by Simon Borg-Olivier
The following series of exercises form a great sequence that I have practiced for many years to help strengthen the function of the pelvic floor and the reproductive system. This sequence can really help anyone improve the function of their urogenital system and improve sexual health and performance in both men and women. In combination with the breath-control exercises, this sequence is excellent at improving heart rate variability, which helps to give excellent health for your immune system. This practice is also very useful for relieving:
- lower back pain
- urinary incontinence
- male erectile dysfunction
- female sexual dysfunction
- pelvic floor weakness after childbirth
This sequence includes basic muscular contractions and expansions of the entire pelvic floor (urethra, anus, and genitals) at the same (if possible) while regulating your breath.
The two parts of this sequence, pelvic floor contractions, and the breathing practice can be done separately, and can also be progressed to more challenging breath-control exercises and longer duration of pelvic floor contractions.
Regulating your breath in the way that I have suggested here has tremendous benefits for your health. It can help increase heart rate variability, which has been repeatedly shown to improve the health of your immune system, your cardiovascular system and even your mental health. Please see our previous blog on on improving your heart rate variability using breath-control.
Many people will find that trying to control the pelvic floor while regulating and slowing your breath is very difficult. In this case I strongly recommend breathing normally while while working with the pelvic floor and doing separate breath-control (pranayama) exercises while the pelvic floor muscles (and all your muscles) are completely relaxed.
By Simon Borg-Olivier MSc BAppSc (Physiotherapy)
Most people in the world of modern yoga are not actually doing yoga while they are engaged in the activities of posture, movement, and breathing, but instead, they are doing exercise or having a workout, which is often painful, or at least uncomfortable, and after which they are often tired, and hungry.
This is not wrong as such, and this type of practice, if you can persist with it, can make you stronger and more flexible fairly rapidly, but it can also put a lot of people off yoga as it tends to increase stress levels, pain, and the chances of injury.
Are you doing yoga, or are you doing exercise?
In my youth, this was the type of practice that I often did. When you are young, in your teens and early twenties, many people have a healthy body and lots of energy to spare. But when you are over thirty, and especially when you enter you forties, fifties and beyond, it is not so important to do exercise that makes you stronger and more flexible, but more important to do yoga that keeps your muscles and bones healthy, decreases stress levels while increasing your energy levels and enhancing the health of your internal organs.
I am now in my fifties, and for me, yoga in the last 15 years has become a blissful activity that feels amazing while practicing it. After finishing my practice, I feel calmer, more peaceful and grounded, yet I have more energy, I am less hungry, and feel like I have had a good rest. This may sound silly to some people, but my practice usually feels like I am in a warm bath being massaged by someone who loves me. After my practice I feel more flexible without having done any intense stretching exercises, I feel like I have made myself stronger without feeling any tension, and I feel like I have improved my circulation without making my heart work much harder.
This blog is based on a video interview I did with my dear friend and film maker Erick Joseph at the Bali Spirit Festival in 2015; and on the things I said in beautifully shot and edited 5 minute video made by the award winning film maker Alessandro Sigismondi. You can also read the article I wrote about it recently.
“There are certain things we should all be doing before, during and after our yoga practice on a physical (anatomical), energetic (physiological) and emotional level. These three main levels are interconnected, and by appreciating and enhancing these connections, the way you live your life can help you improve your personal yoga practice, and also, your practice will feed into and help improve the quality of your life, and the lives of those around you.” … These things include:
- Lengthening and relaxing your body as well as being less rigid, more flexible and relaxed in your mind,
- Getting your energy to flow and
- Shifting your attitude.
In the second part of this video interview of me by Erick Joseph I talk about how to incorporate the ethical principles of yoga, Yama and Niyama, into your physical yoga practice and into your daily life. This is best summarised in this beautiful 5 minute video made by the award winning film maker Alessandro Sigismondi, who honoured me recently by making this video of me.
I must thank Alessandro for his amazing job. He filmed an impromptu 15 minute video of me practicing on the beach, and an unprepared 5 minute voice over off the top of my head just before i went to the airport to get on the plane home from India, In it I summarise Yoga in terms of Yama and Niyama as I see them as follows:
- Yoga (in terms of Yama) is the Gentle (Ahimsa) Balanced (Satya) Giving (Asteya) of Nourishment (Brahmacharya) and Freedom (Aparigraha).
- Yoga (in terms of Niyama) is the Passionate (Tapas) Inner Quest (Svadyaya) to Remove the obstacles (Saucha) of Happiness (Santosha) and Loving Connection (Ishvara Pranidhana).
Are your muscles not working as well as they used to? Are you getting unexplained pain or altered sensations in your arms or your legs? You may be able to get some improvement in your condition by mobilising your nerve tissue, which is also known as nerve tensioning, or neural mobilisation and often -although incorrectly - as ‘nerve stretching’.
Nerve tensioning is often referred to as ‘nerve stretching’ for simplicity. However, because the actual nerve tissue is rarely stretched without potentially causing damage, the technically correct term for what is occurring during many yoga asanas (postures) and mudras (energy controlling gestures), is nerve tensioning or neural mobilisation.
Contraindications of neural mobilisation or nerve tensioning (i.e. situations where nerve stretching should not be done) include irritable conditions, inflammation, signs of spinal cord compromise, malignancy, nerve root compression, peripheral neuropathy (disorders of the peripheral nerves), and complex regional pain syndrome (burning pain that may occur in the arm or leg after an injury or surgery).
Neural mobilisation (‘nerve stretching’ or neural tensioning) is a technique that was developed by David Butler in Australia [Butler, 1996]. Nerves, like all soft tissues in the body, can become restricted and tight and become a source of pain. Shortening of nerves can be due to trauma or injury, or the result of ongoing poor posture. This is often the case with neck and arm pain. Neural mobilisation uses specific postures that can tension neural tissues and gently stretch target nerves. Butler suggests that altered neurodynamics are the cause of many problems including headaches, and that appropriate neural mobilisation can provide relief. Studies have shown neural mobilisation techniques to be effective treatment for carpal tunnel syndorme [Tal- Akabi & Rushton, 2000], chronic lateral elbow pain with signs of nerve entrapment [Elkstrom & Holden, 2002], thoracic outlet syndrome [Mackinnon & Novak, 2002], sciatica and lower back pain [Miller, 2005]. Hatha yoga also has many asanas (static postures) and mudras (energy-control gestures) that can apply tension (stretch) to specific nerves [ see Figures 9.1 - 9.8].
In these two short videos physiotherapist and Yoga Synergy Director Simon Borg-Olivier explains how to practice traditional yoga if you have a body that does not have natural features inherent in the bodies of traditional cultures, such as the ability to squat and sit cross legged on the floor. Differences between the traditional body and the modern Western body are significantly worsened in people who spend 5-15 hours a day in chairs. Simon describes methods developed by Yoga Synergy Co-Director and physiotherapist Bianca Machliss and himself of working with your body that enable you to develop strength without feeling tense, improve flexibility without painful or dangerous stretching, and increase blood circulation and overall fitness without needing to increase heart rate.
In these videos Simon explains how the main principles of ‘simple’ standing postures such a the ‘Standing triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana) and the ‘Revolving standing triangle’ (Parivrtta trikonasana) can be more easily understood using even simpler postures that make the role of moving from you core around the base of your spine very easy to see and feel.
Once you really understand how to move from your core rather than lock your core as so many people do in many yoga postures, then balancing on your arms in these two variations of Koundinyasana (Figure 1) feels little different to doing the ‘Standing triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana) and the ‘Revolving standing triangle’ (Parivrtta trikonasana).
To master this in its more advanced stages breath-control is very important. The secret involves learning how to initiate breathing diaphragmatically (i.e. to feel like you are breathing into the abdomen) by actually moving your diaphragm towards your spine more than your navel and bring the intra-abdominal pressure of inhalation towards the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest and finally the lower abdomen.
This can be done once the abdominal wall has become firm from spinal movement rather than from using the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation (the abdominal obliques).
Also because the trunk is constricted by bandhas that do not inhibit the diaphragm but do cause a significant decrease in lung volume, you can use ujjayi pranayama in a way that is very calming and almost invisible and inaudible to anyone else but the practitioner themselves.