Why focus on the pelvis?
There are many common physical issues which are affected by how well the pelvis is able to move in isolation and as part of integrated movement, including:
Low back pain, sacroiliac pain, sciatica, pelvic floor pain or incontinence, internal pelvis/lower abdomen pain, hip joint pain, constipation and other digestive issues, any lower leg issues will connect up to some degree to what is happening in the pelvis.
That’s a long list! Unsurprising when you consider that the pelvis connects to the lower back, spine and core above it and to the legs below it (via the hip ‘ball and socket’ joint). Everything is of course connected, so an understanding of the pelvis, being able to map this part of your body, is important for good movement and feeling easeful in the body.
So what do we need to know about the pelvis?
The Pelvis – some basic orientation
The pelvis is two hemispheres of curved bone (the ilium) which connect at the sacroiliac joints either side of the sacrum at the back, and at the pubis low down at the base of the abdomen in the front. These connection points are held together by multiple strong ligaments which provide compressive force to the joints. You can see the ligaments in the image above. *
A simple way to sense into the structure of the pelvis is to think of it as a bony bowl – we can hold the sides of this ‘bowl’ with our hands around our hips.
Bony landmarks which help us to feel and sense into the shape of the pelvis in different positions include:
- The hip points – The ASIS joints – (anterior superior iliac spine) what we think of as the two bony hip points at the front on either side of our navel. (Feel with your fingertips).
- The sit bones – The ischial tuberosities – the sit bones at the base of the buttocks that we can feel as bony points when we sit on them.
- The pubic bone at the very base of our abdomen which we can press into the ground when lying tummy down.
- The sacrum and some surface of the ilium at the back of the pelvis – the flat-ish hard bony surface we rest on when lying down, especially with knees bent up and feet flat.
This ‘bowl’ is the container for our reproductive organs, bladder, lower part of our digestive system (the colon and rectum). The multi layered muscular net of the pelvic floor is a diaphragm which holds everything in at the base of the trunk.
Your pelvis has layers of muscles on the inside that help maintain intra abdominal pressure (ie trunk and spine stability), and layers of muscles, around 25, that wrap around on the outside. These muscles connect and integrate movement of the leg to the torso during movement, controlling movement of the leg at the hip socket.
It is a densely innervated area, as this simplified image below shows, which is why we can receive all kinds of sensations from this area, both pleasurable and pain.
When you walk, the pelvis coordinates moving up, down, laterally, forwards, and backwards. Think salsa, and how the pelvis is the focal area for human grooving! When the pelvis aka your ‘hips’ move in all the ways with ease, when pelvis movement is coordinated with the rest of the body, this rolling movement is smooth, as it transfers up a fluidly articulating spine and down via the hip joint into the legs and feet. Or, if the movement of the pelvis is stiff and stilted to some degree it will restrict movement in other areas and the whole body movement becomes stiffer and awkward.
As with anywhere in the body, parts of this complex muscular structure both the external and internal, can end up holding patterns of tension, with limited joint movement and tight or weak areas of tissue. When the pelvis joints and muscles aren’t integrating with the joints above and below to coordinate movement, other joints will move more or move less to create the mobility/stability required for the body to do all the movements we do. And as we know, a healthy body shares the work of movement! So good pelvic movement supports a feeling of strength and resilience in the whole body.
How can we ensure good pelvis movement?
- A great starting place in a yoga/movement class is to learn how to sense and feel the pelvis.
You have to feel it well to move it well!
One really valuable practice is focused breathing downwards into the pelvic bowl, which can help to relax the musculature of the whole pelvis area. Here is a short guided practice.
If you do have a sense that you hold tension in the pelvic area, one way to develop awareness of your pelvic floor and relax the whole pelvic area, is to spend some time sitting on a large exercise ball, a gentle bouncing and moving your pelvis around on the ball in all directions with your feet firmly grounded. You can connect with breathing down into your pelvis and relaxing your shoulders as you do this.
2. Next, we can explore initiating movement from the pelvis. Can you create an anterior and posterior pelvic tilt in a variety of positions? Can you isolate laterally shifting the pelvis in different positions? and so on.
Here is a short practice:
These targeted movements are valuable because they are the start to training the muscles that support the pelvis in a range of positions. If you can’t control moving your pelvis in isolation, it will be harder to integrate it during movement.
The pelvis connects to the legs at the ball and socket of the hip is the femur or thigh bone connecting to the pelvis. As we have just practised, moving from the pelvis involves rolling the socket over the head of the thigh bone in the socket. The thigh bone stays relatively still and the socket as part of the pelvis moves over the head of the femur.
This is important to practice, because,
“To be able to control movement at the pelvis creates more options and frees up mobility at the hip joint. If the pelvis stays in limited positions most of the time, the hip will move in the hip socket but the socket won’t move as freely over the femur.” (1)
Healthy hips need both the pelvis capable of moving over the femur head and the leg moving freely with good range of motion in the socket.
To sum up
In class we practice varied movements of the pelvis progressively, building skills gradually over time. These skills include: sensing the physical dimensions of your pelvis, becoming aware of, and releasing tension in the whole area through breathing and gentle movement, feeling your pelvis initiate movement in a variety of positions and yoga poses. This leads to more awareness and ability to adjust the position of your pelvis in more complex yoga movements and poses, and in other activities.
In the next blog, we will look at how the hip complex, all the muscles that wrap around the pelvis and connect into the hip joint and legs, which create movement at the hip joint to move the leg around in the socket, rather than moving the socket over the leg.
How did that go? Is this helpful – the idea that focusing on being able to feel and control your pelvis in movement has so many knock on benefits for your whole body awareness and movement? Do let me know how it worked for you in the comments.
* The idea that yoga can cause the sacroiliac joint to become ‘too loose’ and cause pain is not an accurate explanation of problems in this area for yoga practitioners. These ligaments are well designed to hold everything together and sensations of pain and discomfort around the SI joint arguably have more complex causes, (Booth and Morris 2019) including weak and/or tight musculature around the pelvis complex.
- Body Mind Movement, Jenn Pilotti, p.143
Resources for this article
Body Mind Movement, Jenn Pilotti
Pathways to a Centred Body, Donna Farhi and Leila Stuart
Pelvic Liberation, Leslie Howard
The New Rules of Posture, Mary Bond