When studying Anatomy and Physiology in the late 90s, I was taught that the Psoas muscle was merely a deep hip flexor and at most was a little bit special as the only muscle that passed from the back of the body to the front. I remember being intrigued and wondering if this muscle could have something to do with the niggling pain in my lower back and groin that flared up when under stress.
Years later, after working as a Yoga teacher, Body Worker and Psychologist, I have come to understand the importance of this muscle to our physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Far from being just a core stabilizer, this muscle could be likened to an intelligent organ, perceiving and communicating directly with the nervous system about the physical and emotional well being of the overall organism.
According to the psoas specialist, Liz Koch, author of “The Psoas book:”
“it is an organ of perception composed of bio-intelligent
tissue that embodies our deepest urge for survival”
Where is the Psoas?
This long muscle originates from both sides of spine at the 12th thoracic vertebra and also from the 5 lumbar vertebrae. It spans laterally and then flows downwards through the abdomen, into the pelvis and ends where it attaches into the thigh bone. It is responsible for holding us upright and allows us to lift our legs in order to walk. A healthily functioning psoas stabilizes the spine and provides support through the trunk, forming a shelf for the vital organs of the abdomen.
It is the only muscle that connects the spine to the legs and to cross the body from back to front. During the first 6 months of life, it lies dormant and is awakened when the infant begins to sit and make the first movements towards crawling. It completes its development when a child begins to stand and eventually walk. It is now understood that developing in this order is of crucial importance to the healthy functioning of the psoas muscle.
The Muscle Of Emotions
These early movement patterns may also explain why this muscle is known to hold emotions; infancy being a time when we are developing our relationship to the world with either that of trust or fear. It is common in yoga when working with chronic psoas tension to experience emotional release together with muscular unwinding.
The psoas is the main muscle that responds to the sympathetic nervous system during the flight or fight response in the body. When startled or under mental or emotional stress, the psoas contracts and curls up, a little like a caterpillar poked by a stick.
Criticism from a friend, a close call in traffic, an ongoing disagreement with your partner, general anxiety—all of these elicit a contraction in the psoas muscle. This is felt like a tightening in the gut, a hunching of the shoulders and a collapsing in the chest and heart. These feelings if not expressed and thereby released, are held as a charge of energy by the nervous system inside the psoas muscle tissue.
If this tension becomes habitual, a chronic holding pattern is formed wreaking havoc on our posture, our circulation, our breath and even our digestion. Just consider for a moment how this muscle crosses three major joints — the hip socket, the joint between the lumbar spine and the sacrum, and the sacroiliac joint between the sacrum and the pelvis. It is no wonder there are many possible repercussions to excess tension held in this delicate place.
Tight psoas can be the cause of back pain, hip or groin pain, joint mobility issues, digestive problems, poor breathing habits and feelings of exhaustion.
The contraction of the psoas was originally designed as an intelligent response to a threat in order to protect our vital organs and to prepare us to run if need be. Today, however, the threats are often more psychological in nature and more frequent than the nervous system can process.
Working To Release The Psoas
Our yoga practice is a wonderful opportunity to make contact with this chronic tension and to gently unwind the inner holding patterns of the body.
The following sequence is aimed to help you gently make contact with this muscle and to gradually release tension. I recommend you go slow, take time to feel and honour the tension that is there without placing further stress by demanding its immediate release! If you feel the urge to cry, laugh, shout or scream, I recommend you let it out. Enjoy your body; trust in its intrinsic wisdom to restore balance.
Begin by performing a self-evaluation. Lie down on the floor with your legs out straight. Notice if you can feel the back of your thighs in contact with the floor. Check to see if you have an arch in your back. Your thoracic and lumbar area should be flush with the floor, with a small curve near the top of the sacrum. Those with a very tight psoas may feel an excessive lumbar curve and/or backs of thighs slightly lifted away from the floor.
Upper Psoas Release: 5 minutes
You will need a bolster and a yoga block for this exercise. The bolster should be firm, but comfortable enough that you can lie on it for a few minutes. Place the bolster along the spine, with the end of it placed near the bottom of your shoulder blades. Place your head on a yoga block or pillow to stop it from overextending. Don’t let your back arch. If your ribs are lifted, you are too high up on the bolster, shift down toward your feet until your ribs relax down. The back of the legs should be flat against the floor.
Relax here for at least five minutes, focusing on the breath and on letting go. After the release, perform another self-evaluation and notice how much contact your body has with the floor through the back and legs. You can do this several times a day if you notice you are especially tight.
Middle Psoas Release: 5 minutes
Lie down on your back with a yoga block horizontally placed under your sacrum. Make sure it is not above your waistband. Relax here for 5 minutes, allowing the back and pelvis to soften and relax.
Lower Psoas Release: 2 — 5 minutes
From the previous position, pull one knee into the body with the hands and extend the opposite leg with foot flexed out, lowering down towards the floor. Once it touches the floor, continue to reach away through the flexed heal to create traction in the hip joint. Breathe deeply, feeling the stretch throughout the groin area.
Constructive Rest with pillow: 5 — 20 minutes
This is an Alexander technique that helps to release excess tension from the whole body. You will need a bolster or a sofa cushion and a strap or scarf to tie your legs together. Begin by placing a sofa cushion or bolster between your legs and use a strap or scarf to gently tie your legs together so they don’t fall out to the side. Lie on your yoga mat with the knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Keep your heels in approximate line with your sitting bones, and about thirty to forty centimetres from your buttocks. Place something firm beneath your head such as a thin book or some magazines. The height of the head is individual, but if it is too high, the chin will feel too close to the chest and will not allow enough space in the front of the neck. If it is too low, the head will thrust back and inhibit the lengthening process. Try different heights to find one that allows for the least amount of tension in the entire neck. For most people, the height of the head support is somewhere between two and seven centimetres.
Keep your arms out and away from your torso (if you think of your arms as hands of a clock, they would be at 8 o’clock and 4 o’clock, not 9 and 3), bend your elbows to bring your palms to rest on the sides of your torso where your ribcage meets your abdomen. Make sure your hands are not touching one another, and that there is plenty of space between your ribcage and elbows.
Observe the breath as it flows in and out of the nose. Keep your eyes open during the entire session, from time to time noticing your environment. Scan yourself for any unnecessary tension that you might be holding on to. Observe any changes within yourself that might take place. Enjoy!
Be still and rest
If you can’t manage twenty minutes, then lie down for as much time as you have. Five minutes is much better than nothing. Remember that besides giving your self a rest, you are remaining aware of the sensations in the body and allowing the release to take place. Be patient and persistent, and your awareness, along with your ability to release excess muscular tension, will improve.