What should I do with my pelvic floor?

Photo by TAN Erica on Unsplash

This post is in response to questions from a reader named Jeff:

I’m always a tad bewildered/beleaguered by degree of pelvic floor (ie lower ab) engagement, as well as by the specifics of it. What I’ve been doing lately is just centered around the sensations you feel upon a hiss—the obliques engage, and there’s a kinda belt-tightening feeling around the ‘cough’ muscles. This seems to facilitate that growing/blooming feeling of the upper torso upon exhale, which i take to be a good thing. Others, though, talk of a ‘kick out’ feeling.

I recently talked to an Alexander teacher, who talked of ‘upon inhale, our sit bones widen; and upon exhale, we delay their narrowing to help our breath/tone’. I found that a new (to me, at least) and fascinating way to describe it (though I don’t really know how to put it in practice).

But I’d just love to know if you think all these are describing the same thing, and what you yourself teach in regards to pelvic floor engagement.

Thanks for these great questions, Jeff! I relate to your desire to understand the details of your functioning and have some ideas that might allow you to easily let the pelvic floor do what it needs to do in singing.

Let’s start with your last sentence, about what I teach about pelvic floor engagement. In a word: nothing. I find that the less we try to manipulate individual parts, the more we can access the whole-body organization that serves our singing (and all other activities).  I wrote about this in the context of ab muscle engagement in another post; everything I said there about abs applies equally to pelvic floor muscles.

Mini anatomy lesson: Let’s orient ourselves to the parts under discussion, starting with the pubic bone, the dividing line between the lower ab muscles and the pelvic floor muscles.

In this picture, the pelvis seen from above, the pubic bone is at the bottom. The ab muscles (not shown here) would attach to its upper edge. You can see that some of the pelvic floor muscles attach to its lower edge, others, to the tailbone and to the lowest portions of the pelvis to form a bowl-like structure at the very bottom of our torsos.

Now back to your questions, Jeff. The widening/narrowing pattern of the sit bones in breathing that the Alexander teacher you talked to recently introduced you to is part of a whole-body pattern. In my teaching I am always looking to tap into this natural cycle and free it up. I have developed a movement exploration that makes this cycle easy to experience, which I call Whole-Body Breathing. I offer classes dedicated to WBB. You may have watched a video of such a class when you signed up for my mailing list.

I will be leading full-day seminars on Whole-Body Breathing in NYC in November, February, and March. These seminars allow participants to experience the correct integration of the pelvic floor, the abs, and all their other parts in breathing and in singing. I hope you can make it to one of them, Jeff! What can seem confusing when we focus on the admittedly complex contributions of individual parts of the system becomes easy to grasp when we experience the system working as a whole, in an integrated, natural, unmanipulated manner.

Feel free, Jeff or anyone else reading this, to ask follow-up questions as a comment below.

7 Comments

  1. jeff says:

    Hey there Michael! again- thanks so much for fielding my question.
    I realized after reading your response that I hadn’t yet watched that free video class of yours- it was really great. Thank you for providing that to us,
    and it instantly illustrates what you’re talking about, re full body breathing. I must say: i’ve never heard anyone talk or teach of a back-and-forth movement of the pelvis (however microscopic) when singing- it’s usually just one or the other, kinda set in stone. What made you think of this? Or is it a natural process, that i’m just ignorant of? And as you’re singing, this’s going on the whole time (however micro it is)?

    Also, perhaps most importantly, it must be said: all your students just seemed so happy. It almost ended up being therapeutic to watch that video.

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Hi Jeff! I’m glad you got to see the video. It was gratifying to me that you noticed how happy my students were in that class, as creating an atmosphere of joy in which to learn is one of my core intentions. We do tend to have a lot of fun in my classes!

      My discoveries regarding the movements of the pelvis (and every other part) in breathing arose out of a lot of years of exploring movement with various Alexander Technique experts, especially Joan and Alex Murray. For over 10 years, I’ve been examining how the primary and secondary curves play out in our lives–it’s proved to be a productive filter through which to look at posture, movement, breathing, etc. [If primary and secondary curves are not familiar concepts, check out this post in which I describe them.]

      The back-and-forth movement you asked about IS a natural process, going on (or being inhibited from going on) not only during singing, but throughout every moment of life. I wish you a joyous exploration of your own movements and encourage you to report back with anything you discover. (This invitation is extended to everyone, not only to Jeff.)

  2. jeff says:

    I’m indeed going to explore it, Michael. Even though it counters what i’ve been practicing (somewhat, at least), it’s at least interesting/exciting enough to warrant further use. It’s also weirdly relaxing! (I feel quite tai-chi-ish doing it. always a good thing).

    Did want to leave two thoughts: Elvis should be your spirit animal for this! Anytime I feel even the slightest of gyrations in the pelvic region, it makes me think of that guy. And nobody ever accused Elvis of not being connected with his instrument, or phoning it in! “Prudish Elvis Gyrations”, or “Tai Chi Elvis”- great taglines, Michael. Free of charge!

    Other thing, which you might’ve already seen in some iteration, is this article on the flute player Keith Underwood. He teaches instrumentalists a similar thing to your full body breath, involving his hand. http://www.sci.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~jones/Shirlee/Underwood.html
    (and if you like that, here’s a longer vid on him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMKK6FDO5_g (he talks about it at around 26:00).

    Again, Michael, thanks so much for taking the time to parse this. Off to tai chi Elvis for awhile! Jeff

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Thanks for these intriguing videos, Jeff/Elvis. It’s fun to see that other musicians are out there making their own breath-related discoveries. I noticed a key difference between Underwood’s movement cycle and mine…can you identify what I’m referring to? (Hint: it has to do with opposition.)

  3. jeff says:

    Is it maybe that Underwood’s seem to be concerned solely with the time aspect, whereas yours adds the element of opposition as well?
    And the opposition part seems to really foster that ‘growing/blooming’ upwards feeling, so seemingly necessary/healthy for singers. (please correct me if i’m wrong!)

    Speaking of that ‘blooming’ feeling, an opera instructor I watch online is oftentimes adamant that “if you don’t feel better after having sung, then you’re probably doing it wrong”; ie singing is release, etc. Regardless of if that’s right, did you find once you fully integrated your full body method, you felt/feel this, Michael?

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Your analysis is exactly right, Jeff! I like the word “blooming” in regard to the oppositional forces in effect in the outbreath phase. I have also often talked about it as an “unfurling.” Both words imply the naturalness and expansion possible.

      I find a lot of truth in what that online opera instructor is saying. I do find that Whole-Body Breathing makes it ridiculously easy to feel good when singing.

      I have been finding our conversation to be stimulating and inspiring. If I get around to producing some podcasts, I hope that you would agree to be a guest on one of them.

  4. jeff says:

    ‘Unfurling’!! Yes! An even better term- it’s going right into my (mental) back pocket.

    I’ve enjoyed the chatting as well, Michael. And am humbled/honored you’d even consider me for that. If it did go through, I would be adamant that mine be labeled “the stubborn singer”, or “the hobbled vocalist”, as I’m supremely unqualified. Except as a magpie of lessons.

    FYI, I listen to podcasts regularly, and there does seem to be a vacuum in the integrated-singing department. I stumbled upon one other day (“naked vocalist”), but it seems like that’s the only one, unless i’m missing something.

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