Relaxing the Pelvic Floor for Tai Chi and Zhan Zhuang
Learning how to relax the muscles of the "pelvic floor" is often the most secretive or overlooked way to improving your Zhan Zhuang and Tai chi. In this article, my goal is to tastefully convey some of these "secrets" and my experience working with this part of the body. I will also present information that led me to my current understanding. Contents Introduction The Pelvic Floor from a Qigong Perspective The Pelvic Floor from a Tai chi Perspective The Pelvic Floor from a 'Clinical' Perspective Identifying Chronic Tension Methods to Aid in Relaxing the Pelvic Floor Tips and Precautions Conclusion Introduction Why do I say that learning how to relax the muscles of the "pelvic floor" is "secretive or overlooked"? In Tai chi circles, I've discovered that it is rare to hear or read about methods of how to relax the pelvic floor as a way to develop (松 ; sōng). In the Qigong circles, I found references to "opening" the Huayin point which is in the perineum or pelvic floor area, and again, few methods of how to do this. Because of the "private" nature of the part of the body being discussed, some may find some of this information objectionable. However, ignoring this area could become yourAchilles' Heel in your development. You may not be ready to act on this information now and that's O.K. It took me a more than a year to simply get comfortable with the mere idea that it is O.K. to work on relaxing this part of my own body! External family, social and cultural taboos created a huge internal psychological blockage! (See my 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal notes.) Getting over the conceptual and emotional hurdle was the first step for me. Reading the book Out in the Open: The Complete Male Pelvis by R. Louis Schultz, Ph.D. (1999) helped me approach the conceptual hurdle by learning about more about my own body in relation to culture, overall physicality, emotions, stages of the male life-span and more. In researching this article, I found that most articles addressing the "pelvic floor" address symptomatic clinical issues generally related to childbirth and incontinence. Here, my assumption is a "normal", clinically asymptomatic pelvic floor. Disclaimer: I do not have any medical training in anything. I have not had any specific qigong training. This information is presented for informational purposes only. The Pelvic Floor from a Qigong Perspective Many Qigong books by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming reference relaxing the Huiyin ( 會陰 ) point on the perineum. For example: The Essence of Taiji Qigong: The Internal Foundation of Taijiquan by Jwing-Ming Yang (1998) on page 73 says: When you move your Huiyin and anus, you must be relaxed and gentle, and must avoid all tension. If you tense them, the Qi will stagnate there and will not be able to flow smoothly. ... The trick of holding up and loosening the Huiyin and anus is extremely important in Nei Dan Qigong. Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation by Jwing-Ming Yang (2006) on page 227 - 228 says, Through contraction and relaxation of the perineum, Qi can be regulated. If the anus is gently held up, the perineum tightens and seals the Qi gate. When it is gently pushed out, the perineum relaxes, and the Qi gate opens. (CV1 ( 會陰 ; huì yīn ) is considered one of the "Tricky Gates" (玄关 or 玄關 ; xuán guān); a key place in qigong training. See page 390 of Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation.) The Root of Chinese Qigong: Secrets of Health, Longevity, & Enlightenment (1989, 1997) by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming (page 39) says, referring to abdominal breathing: However, as you get older and gradually lose the habit of this abdominal movement, the path becomes obstructed and the Qi circulation weakens. The most significant blockage can occur at the Huiyin cavity (Co-1;) (Figure 3.2). Try an experiment. Use one finger to press firmly at your Huiyin cavity while your abdomen is moving in and out. You will discover that the Huiyin cavity moves up and down in sync with the in and out motion of the abdomen. It is this up and down motion of the perineum which keeps the Huiyin cavity clear for Qi circulation. and on page 84, For example, when you were a child, the Huiyin cavity (Co-1;) (Figure 6-1) in the perineum was wide open. However, as you got older and abandoned abdominal breathing, it gradually plugged up so that the Qi circulation through it became sluggish. There are a number of other areas where the Qi path narrows and the circulation slows down. Wherever the circulation is sluggish and not smooth, the Qi supply to organs and entire body will lose its balance and you may become sick. and on page 129 Normal abdominal breathing is an important part of Buddhist Qigong training and so it is often called "Buddhist Breathing". To practice it, you must first use your Yi to control the muscles in your abdomen. When you inhale, intentionally expand your abdomen, and when you exhale, let it contract. In addition, when you inhale, you should gently push out your Huiyin (Co-1) cavity or anus, and when you exhale, hold it up.
Chinese Qigong Massage: General Massage by Dr Yang Jwing-Ming (1992) page 214-215,(Note: Qigong Massage is now in its 2nd edition. ) In Chinese medicine and Qigong, the Huiyin is considered one of the most important cavities. It is the junction of many vessels... Stimulating the Huiyin cavity will improve the exchange of Qi among the vessels... When you massage this gate, spread your partner's legs a comfortable distance apart. Press gently on the Huiyin cavity with you middle finger and circle around. If you use your right hand, circling clockwise will lead Qi upward to the brain, and counterclockwise will lead Qi downward to the legs... (How I would summarize these excerpts is that the pelvic floor can become tense over time and from a basic, functional perspective, some kind of manual intervention is helpful to get this area to relax again.) The Complete System of Self-Healing Internal Exercises by Dr. Stephen T. Chang (1986 & 1994). Page 93 of the 1986 version says, in the section Instructions for the Male Deer Exercise, It is crucial to learn control over the anal muscles if one is to master the later meditative and breathing Internal Exercises. These muscles may be described as a door or a lock... It is essential then to gain mastery over this lock if one is to strengthen one's system sufficiently to begin to energize the spiritual centers in the body. (If the muscles are "locked" in a state of unfeeling chronic tension, it seems that a first step is to relax or "unlock the door" and develop a feeling awareness in these muscles.) In the Healing Tao Books series, Bone Marrow Nei Kung: Taoist Techniques for Rejuvinating the Blood by Mantak Chia (2006). Here is a just a little example from page 191-197, pull up on the front of your anus and direct the energy to your heart... (Mantak Chia's books are at a level beyond where I'm capable of working now. When I look at his exercises I try to think of how these can be functionally applied given my current level of understanding. For example, what I understand from the above is that being able to feel and relax and manipulate different areas of the anus is an example of what is possible when you get more in tune with various parts of your body and the way they can be exercised in various gong-fu practices.) The Pelvic Floor from a Tai chi Perspective The Five Levels of Skill by Chen Xiao Wang and translated by Tan Lee-Peng, Ph.D. at theSeattle School of Chen Style Taijiquan. Here are a couple excerpts: "First Level of Kung Fu" includes the skill of "relaxing the crotch".
"Second Level of Kung Fu" includes "...can be strictly mastered through relaxing shoulders and elbows, chest and waist as well as crotch and knees..."
At the Chen Village site, the article, What are the body requirements of Tai Chi? says, The most basic requirement for doing Tai Chi is song kua, or relax the hips, means that the muscles surrounding the hip joint, i.e. where the thigh bone meets the hip, should not be used to any great degree in supporting your structure. These hip muscles can then be used to adjust the angle of your pelvis so that your upper body can remain relaxed, or direct the jin if so required. If you haven't achieved a song kua, then everything else is academic. You will not be able meet the requirements for the rest of your body. (I really like this, "If you haven't achieved a song kua, then everything else is academic." And as the article goes on, it does not describe specific methods of how to relax the muscles surrounding the hip, nor how to relax the muscles that adjust the angle of the pelvis. It seems that if you don't talk about and help people learn methods of *how* to relax these muscles, then everything else is academic. Hence, my purpose in writing this article.) For more references to relaxing the pelvic floor or "crotch" from the Tai chi perspective, see my article Rounding the Crotch (圆裆) for Tai Chi and Zhan Zhuang. The Pelvic Floor from a 'Clinical' Perspective Here's some information I found that discusses the pelvic floor from more of a "western" paradigm. (My comments in italics.) Zhan Zuang and Tai chi typically speak of the abdomen (丹田 ; dāntián), the hip or inguinal crease (胯 ; kuà) , the crotch ( 裆 ; dāng) as well as the acupuncture points CV1 ( 會陰 ; huì yīn ) and GV-1 ( 長強 ; cháng qiáng). These are all located around the pelvis. "Moving from the center" functionally means pelvic-centered movement. I completely overlooked this basic functional aspect when I was wrapped up in "dan-tian" talk.
Here is a Gray's Anatomy drawing of the Pelvic cavity. Looking at the pelvis from the top-down, notice the cavity. This is where the muscles of the pelvic floor attach. See the Wikipedia entry for pelvisfor more information.
Here is Gray's Anatomy drawing of the pelvic floor. See the Wikipedia entry for pelvic floor for more information. This drawing shows the tailbone or sacrum on the left and what looks like a kind of down and in view from the side. For a clinical picture of the perineum, see the Wikipedia entry for Perineum. Warning: may not be suitable for some audiences. See also the Wikipedia entry for Pelvic Cavity. Warning: may not be suitable for some audiences.
I prefer understanding my Wujifa zhan zhuang practice in terms of anatomy and physiology. It helps keep me grounded and functional which is a common Wujifa method for grounded learning at The School of Cultivation and Practice. In The Pelvic Floor by Beate Carriere and Cynthia Markel Feldt (2006), Chapter 1.4 "Interdependence of Posture and the Pelvic Floor", on page 68 says, Poor posture can lead to many symptoms, including pain and dysfunction in the pelvic floor. Pelvic floor weakness or pain can also alter sitting or standing posture. There are many conditions affecting both posture and the pelvic floor and leading to pain and dysfunction. All the body's systems are involved in maintaining good posture and ensuring healthy, strong pelvic floor muscles. Also, chapter 1.5 "Low Back Pain and the Pelvic Floor" by Paul W. Hodges (page 81-97) has three sections discussing
how the pelvic floor muscles contribute to: Lumbopelvic Control, Control of the Lumbar Spine, Control of the Pelvis What I understand from both of these chapters is that 1. Various cultural and lifestyle factors such as how we move, sit, or stand as well as emotional scars from stress, crime, abuse or certain cultural practices play a role in the stability and mobility of the pelvic floor. 2. The condition of the muscles of the pelvic floor play a role in my overall posture and as far as Zhan zhuang and Tai chi are concerned, contribute my overall level of holding or letting go.
At the Core Massage and Bodywork for Men site, Jeff Gibson has a great overview of the pelvic floor and pelvic floor work. For example: What does it do? The pelvic floor has a number of roles. It is part of our core musculature and functions in tandem with the stabilizing muscles of the abdomen and low back (Transversus Abdominis and Multifidi in particular). Our stress response often shows up as tension in the pelvic floor. In the book, Anal Pleasure and Health: A Guide for Men and Women by Jack Morin, Ph.D. (1998) Chapter 6 "Mind and Body", page 57-58 says, Body and mind, anus and emotions, are in constant inter-relationship... Animals and human infants exhibit this spontaneous defecation reaction to severe threat, but we soon learn that this response is inappropriate. Therefore, when adults are under high stress our natural response is to rigidify our anuses in an effort to counteract the urge to defecate. This is why most of us associate a tense anus with fear. In civilized society many of our stress reactions are to internal threats. These are specific fears... or general anxieties. (Various sources offer various reasons for the development of tension in the pelvic floor ranging from fear and anxiety to trauma and abuse. This was the only one I found that referenced the learned over-riding of the "autodefecation response".) Identifying Chronic Tension Chronic tension is hidden from me. My body is to me just what it is. I don't experience my body as being chronically tense and yet it is. Consider these examples that showed up in some early zhan zhuang classes: My head tilts slightly to one side. Adjusting it to vertical feels like it is tilting.
I sometimes lean forward. Adjusting to vertical feels like I'm tilting backward. Adjusting the right side of the pelvis results in the left shoulder moving. Most often, my pelvis just wouldn't adjust in the direction being suggested.
I likened these early classes to Michelangelo trying to carve the David with only a butter knife! My musculature was so rigid that my teacher's adjustments to my posture were nearly impossible! Here's another example. I may think my shoulders are relaxed. I may even feel they are relaxed given my current level of feeling-ability and my benchmarking to what relaxed is for me. However, when a finger or massage tool presses into the muscle, and if the finger or massage tool encounters a tense muscle, I may yelp in "pain" and pull away. This experience, though not necessarily pleasant, has helped me notice a tense area and where I need to work on relaxing. All these experiences led me to conclude that: Chronic muscular tension is invisible to me until it is brought to my conscious awareness, that is, until it is physically pointed out to me! This is why I think that for beginner and even intermediate practitioners, the "breathe, contract and relax" methods of relaxing are ineffective for identifying and addressing underlying chronic tensions. There is no substitute for manually pushing into muscles or having someone try to make adjustments to your posture to identify where the tensions are located! In the book Pelvic Power: Mind/Body Exercises for Strength, Flexibility, Posture, and Balance for Men and Women by Eric Franklin (2003), page xi says, ...the female pelvic floor is more flexible; the male floor tends to be less flexible... Thus the training program has predetermined goals: increased flexibility for men, and building up of strength for women. and on page 2, Exercising a certain area of the body is not the same as experiencing its function in daily life. If one can realize that the pelvic floor supports almost every movement we make, this in itself is a very effective training. But this can only be realized when one feels how the pelvic floor is involved in our movement. Before we get into specific methods, let's revisit The Pelvic Floor, chapter 4.4, "Treatment of Sexual and Pelvic Floor Dysfunctions", page 408 where it says: When the patient is able to relax and breath toward the pelvic floor, she should try to relax the gluteus muscles, hamstrings and adductors. Because these muscles almost always contract along with the pelvic floor muscles, they have to be relaxed consciously before further relaxation of the pelvic floor can be attempted.
It is best to start routinely with the relaxation of the anus, since clinical experience shows that this is the part of the pelvic floor the patient feels most distinctly. However, if the symptoms focus on the anus, it is best to start with the anterior part. Methods to Aid in Relaxing the Pelvic Floor Here are methods that I have either read about or have worked with myself. I present these here as possible methods to explore to help relax a tense pelvic floor to improve your Tai chi and Zhan Zhuang practice. As with any practice, first verify with your physician that it is appropriate and safe for you. You are responsible for your own practice. 1. Kegel Exercise. There are many on-line resources describing this exercise. My understanding is basically one of contracting and relaxing the pubococcygeus (pc) muscles of the pelvic floor. (My limited experience with Kegels is that the contract part adds a layer of tension on top of the existing chronic tension and the relax part mostly relaxes the contraction. The relax portion doesn't really get at dissolving the underlying level of chronic tension to a new level of relax.) 2. The Lance Armstrong Foundation at LiveStrong.com has an article, Exercises to Relax the Pelvic Floor which says to use an inversion board or do handstands; being upside-down removes the gravitational pressure of internal organs from the pelvic floor allowing it to relax. 3. At Massage Today online, the article, The Pelvic Floor Paradox, the section titled "The Tennis Ball Trick" says, A yoga therapist had then advised her to purchase a tennis ball and sit on it with the ball (placed on a firm surface such as a carpeted floor) strategically placed under the perineum, between anus and the vagina; and to allow the pressure onto the ball to deeply relax the pelvic floor muscles for five to 10 minutes daily. She reported that this procedure was somewhat uncomfortable at first, but that the effects were dramatic in terms of her symptoms. I have since recommended this to several patients for home use and all have reported benefit. (Other Wujifa school brothers and sisters I have trained with have used similar methodsand have reported similar benefits.) And the following section, "Don't Forget the Psychological Aspect" says, It's essential to note that in many such cases of clenched pelvic floor muscles, there is a background of assault or abuse (although a great many seem to be caused by nothing more than mechanically-produced, excessive tone with a background of dance, athletics and bad Pilates). Where there is a psychosocial or psychosexual element to the condition, appropriate professional support usually is needed along with bodywork. 4. All women, and not just pregnant women, may find this useful. The Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health (Vol 50, No1, January/Februrary 2005) has a great article and how-to instructions for massaging and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles from the inside. See: Instructions for Perineal Massage During Pregnancy. Warning: may not be suitable for some audiences. 5. William Zmachinsky over at Prostrate Massage and Health describes The Anal Peripheral Prostrate Massage as well as other massage practices for the pelvic area. 6. A more radical method involves using a rectal or anal dilator. However, this is controversial because dilating or stretching too far can actually result in clinical symptoms requiring medical attention. If you try this method, you must be able to distinguish a safe stretch from the creation of a clinical symptom. Even if you think you did not over-extended the stretch, you may find you have already unintentionally hurt yourself. Every body is different. What is safe for one person may be damaging for another. Hence, why I say this is "radical" and "controversial". Tips and Precautions If you are going to attempt any of the above yourself, you alone are responsible for the consequences or result of your decision. The following information may be common sense to many but here are some things to consider if you choose to explore these methods on your own: Although the pelvic floor muscles may be chronically tense, the internal organs are soft and susceptible to damage. Do your reading. Understand what you are doing. Proceed at your own risk.
Sanitation is the number one priority. Depending on the method, you may be in contact with poop. If this is the case, then finger nails must be cut short and filed round. Latex gloves or a similar protective covering for an individual finger should be used. Ensure you clean up thoroughly and properly.
It is best to "relieve yourself" first. This will both reduce the muscular tension of "holding" and the need to jump on the toilet as you progressively relax during a session.
You may find that relaxing during a session results in even more "movement" of which you were previously unaware. Therefore, it is best to practice these methods in the bathroom or W.C. where a toilet and sink are readily available. You will naturally experiment with and find the body position and materials that are easiest for you to work with in the most relaxed way. The purpose is to relax.
Remember, this is a process and not a one time event. It will likely take many sessions over weeks or months to notice and feel a new level of relax show up in your Tai chi or zhan zhuang practice. Follow-up "maintenance" massage sessions are helpful. Above all, use common sense. These methods are not to be practiced as a contest or competition. Think of this more as "self-care". Be gentle with yourself. Aim for slow, incremental progress over the long term. Think "process" instead of "goal". Conclusion Getting comfortable with relaxing the "pelvic floor" needs to become as natural as getting comfortable with relaxing the shoulders. However, getting comfortable with the idea, much less actually working with this part of the body, can be a hurdle in itself. Yet, if you can get over these hurdles, the payoff in terms of the level of whole-body relaxation is a big step forward! As of this writing, when I practice my Wujifa zhan zhuang, and when I notice my mind wandering and thinking and tensing, I will shift focus to relaxing the anus (which too has tensed) and immediately I feel my entire pelvis relaxing and "widening" and somehow this feeling transmits up and into my shoulders and I feel my shoulders relaxing and "widening". Everything is all connected. Remember the saying, "When one part moves, all parts move". This can also mean, when one part is stuck, then all parts are stuck. So for me, Loose/Relaxed (松 ; sōng) is about relaxing all parts of my body and not just the parts that can be discussed in polite social settings, or only relaxing the parts that I'm emotionally comfortable relaxing. What we're aiming for is to achieve: When one part moves, then truly, ALL parts are able to move. Again, if you have not or currently are not engaged in some effort to relax your pelvic floor, don't let your pelvic floor become your Achilles' Heel in your development because of whatever reason or emotion that came up while reading this article or that you may be noticing now... Got it? Possible Additional Reading Posture Alignment: The Missing Link in Health and Fitness by Pal D'Arezzo, M.D. (2003) The Psoas Book by Liz Koch (1997)
Posted by Mike at internalgongfu.blogspot.com at 10:55 PM Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook Labels: Training Tips
1. RickFebruary 16, 2011 8:48 AM A very well written article! I hope people will take some note of the information you share here. As a school brother in the practice of Wujifa I like the practical and functional approached you use and share here again on this often glossed over subject. Wujifa practices such as zhan zhuang and side to side within the Wujifa system the understanding of the pelvis is really one if the keys to making real progress. Reply
2. colman finkFebruary 17, 2011 7:46 PM Great article! The pelvic floor (PF) is something I've been looking at for some time now as an important part of my martial arts training. A well toned PF should not be like a hammock but more like a trampoline. On page 105 of Franklin's book, he gives you an idea on how to tone the PF - it is the basic squat. The way I do it is by standing with my feet hip width apart and parallel to each other, squat all the way done making sure my knees at any time do not go beyond the front of the foot. When you do this, the "sit" bones will go out further apart from each other and the coccyx moves further backwards away from the public bone. This widening and closing of the PF is what will make the PF more flexible and stronger. In some of the Qigong and Taiji Daoyin exercises I work on, there are a number of low squats done. There are
other people pushing this concept of squatting for the PF ... like Katy Bowman http://www.katysays.com/2010/06/02/you-dont-know-squat/ According to her, Kegel exercises are limited and not as effective. Reply
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2, 2011 4:39 PM Can a tense pelvic floor effect male fertility? Reply
4. MikeApril 5, 2011 1:25 PM I don't know of a specific correspondence but as I said, I have no medical training. Some sources say stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, a toxic environment, etc. can be factors influencing hormone levels and fertility when there is no known medical cause. Insofar as the pelvic floor is musculature of the body, I believe it too can be affected by these factors... Reply
5. AnonymousMay 11, 2011 8:27 PM I've just started doing Zhan Zhuang practice. I notice that I find it difficult to keep the pelvic muscles relaxed. I just want to be certain. Is my goal to keep the pelvic muscles relaxed throughout the entire standing session just like all other muscles? Thanks and I enjoyed reading. Chris Reply
6. fsnowJuly 11, 2012 5:38 PM Good article on an important area. Congratulations for attaining this knowledge. For me, the subject is learnt doing fa-chin or experiencing fa-chin i.e. comparing a tight vs relaxed pelvic floor (hui-yin) while doing/receiving fa chin. A tight floor will have little power and one can sense the power being muscular or emanating from the person (hand, shoulders, thighs, butt etc. tensed area or momentum/pushing). A relaxed hui-yin, with correct Tai Chi posture/movement, song kua gliding, no blocked channels, open mind etc. will, in the words of the person being 'fa-chinned', "be like being whacked by a car... doesn't know where the force is, ... just that it's explosive/powerful and then hit the board". BTW, where are you based? Maybe we can share notes.