The Psoas Muscle
"Deep within our physical body emerges a bio-intelligent tissue called the Psoas. This mysterious tissue is defined within the biomechanics paradigm as a core stabilizing muscle, yet the Psoas, like the tongue, is more of an organ of perception than it is an anatomical or functional muscle. It is the filet mignon of the human body – juicy, delicate, tender and very responsive." - Liz Koch
About the psoas:
The psoas (pronounced 'so-az') is a deep muscle spanning from the middle of the spine (T12) all the way down to the low back (L5) and around through the pelvis and hips connecting to the femur bones (upper inner thigh bones). So it's shaped like an upside-down "V" or cone and moves all the way from our mid spine to the legs, through the root, sacral and solar plexus chakras.
The psoas is the only muscle directly connecting the upper body to the lower body. When we are seated, the psoas is contracted, when we're standing it's stretched long and when we're walking, it is lifting the legs toward the trunk. Because it supports the spine and so many different types of movement, it is in near constant use. The psoas can be the source or bearer of much tension, injury or emotional trauma throughout what we experience as the 'hips' and the 'low back.'
Mindfully unclenching the psoas can only happen in a few ways. A massage therapist or chiropractor can release the muscle manually (by pushing down through the abdominal muscles toward the hip), we can stretch various parts of the psoas to help to alleviate tightness, and there are a few specific postures that along with deep awareness can offer a subtle release.
Once the muscle is allowed to unclench, we may experience everything from a different walking gait, to looseness in the hips and lowback, better digestion, emotional ease and improved posture.
Connection to our nervous system:
In utero, the psoas is the very first muscle structure to develop, at the very same time as our reptilian brain. Both are connected to our most primitive, survival instincts (the 'fight or flight' response). Because of it's upper-most attachment, the psoas has a very close relationship to the adrenal glands, so when we experience sudden stress, the psoas clenches, preparing the spine for movement (running away from danger) or for lock down (freezing or playing dead).
That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you experience fear or shock is the psoas contracting.
Though we do need these subconscious instincts for survival, the way we live now (mindlessly) is exhausting our psoas and our sympathetic nervous system.
Over time, this has a detrimental effects on our physical well-being. The overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system prevents proper blood flow to our vital digestive and reproductive organs, and the stress response is keeping us in a mental state of nervousness, inducing anxiety, exhausting our adrenal glands and depleting our immune system and a host of other mental disorders. - FLY Yoga School
Connection to our emotions:
The psoas holds and filters many different types of emotions and experiences. Especially trauma and those dealing with survival, but also pleasure, pain, trust, worry, stagnation and self-confidence. Any type of emotional trauma or chronic stress can lead to an exhausted, weak and contracted psoas muscle and therefore, stuck emotions.
Energetically speaking, in the yoga perspective, the psoas holds all of our samskaras (habits, patterns and addictions) as well as our dharma (soul's purpose). When balanced, the psoas is a supportive muscle that helps us to digest our experiences and be open toward living our most fulfilled life.
How to release the psoas:
There are various ways to stretch and soften the psoas muscle, but this passive release is one that I've found most useful. You'll need a bench, chair or table to prop the legs. When looking for the perfect height, you can measure your femur bone (knee crease to back of the hip) and use that as a reference point.
- Locate your firm surface (chair, bench or a table rather than a soft couch)
- Lie flat on a hard surface. If you need minimal cushioning, be sure to add it along the entire length of the spine so that you are level.
- Place the legs hip width apart on the support at a right angle with the knees over the hips. The goal is to create a perfect right angle with the legs and feel supported from the backs of the knees. Though your whole spine and tailbone are connected to the ground, you want to almost or subtly feel as if you're hanging from the creases of your knees.
- While in the position, breathe naturally, focus all of your attention on intentionally unclenching the hip creases and allow yourself to experience whatever comes. For your very first psoas release, try to remain in the position for 45 minutes to an hour. For maintenance, release for 20 minutes monthly or weekly during stressful times.
Releasing the psoas can be a very powerful experience. To finally unclench such a large area of the body will release all of the emotions and patterns that go along with it. Many people experience memories, colors, smells or emotions while in the psoas release. Whether you experience much or little, allow yourself to feel the many physical and emotional benefits if the psoas release with a willing heart.
If you'd like to go deeper with some guidance, please enjoy this 20 minute guided meditation while you're in the psoas release position.
Following your psoas release:
Please note that even if you don't feel any physical sensation during the psoas release, you may experience weakness or mild soreness the next day, in your lower back, inner or outer thighs. This is common and a natural process of energy and muscles shifting. Either way, it's a great idea to take it easy following a deep psoas release. Listen to your body and practice again before it tightens up.