The Pelvic Piston: From Incontinence and Back Pain to Physical Power and Emotional Resilience

Senior couple jumping on bed

The pelvic piston is a term coined by physiotherapist, Julie Wiebe, and refers to a synergy of movement between the pelvic diaphragm, the thoracic diaphragm, and the soft palate (also a diaphragm). When it moves efficiently, the pelvic piston creates ease, strength, and alignment of the pelvic region and the whole body.

But what exactly is the pelvic piston and how do you know if yours is working?

What is the Pelvic Piston?

The pelvic piston is made up of the pelvic diaphragm (aka the pelvic floor), the thoracic diaphragm (the muscle that allows our lungs to expand and contract during breathing), and the soft palate (in the roof of our mouth).

When we breathe, our thoracic diaphragm moves downwards to allow our lungs to expand on the inhale and returns to its original position on our exhale – helping the lungs to expel air.

When the movements of the pelvic diaphragm and soft palate coordinate with the movement of the thoracic diaphragm, they move up and down together like a piston (hence the name) and generate power through the core of our body. This force helps us perform everyday movements such as standing up and walking with a greater sense of ease and less involvement from peripheral muscles. This means less pain and less fatigue.

The video below gives a great visual of how these three diaphragms move in synergy during breathing.

Causes of pelvic piston dysfunction

There are many reasons why one or more of our diaphragms may not be functioning efficiently.

Physical trauma such as injuries or childbirth (yes childbirth can be traumatic to our bodies!), too much sitting, and even just aging, can cause tension, weakness and loss of movement and muscle tone.

Emotional trauma can also affect how our diaphragms function. If we hold our breath when we’re upset or clench our stomach muscles, this affects our diaphragms’ ability to move freely.

When one (or more) of your diaphragms aren’t functioning efficiently, you may experience these types of issues:

  • Incontinence, Prolapse, Pelvic Pain: The pelvic diaphragm cradles your internal organs. When it’s weak or chronically tensed, it can’t do its job as well. The movement of the pelvic diaphragm can also become reversed, so we pull up on the inhale and let go on the exhale. This is one of the reasons for leaking when we cough or sneeze.
  • Asthma, Anxiety, Back Pain: If the thoracic diaphragm doesn’t move freely, the lungs can’t expand fully and oxygenate your blood. The ribs and upper back become rigid and immobile and you may experience issues with breathing, posture or anxiety.
  • Sleep Apnoea, Jaw and Neck Pain: When the soft palate isn’t functioning efficiently, it can restrict airflow and cause pain. The soft palate plays a role in sleep apnoea, teeth grinding and neck pain. Bringing conscious awareness to the movement of this diaphragm can improve your sleep and comfort.

Healing the Pelvic Piston

Working with the pelvic piston isn’t just about preventing or treating specific conditions. It’s a transformative and holistic approach that empowers you to connect with your body, understand your unique alignment and movement patterns, and begin a journey of healing and growth.

The diaphragms are intimately linked to our nervous system. Not only can emotional trauma cause holding patterns that restrict the movement of the diaphragms, but a dysfunctional diaphragm can also affect our emotional well-being as it signals to our nervous system that all is not well. With this in mind, understanding and working with the pelvic piston can also open us up to emotional healing and resilience.

Activating the Pelvic Piston with the Feldenkrais Method

Most of us don’t have conscious awareness of our diaphragms and have no idea which direction they’re moving when we breathe. Without this awareness we can’t help them move in a synchronous way.

The Feldenkrais Method uses exploratory exercises to help you bring attention to areas that are currently outside of your awareness (in this case, your diaphragms). When you bring attention to the diaphragms and begin to build up a picture of how they’re currently moving, you create new neural pathways and allow your system to learn new, more effective patterns of movement.

With the Feldenkrais Method, we can develop:

Awareness and Sensitivity: Through gentle guidance, we experience a deeper connection to our diaphragms, unravelling our holding patterns and tensions.

Emotional Resonance: Learning to recognise any emotions attached to these patterns gives us a deeper level of healing.

Transformation and Renewal: This process can be deeply transformative, giving us physical comfort, emotional release, and a renewed sense of vitality.

Your pelvis is the seat of your personal creative power and core strength, but it isn’t an island––it’s an interconnected system that influences and is influenced by other parts of your body. Understanding and working with the pelvic piston can have profound and long-lasting healing effects for both the body and the mind.

If you would like to explore and learn how to activate your pelvic piston, I offer Pelvic Potency workshops to help you connect with each of the diaphragms.

The Pelvic Piston: From Incontinence and Back Pain to Physical Power and Emotional Resilience
The Pelvic Piston: From Incontinence and Back Pain to Physical Power and Emotional Resilience
The Pelvic Piston: From Incontinence and Back Pain to Physical Power and Emotional Resilience

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