Yoga for hip flexors and pelvic floor

Updated: Nov 9

Article written for Singing for Self Care by Isabella Luchi from SattVoice.

Last modified on November 8th, 2021.



The connection between the pelvic floor and breath support is praised by the majority of voice teachers, though its role (and activity) remains a mystery to many. The flexibility of the hips is often associated with the malleability of the voice. Since these two regions are very close in the body, they impact each other, and according to many, the way we produce our tone. In this article we’ll introduce the body parts and dive into some poses that help us explore the region of the quads, targeting the hip flexors and the pelvic floor.



The anatomy

There are eleven muscles that connect the pelvis or spine to the femur or tibia, meaning they connect your hips to your legs, and when contracted bring your leg bones closer to your spine or quads. When we are seated on a chair, these muscles are not active, but are instead resting in a shortened position. If we spend too much time seated, we’re likely to develop tightness in the area. The secret to healthy hip flexors is good and consistent movement.


Now, off to the pelvic floor: it has fourteen muscles, organized in five different layers. There is also a connective tissue that surrounds the muscles and organs called fascia. It helps stabilize everything and diminish the friction between the structures, protecting blood vessels and nerves. We won’t dive into details about each of the five layers -- click for a detailed explanation and for more pelvic floor anatomy -- but let’s take a look at layer 3. This layer is the most important, and interestingly enough, has a name that isn’t strange to singers: pelvic diaphragm.


When singers hear “diaphragm”, one of the first words that comes to mind is “support”. In the pelvic diaphragm, the main group of muscles is called the “levator ani”, being the pubococcygeus (PC) muscle, the most important one. Can you guess its function? Yes, support! PC supports the urethra, vagina, and rectum -- when it contracts, all the other muscles will follow. If you have ever heard of Kegel exercises, that’s the muscle that is activated. Its contraction will lift the pelvic floor and the relaxation will lower the pelvic floor. Another important muscle in this layer is the ischiococcygeus muscle; it pulls the coccyx forward and stabilizes the sacroiliac joint. Translating to simpler words: it helps to keep your pelvic floor and lumbar area in a neutral position, without overarching your lumbar area.


Now that we have an idea about the anatomy, let’s go through some practices to enhance flexibility in those muscles!



Diving into the pelvic floor


If you want to get deeper into your pelvic floor work, I recommend checking Jaki Nett’s “Felt Sense Method." She is a Senior Level Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher who developed the FSM over twelve years while battling incontinence. “The FSM is a systematic method to help bring consciousness and strength back to the pelvic area through the steps of personal validation, pelvic floor consciousness, postural alignment and yoga asana(s).”


To illustrate one of her exercises, prepare two identical rolled yoga mats, or roll both sides of one mat leaving a space in the middle. Please, refer to the videos listed in this link to see a complete demonstration. Place the rolls on a chair and sit on them - the sit bones will be on the rolls. It is better to wear loose clothes - tight clothes will take away the perception. Imagine a double triangle (diamond shape) with the center base line at your perineum body (the line in between your sit bones): all the activation/ contractions should happen in the front triangle, not behind. The pelvis should be perpendicular to the floor, in a neutral position. The inner thigh muscles contract up towards the groins very softly. After taking care of the physical alignment of the pose, she will guide you through visualizing the lift of the pelvic floor, which is mostly activated by the pelvic floor diaphragm. If you’ve read the anatomy part of this article, by now you should know that this is the third layer - not the most external layer. After doing this exercise, you'll start connecting more to the subtle movements of your pelvic diaphragm. I highly recommend it!



Yoga Practice


-Floor work

Start by lying on your back on the floor, bring your buttocks top to bottom, knees bent and feet resting on the floor. Draw a number 4 with your legs (top left photo in picture 3) placing the right ankle on top of the left knee. Embrace the bottom left thigh with interlocked fingers behind the left knee - top right foot flex, bottom left foot relaxed. Repeat on the other side.


The next one is a hugged crossed legs pose: lying on your back, cross your legs as you would when sitting on a chair; lift the feet from the floor using your hands to slowly bring your knees close to your chest. It looks like the air releasing posture (top right photo in picture 3), except with the legs crossed. This pose targets the extension of the back and side of your thighs and buttocks, but you also need to relax your groins. If you have tension in the hip flexors, as soon as you relax the groins and the thighs, you will feel it. Don’t contract to avoid the pain. Breath through it until it releases, and bring your legs even closer. Be patient - it will be worth it!


Next up, the happy baby pose (bottom right photo in picture 3): just hold on to your feet, ankles, or any part of your shin, separating the legs with feet and knees flexed. You can rock a little side to side to massage the lumbar. You can also use your elbows to gently press against your inner knees -- they tend to turn inwards -- helping them to be in one vertical line with the ankles.


Picture 3

Now, let's flip over and do the sequence: Child’s pose, Downward-facing Dog and Low Lunge (picture 4). Start on all-fours; bring your big toes together, pointed feet; keep knees apart; sit on your heels as you walk your hands forward, stretching the arms and the spine; spread your fingers and keep elbows in the air; soften your forehead to the floor. Stay for a few breaths in Child’s Pose, releasing any gripping around the hips, in the groins or leg muscles. Inhale and come back to all-fours.


In your next exhalation, tuck-in your tailbone and lift the knees from the floor, stretching both legs and arms to Downward-facing dog . Take this moment to feel the bend take occurs at your hips as you extend your legs. It is not a plank! So there has to be a shorter angle between legs and belly, and the shoulders shouldn't be on top of the wrists (see bottom left photo in picture 4). Try to distribute the weight between arms and legs. Imagine a line pulling the center of your chest towards your feet, while your sit bones point to the ceiling - that should help you understand the angle.


Picture 4

From the Downward-facing dog, inhale, lift the right leg from the floor, bend the knee and exhale bringing the right foot outside the right hand, completing a low lunge. This pose will extend the left and right hip flexors in different ways, because they will be positioned and rotated differently. Repeat on the other side. Inhale and lift both arms up and back to increase the intensity of the stretch. The groins can go as low as you like, as long as your front knee keeps in a vertical line with your ankle (not forward). Here, I leave you a gentle reminder: never force yourself into anything.



- Standing Poses

Moving on to our standing practice, bring your feet together straightening up your spine for the Mountain pose. Bring your feet apart; rotate the right 90 degrees to the right, and the left foot slightly in, aligning the front right heel with the center of the arch of the left foot. With both legs extended, bend at your hip to the right side, lowering the right hand to your shin (or a block, or the floor) for the Triangle Pose. You can look up to your left hand in the air (see top left photo in picture 5). Notice how both sides of the torso are stretching equally -- the right side is not compressing to allow the hand to go lower. Inhale, and lift up as if someone is pulling your left hand in the air. Turn your feet to the other side and repeat.


For Warrior II, we will use the same base in the legs as we did in the Triangle pose. The front leg, however, will bend and the torso will stay upright. Watch the front leg so that the knee and the toes point directly to the side -- don't let them sink inward or outward, and keep the knee in line with the ankle (top right photo in picture 5). You can exhale and look to the right to complete the pose. Repeat on the other side.


Picture 5

From the Mountain pose, build Warrior II again, except this time you will add the lateral bend of the torso and bring your right hand to the floor (or block) behind the right foot (bottom right photo in picture 5 - Extended-side-angle Pose). The other arm extends forming a diagonal line with the back leg. Bring the bent-leg buttocks forward, relaxing the back-leg-buttocks down towards the thigh -- those actions will help you to tuck in your tailbone and protect your lumbar. Repeat on the other side.


To close the standing practice, we have the Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend (Prasarita padottanasana - bottom left photo). In this pose, we keep the outer side of the feet parallel and bring the crown of the head to the floor. The muscles in the legs are activated, the back relaxes and slightly rounds, and the "heels" of the hands go in line with the heels of the feet. There are many possible variations that can be done in this pose, changing the position of the hands and arms. You can play around with walking your hands side-to-side, holding ankles, or doing prayer pose on your back, for example. This pose awakens the inner thighs and strengthens the ankles and the entire legs. It also allows an inversion in the upper body, which creates an opportunity to feel the pelvic floor activity in a different perspective. You can inch your feet together to come out of the pose, lifting back to standing.



- Seated and reclined poses

Sit on a mat and spread your legs to the sides for the Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend Pose (Upavistha Konasana - top left photo in picture 6). If you find yourself falling to the back of your sit bones with tension in the groins and hamstrings, try adding a folded blanket underneath your buttocks. You can stay with your torso upright and hands beside the quads, or you can slowly bend forward, resting your elbows (and eventually your forehead) on the floor. Try to keep your toes towards the ceiling, aligned with your knees.


From the previous pose, bend one knee at a time and join the soles of the feet in the middle, near your pelvis. You can hook your big toes using your thumb, index and middle fingers. You can also leave your hands by the sides of your buttocks, or hold the feet in a different way. Try not to press down your knees. Instead, relax your groins and stay longer in the pose. You will realize the knees will fall down in their own time if you are patient. The actions of the Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana - photo on the right in picture 6) stimulates the lift of the pelvic floor -- see detailed explanation here. The actions are also present in all the standing poses described in this article.


Picture 6

A nice way to end this practice is with Supine Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana). you can lie flat on the mat, or support your back with a bolster and blankets, as shown in the bottom left photo. In this pose, we can relax completely, letting gravity do the work of gently opening our hip flexors. If your knees are too high, you can place blocks or blankets underneath. While staying in this pose, you can try to reproduce that lifting of the pelvic diaphragm, explained previously with the exercise from the Felt Sense Method. It will feel different, because you will have the entire back of your body supported. Nevertheless, you can work on both hip flexors and pelvic floor in this pose, while restoring your energy.



Isabella Luchi is an opera singer, Yoga & Voice teacher, and founder of SattVoice.




Sources

Danielle, Dania. "The Anatomy Of The 14 Pelvic Floor Muscles." Intimina (blog). https://www.intimina.com/blog/the-anatomy-of-14-pelvic-floor-muscles/


Iyengar, B. K. S. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1996.


Iyengar, Geeta. Yoga: A Gem for Women. Spokane: Timeless books, 1990.


Nett, Jaki. "The Felt Sense Method Yoga Convention." Iyengar Yoga Napa Valley. https://www.iynv.com/jaki-2/womens-health/felt-sense-method/


Quinn, Elizabeth. "Overview of Hip Flexor Muscles and Injuries." Verywell Health (blog). Medically reviewed by Stuart Hershman, MD. https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-hip-flexors-definition-3120388