leg is straight and hovering just above the floor. Slowly bring the leg back in and switch sides again. Do this about 4 times on each side, maintaining the contraction in the transverse abdominals the entire time. Exhale when you are contracting to extend the leg; hold the contraction and inhale while returning the foot to the floor. Remember to keep the natural curve in the back. Then breath normally, and release the abs completely.
An even greater challenge is to repeat this series with the buttocks slightly lifted. The lower back is still naturally curved and the deeper abdominals remain strongly contracted. Lift your pelvis about 3 inches off the floor; then lift one foot 2 inches off the floor. When you can go back and forth from foot to foot without the pelvis rocking, you can further challenge yourself by stretching the leg out straight again, hovering it above the floor, and then bringing it back in and placing the foot on the floor. Go back and forth between right and left 6 or 8 times.
Again, pay attention to the breathing: exhale during the strong contraction to lift the foot and stretch the leg; inhale, holding the contraction while returning the foot to the floor.
Do not push yourself to extend a leg if your pelvis rocks from side to side. You want to strengthen the abdomen, not aggravate the back. Strengthening the pelvic floor and the deeper abdominals relieves stress in your lower back. Rocking indicates these muscles aren’t strong enough to hold the pelvis steady—so go back to the preliminary strengtheners and work on them until the pelvis remains stable when you move the legs and feet. Know where your limitations are and honor them.
After doing these transverse abdominal strengthening exercises, remember to relax and breathe fully into the pelvis. Rock the knees gently from side to side. When you can rest your attention here in the pelvic region, you begin to feel more comfortable with your body and with yourself. And as you create a stronger container, your emotions become less volatile and your thoughts become more manageable.
The buttocks are the back side of the pelvis. They are often overlooked in yoga practice, but not in popular culture. Television, magazines, and street comments obsess about the shape and size of these muscles. This is not helpful for us as people or as individuals seeking to understand our bodies or build trust in ourselves. The gluteus muscles are important for the support they give the pelvis and the spine. They are integral to the proper functioning of the legs, pelvis, and spine, yet most of our conditioned concerns about them have to do with how they look to others.
We can get beyond this. When we begin to value these muscles for the vital physical integrity they give us, we begin to feel better about ourselves. This is something that comes from an internal knowing rather than from outside. Also, toning the buttocks benefits the psoas, a muscle which is often overworked. The deepest core muscle of the pelvis, the psoas, connects the lower back to the hip bone and then to the thigh bone. When the buttocks are stable and toned, the psoas doesn’t have to work so hard to balance the pelvis.
To strengthen the gluteus muscles, lie on your back with knees bent. Separate the feet 4 to 6 inches and bring them close to the buttocks. Raise the pelvis 2 or 3 inches off the floor. This should be an easy fit. If you feel any pressure at all on your head, neck, or shoulders, lower the pelvis until the tension is released.
Keeping the knees moving inward, challenging the inner thigh muscles, strongly contract and slightly raise the buttocks; hold the contraction for two complete breaths. Continue breathing smoothly and evenly, and release. Repeat this 10 times, each time holding the contraction for two full breaths. Remember to keep the knees moving toward each other.
Releasing completely, let the buttocks be full. Bring the thighs up over the abdomen, wrap your arms around them, and stretch through the back, thighs, and buttocks, relieving any tightness. Then come back to center and release any tension in the neck or head by rolling the head from side to side.
To complete this sequence, lie on your back with your feet together and knees apart (a reclining bound-angle pose). Put a pillow or a rolled blanket underneath each thigh to support the legs in a restful position. Cover yourself with a blanket if you need to. Breathe easily, allowing the breath to find its way down the back of your body, over the bridge created by the lower back, and into the basin of your pelvis.
This part of your body needs nourishment as well as strengthening. The strengthening work we have just done brought the vital force into the pelvis and abdomen. The body can now rest and receive nourishment from the breath. This balance of doing and receiving creates strength and flexibility in our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our lives. Relax here for 5 to 10 minutes and take in the full benefits of your practice.
Finish in shavasana, placing a rolled blanket under the knees for support.
Shari Friedrichsen has been teaching yoga for over 30 years. She currently offers classes, workshops, and trainings at the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.