My last few blog posts have focused on the biomechanics of movement in the era of habitual chair-sitting and other modern-day recurring patterns. (Catch up with me if necessary: here, here and here). The psoas (/SO-AZ/) reared its head as one of the muscles chronically shortened by too much time spent in hip flexion. However, this mighty muscle is busy participating in many facets of our well-being, or lack thereof, and therefore warrants its own investigation. Yogis, kinesiologists, dancers, pilates practitioners, bodyworkers and trauma specialists all contribute a little something to the psoas’s mythological story. Regardless of which camp you belong to, there is no doubt that having a basic understanding of this muscle’s role in our lives is beneficial, as is knowing how to release it. Let’s take a closer look.
The psoas is the only muscle that connects our upper body to our lower body! Structurally, the psoas originates on the front of the lumbar vertebrae in the spine and runs diagonally through the pelvis area to attach to the inner part of the femur, or thigh bone. The psoas does not attach directly to the pelvis itself, but by way of the spine it affects pelvic alignment. In addition, the psoas shares a common insertion with the iliacus muscle (which covers the inside of the pelvis) and the muscles are so closely linked that some sources refer to the grouping as the “iliopsoas”. We have two of them, on one each side of our bodies.
The psoas forms a type of anatomical shelf that supports the organs and viscera. Embedded between its layers is the lumbar plexus, a bundle of nerves which innervates the abdominals, pelvic floor, deep hip rotators and thigh muscles. When the psoas can move freely, it supports healthy nerve activity in these vital areas.
FUNCTION (and dysfunction):
Functionally, the psoas is a very complex muscle and there is much debate and controversy surrounding it. The psoas is simply not as straight-forward as other muscles in the body. It assists in many different muscle actions. Many consider it primarily a hip flexor, but the most convincing recent arguments I have read state that while it assists in hip flexion, the main function of the psoas is to stabilize the hip joint. It can also flex or extend the spine, depending on the location of the lumbar vertebrae, the joint angle and the degree of curve in the spine. Since the psoas crosses multiple joints, it affects our movement in all three planes of motion. This single muscle has the ability to alter the orientation of the spine, pelvis, hip and knee – any combination of those or all of them at once! One of its most important jobs is stabilizing us as we transfer our weight from one leg to the other while walking. In terms of biomechanics, this is HUGE. When this muscle is not functioning optimally, the effects are felt throughout the body. Since it attaches to the lumbar vertebrae and affects the position of the pelvis, it is a major player in lower back health. A tight psoas generally produces an anterior pelvic tilt, lumbar lordosis and compression of the spine. A shortened trunk also leaves less space for organs and viscera to function properly (read: get ready for a little intestinal upset).
The psoas can become tight from too much sitting, but it can also be overworked. In pregnant women, for example, the sacroiliac joint (where the sacrum meets the pelvis in low back area) can become loosened. The ligaments become overstretched due to the weight of the baby and the pregnancy hormone, relaxin, which relaxes ligaments, muscles and joints in preparation for labor. When the ligaments stretch and become loose, they do not hold the sacroiliac joint together and it becomes more mobile. As this joint is not generally a mobility joint, the stability is then provided by the psoas muscle.
Our bodies are not generally symmetrical, particularly when it comes to dysfunction, so the psoas on one side can be tighter than the other. This can pull the spine toward one side, potentially causing one leg to be shorter than the other. In order to walk normally, the other leg may have to rotate slightly laterally and so on and so on ….many small biomechanical imbalances could result.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir
Aside from the strictly physical importance of the psoas, for many it also represents the deepest, most powerful energy center in the body. The nerve ganglia of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” response) reside in the anterior spine. According to Ida Rolf, creator of Rolfing, the largest locus of these sympathetic nerve ganglia form the solar plexus, which is sometimes referred to as our “abdominal brain”, seat of our “gut feelings”. Psoas expert Liz Koch considers this area to be the center of our personal power, and it is where the psoas originates. The psoas instinctively contracts in response to stressful stimuli (we essentially end up in a version of the fetal position, hunched over in a defensive posture). Due to the deep and close connection of the psoas to the sympathetic nervous system hub, it not only contracts in response to stress but in turn informs the neurological reaction to stress, effectively creating a self-perpetuating loop. The theory is that when the psoas is free to move, the energy in the body moves freely – when it is contracted, however, the energy is blocked. This leads to stored trauma. Renowned trauma expert David Berceli has shown that humans hold memories of traumatic events in the physical body as well as the brain. He points to the psoas in particular, again due to its close proximity and deep connection to the nervous system. For him, overwhelming stress is held in the body as memory and can manifest as physical symptoms; if the trauma is repeated or unresolved it can lead to illness.
Finally, no investigation of the psoas would be complete without just a brief mention of chakras. There is much in the psoas literature to suggest that it plays a pivotal role in the health of our lower energy centers. However, the topic of the chakras is beyond the scope of this post. For a deeper discussion of the role of the psoas in our energy systems and specifically chakras, please refer to the illuminating work of Barbara Brennan and Cyndi Dale.
It is evident that the psoas muscle plays a vital role in our physical and emotional well-being. Therefore, nurturing and learning how to release this muscle is key to keeping our bodies and minds at ease. Here is one simple release that appears in almost all of the psoas literature: the Constructive Rest Position. This release has been around for almost 100 years, credited to Mabel Todd and Lulu Sweigard.
CONSTRUCTIVE REST POSITION:
(from “The Vital Psoas Muscle” by Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones, a video of the author walking us through it here)
Begin lying on the back on a firm, flat surface. Bend the knees with feet flat on the floor, hip width apart. The head can be supported so that it is in line with the spine. Some prefer to keep the hips, knees and feet in line with each other; if this is hard to do and causes muscle tension, then let the knees rest against each other with the feet slightly wider and toes turned in. The femur will rest gently into the hip socket, releasing the grip on the hip flexors. The spine will follow its natural curves. Both arrangements free the psoas. Arms can be crossed at the elbows and lie across the chest; if this is uncomfortable they can lie on the floor. Gravity essentially does the work of the release, and the following mental imagery will intensify the process (you may need to have a partner read it to you as you relax):
Close your eyes and imagine a current of energy traveling down your spine, looping up between your legs, traveling up the front of the body and back down the spine again. Inhale as the energy flows downward; exhale as it moves up. Feel your head melting into the ground. Imagine your knees are draped over a hanger suspended from above, thighs hanging on one side, lower legs on the other. Next, picture a small waterfall trickling down your thigh, first from the knees into the hip sockets, and then down the skins to the ankles. Feel as if your eye, hips, and feet are relaxing in calm pools of water.
Repeat this imagery for at least 10 minutes. For this position to truly be effective, it requires focus and presence (no reading a book or using your iPhone, because you lose your intention). When getting out of the position, roll to one side and push the body up with the arms so as not to disturb the new alignment.
I personally like having my legs supported in order to feel my body fully relax, so I raise my legs on a chair or sofa. This position is wonderful for clients with low back pain, as prescribed by Luann Overmyer using the principles of Ortho-Bionomy. Everything else is the same as above, but it looks like this:
Releasing the psoas can ease physical tension, aid in better alignment, dislodge repressed emotions (I can attest to this) and provide some much needed time spent in a state of relaxation. If you are interested in reading more about the psoas, check out the two books referenced in the resources below… there is a lot to be said about this “hidden prankster”!
Staugaard-Jones, Jo Ann, “The Vital Psoas Muscle: Connecting Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being”, 2012
Koch, Liz, “The Psoas Book: Updated and Expanded Edition”, 1997
Muscolino, Joseph E., “Psoas Major Function: A Biomechanical Examination of the Psoas Major”, Massage Therapy Journal, Spring 2013
Trauma & The Psoas: An Interview with David Berceli, http://coreawareness.com/traumaandthepsoasconnection/
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