Not so long ago, I had a job that I hated. I hated that job so hard that I had fantasies about being doored by parking cars as I biked to work. I sat at a desk all day, staring at my computer, reacting to demanding emails, or rather not reacting, because I was so worried about how to react. I was young and felt as though I were drowning in work. In reaction to the stress, I began to pull my stomach in tightly collapsing my belly into my organs for 10 hours a day as I sat there in my own hell. My breathing was shallow, my neck was sore, shoulders hunched forward. My insides felt as though they were congealing into a massive ball of tension and my spine curved protectively around it— I was becoming a human stress ball.
I didn’t get doored on my way to work, but eventually I quit that job. It took a long time to get the nerve to leave and when I did, I had developed some very bad physical habits around stress.
Several months later in my Pilates mat class at the neighborhood YMCA, we did an intense psoas stretch— I had no idea what the psoas was and I probably didn’t care at that time. I was still trying to figure things out after leaving my job and piecing together an income teaching French, working at the Macy’s make-up counter and so on. Despite all the chaos in my life at the time, I still remember this class and the stretch. After, I felt as though someone had just shaken me to my emotional core. I wanted to leave the room and go sob about nothing... and everything at once. Images from my past job, my anger around it, and a load of other things flashed before my eyes. Hello, psoas! That was the first time we officially became acquainted. But I still didn’t really understand this emotional trigger that could make my hips feel loose and amazing, and pull up memories of shitty previous jobs.
So what’s the story with this muscle?
Turns out the psoas is an incredibly unique muscle. It’s the only muscle that connects the spine to the femur bones. Superficially, the psoas originates at the 12th thoracic vertebrae body and the disks between vertebrae, it continues down the lumbar spine, passing over the ilium and inserting into the lesser trochanter on the inside of the femur bone. Pulling on the psoas from this origin point creates flexion of the spine, drawing it toward the pelvis. This occurs because the origins and pull are coming from the front of the vertabrae’s center of rotation. More deeply, the psoas has origins at the transverse processes of the spine. Pulling the psoas from this origin point creates extension because the pull comes from behind the vertebrae’s center of rotation. The two muscles are antagonists and work together to increase compression of the vertebra, stabilizing the spine, in addition to flexion of the pelvis and femurs. The psoas allows us to lift our legs toward our pelvis; and also enables us to bend forward at the waist bringing our pelvis toward the legs.
A short, tight psoas can lead to low back pain, sacro-iliac pain, sciatica, and a host of other issues. It also constricts organs and breath. And releasing the psoas often brings up old emotions that were stored deep in the tissues.
The diaphragm controls breath, and is a reactive emotional center. The psoas is attached to the diaphragm through fascia and the medial arcuate ligament. With each breathe, psoas and diaphragm work together to provide anterior spinal stability. The diaphragm and hence the psoas, react to fear and to stress with constriction. When in “fight or flight” mode breath is short and sharp, and so becomes the psoas muscle. Beyond the diaphragmatic connection, the psoas also links us to the primitive brain, or the brainstem and spinal cord with its origins in the spine. It’s easy to see how the psoas is such an emotional powerhouse with links to both breath and the deepest layers of the brain.
Liz Koch, renowned bodyworker and author, who has devoted much of her professional practice to educating on the psoas writes, “The psoas is a messenger of the core…. Coalescing the central nervous system with enteric (gut) brain, the psoas literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.... Illuminating an energetic resonance, our psoas is truly a dedicated support system for being a coherent human organism.”
She further elaborates on the effects of a tight psoas on the body. “The psoas is so intimately involved in such basic physical and emotional reactions, that a chronically tightened psoas continually signals your body that you’re in danger, eventually exhausting the adrenal glands and depleting the immune system.”
Coming across this quote resonated for me. I could finally make sense of what was going on in my body that made my hip flexors feel tight and contracted, and my stomach a knot of insecurity. My short, tight psoas was the sensation I had labeled, “a ball of stress in my belly” years ago. More importantly, my immune system was weak, I was exhausting my adrenals, physically and emotionally I was a mess. I had stopped eating regularly, my thoughts were erratic and my breathing shallow. Despite all these obvious signs that something was wrong, it took almost 8 years to discover my psoas and release some of the fear and emotion surrounding that time in my life.
Curious? If you haven’t before, try activating your own psoas. The first step toward a relaxed psoas is energetic awareness. Standing on two feet, I lift one leg at the hip joint, knee bent. As I lift the leg, I find the upward flow of energy, inside the inner thigh all the way to the back of the spine spine and as I lower it down, I focus on the deep cascading feeling from my spine to my inner thigh.
It’s also super relaxing to practice releasing the psoas lying on your back. Feet are planted flat near the bum, knees are bent, knee caps looking to the sky. Bring the right leg into a chair position moving from the hip joint. Pelvis is quiet. Reach the leg out, keeping a slight bend in the knee and slowly lower it down to the floor. Keep your right hand on your right pelvis and feel the psoas lengthen out as you bring the leg to the floor. Now glide the heel along the floor and lift up to your starting position. Repeat 3x. Stop let both legs go long on the floor and notice the difference. Now, try on the left side.
For further reading on the psoas, see Liz Koch’s website, Core Awareness
Former dancer and movement educator and founder of the Franklin Method, Eric Franklin also has a beautiful video series on the psoas full of release techniques.