Within our deepest core lie three long complex muscles that stretch along both sides of the spine, span laterally from the 12th thoracic vertebra (T12) to each of the 5 lumbar vertebra and flow down through the abdominal core, the pelvis, to attach to the top of the femur (thigh) bone. The ilio-psoas are muscles that are both vertical and diagonal: psoas major, psoas minor and the iliacus (a muscle sheath lining the inside of the pelvic basin). Where the psoas attaches at T12, is also where the trapezius muscle attaches and moves upward toward the skull, and where the diaphragm attaches. The diagonal aspect of the psoas acts as a 'shelf' for the internal organs and follows the urinary bladder connection to the kidneys. In this sense, it can be engaged muscularly or organically. This is also the same pathway that many suggest is the yogic energetic lock known as uddiyana banha.
What is interesting to me is the profound and direct effect these muscles have, not only on our physical alignment but also on our internal alignment; our emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. They are even referred to by Taoist healers as 'the muscles of the soul'.
The point where the upper psoas and diaphram meet at the solar plexus, is from a yogic perspective an area believed to be the centre for personal power, gut feeling, self-esteem and the power of self-transformation - the same area as the middle dan tian, and manipura chakra associated with the colour yellow. Physically the diaphragm sits just below our lungs assisting and regulating our breathing and our digestion. When we are under stress the diaphram contracts, our breath shortens and blood is sent from our digestive system into the muscles preparing us for our innate 'fight or flight' response.
Liz Koch, a psoas specialist, writes that “ If we constantly contract the psoas due to stress or tension, the muscle eventually begins to shorten leading to a host of painful conditions including low back pain, sacro-iliac pain, sciatica, disc problems, spondylolysis, scoliosis, hip degeneration, knee pain, menstruation pain, infertility, and digestive problems. A tight psoas not only creates structural problems, it constricts the organs, puts pressure on nerves, interferes with the movement of fluids, and impairs diaphragmatic breathing. The psoas is so intimately involved in such basic physical and emotional reaction, that a chronically tightened psoas continually signals to your body that you’re in danger, eventually exhausting the adrenal glands and depleting the immune system.”
Due to our modern-day fast-paced lifestyle (which runs on the adrenaline of the sympathetic nervous system) and because many of us are in a some form of seated position for the majority of the day bringing the hip joint into prolonged periods of flexion that shortens the psoas, both lifestyle choices/necessities signal to our brain that we are in some form of danger. Unfortunately for many of us this is difficult to avoid.
However, the great news is that if you are reading this you are most likely practicing yoga and therefore actively releasing the tension in the psoas everytime you practice! This can be as simple as deepening the breath or working through poses such as Pigeon or Lunge that specifically target a release in the psoas.
But if any of these symptoms sound familiar to you, then it might be interesting to try and first locate the psoas in your own body during your yoga practice. Try engaging the psoas in Downward dog split, Bridge or Warrior II. Instead of relying on the glutes or the quads see if you can engage the psoas by scooping the lower belly in and lifting from your core. It does take practice but that's what we do, we practice and as Iyengar put it: “The study of asana (poses) is not about mastering posture. It's about using posture to understand and transform yourself.”
So have fun, start with the breath, enjoy getting to know your body and as you come to understand yourself, watch how your life transforms!
If you have any questions please come and find me in class, I'm always happy to talk about our amazing body, and if I don't know something I'll find out! Also follow me on Facebook at Myrthe Aurora where I will share with you interesting reads and anything that inspires me.
Have a wonderful day standing on your own two feet with the muscles of the soul.
Liz Koch - The Psoas Book & Core Awareness