July 22, 2020

Psoas self-care is beneficial for personally and/or culturally stressful times as these, to help you once again become your fully upright, inwardly strong, full-power self.

While many of you have heard of the psoas (pronounced: so’ as) by now–in yoga, gym, or Pilates classes–what and where it is often remains a mystery. The psoas is usually mentioned in connection with core strength, because it runs deep in our core, and has to do with stabilizing our spine, our uprightness, as well as bending forward, sideways, and lifting our leg at hip joint. As adults concerned about our health, we want this muscle strong, toned, and functioning well.

Yet, pertinent to these times, there’s an aspect of the psoas that you might not have heard of: the psoas’ nickname is “fight or flight muscle.” The psoas starts at the spine, level with the adrenal glands and diaphragm. As such, it’s very responsive to stress and emotions. It’s the muscle that will hold us upright and steady if we choose to fight, and it’s the muscle that initiates lifting that leg to leap into flight/running. Adjacent to the adrenal gland, the muscle acts on danger before our conscious brain tells it to. Remember all those stories of incredible feats during danger, and later on the person being interviewed says, “I didn’t think, I just acted, did what I had to do.” That’s the adrenal gland and psoas working as a team. Crucial during such events.

But ongoing stress takes a toll. During these pandemic and racial justice days our general stress levels have increased a notch or two, especially if we’ve had loved ones die, fall ill, or been killed or injured by police. Or if we follow the news. Or are unemployed still waiting for benefits. Or are teachers trying to sort out staying safe and dealing with mixed messages from government. Our adrenals and both psoases are working overtime. We’re chronically ready to take on the tigers.

In such times, trying to strengthen the psoas won’t work. The stressed and over-activated psoas is already contracted, shortened, tight, and/or exhausted. As such, even if it’s strong, it doesn’t function very well, and may seem to be weak. You may even feel a bit stooped at your waist or hips, and be wondering, “Why can’t I stand up straight?”

This psoas self-release technique is from Ortho-Bionomy®. The basic idea is to move with tension—feel which way the muscle is pulling and move with it. Creating “agreement” this way, we’re putting slack into the muscle. By definition then, the muscle is no longer tight. (I call this the “duh” factor.) With no more tension in the area, your innate self-corrective reflexes wake up, stimulating soft tissue to stop contracting and to actively lengthen. From there, range of motion increases, circulation increases, boney alignment may fine tune, and the entire body achieves better balance. All this happens gently and effortlessly. If the process hurts, it’s not Ortho-Bionomy®.

Knowing a little about the function and anatomy of the psoas will help you make sense of this self-release technique:
— As the only muscle that connects the spine and the leg, the psoas has everything to do with our being upright. Developmentally as babies and toddlers, the psoas gradually strengthens, and we grew able to sit up straight, crawl, stand up, and then walk. In movement, the psoas is involved with side-bending, bending forward at the waist, as well as bending our leg up at our hip joint (initiating walking) and/or bending forward at our hips while standing.

— There’s a psoas running along each side (left/right) of the spine, beginning at the last thoracic vertebra (12th rib attaches there too) and connecting to all 5 lumbar vertebrae below it. It grows wider as it goes down, and when it reaches your pelvis, it angles out as it goes under your guts, aiming for and crossing the hip joint. Then turns backwards a tiny bit to insert at the inside top of the leg at back of a small prominence, the lesser trochanter. So, from top to bottom it’s traversing back (sides of spine) to front (crossing hip joint) and diagonally from midline out toward the leg bone where it attaches.

— When the psoas is tight, it can collapse our spine at our waist, or the opposite, creating too much curve, bend us sideways a tad, turn our leg outward (like Charlie Chaplin) or hitch the hip upward, all depending on which part of the muscle is tight.

Credit: Wikipedia

Psoas Self-Release Technique:

Following Ortho-Bionomy® concepts, our goal is to passively shorten the psoas, so it can take a rest, a sigh of relief, and lengthen on its own. We’ll be sensing its diagonal line from the attachment on leg all the way up to our 12th thoracic vertebra.

You’ll need a “yoga strap” or 7-8’ of strong 1.5” webbing available at fabric stores. Rope may work too, but won’t be as comfortable. Likewise, 2 belts linked together. I find it easier to buckle the strap, turning it into a 40-46” loop, rather than holding loose ends, but your choice.

— Lie on the floor. Put the strap around the foot of the leg you want to work with, keeping tension through the strap, so it stays around your foot. With the strap taut enough to stay put, your hands should rest a few inches above your hip joint.

— Adjust the strap on your foot so it gives you the best angle for pulling. Depending on ankle, knee, and hip injuries, replacements, or other conditions, the location may vary. I find my right foot prefers the strap straddling the lower end of the arch near the heel. My left wants it even lower, just on the heel. You may want to try it higher up, too, at the ball of foot, or… Experiment with strap location as you do the following, so you feel what gives you the cleanest line of compression.

— Move the leg out away from other leg (abduction) and roll it out just a little (laterally).

— At this point, your leg is straight, and your foot is  pointing up toward the ceiling on a slight angle outwards.

— Pull the strap evenly toward the 12th thoracic, which is a few inches above your navel, all the while keeping your knee and hip joints straight. Keep in your mind’s eye the idea of compressing along the diagonal line of the psoas, so that it passively becomes softer/slack.

— Fine-tune your leg position, the strap’s location on your foot, the balance between left and right hands’ tensions, and/or your hands’ location to feel/sense the psoas coming into slack. And even if you can’t feel the muscle softening/coming into slack, you may notice you want to snug in your leg a little more, or you’ve just taken a bigger breath. And if neither of them, don’t worry. If you follow these instructions, you’ll probably feel some positive effect.

— Hold 10-20 seconds, waiting for signs of release: a big breath (beyond an initial one that signaled “relief”), your leg pushing back against the strap, lengthening in your abdomen, pelvis, or leg; pulsing, gurgles, etc. Then stop pulling the strap so it goes slack too. Let your leg lengthen and rest in place 5-10 seconds or longer.

— Repeat with your other leg.

Walk around and notice if anything has changed. Reports from students and clients include torso feeling longer or taller, pelvis tilting more anterior/neutral (i.e. easy curve in low back), legs point straighter when walking, standing up erect happens naturally, walking feels lighter and easier, more grounded, increased self-connection. Maybe you’ll even feel a bit less stressed.

If you’d like guidance on this psoas self-release technique, other self-care practices, or help with pain or an injury, please be in touch. Although I can’t meet with you for hands-on these days, you may be pleasantly surprised how helpful an online session can be!