Psoas – how do you even say that? “So-ass”. Lying deep inside your abdomen, connecting your upper and lower body like no other muscle, most people have no awareness it’s even there. Even when it ‘goes wrong’, it usually manifests in other locations we are far more familiar with:
- Low back pain
- difficulty getting up stairs
- running up hills
- aching hips
- groin pain
- inability to extend the leg behind the body without arching the back (‘fixed flexion’)
Which is why I am seeing people increasingly often with the psoas as the root cause – they come in suffering, they think, from something else.
The Psoas’ Problem
Its name is seemingly as obscure as its location – attaching to the underside of your diaphragm and the sides of your lumbar spine, then tracking down through the pelvis, connecting with other muscles there and finally attaching to the inside of the front of your thigh bone.
Why does it get so affected? It has a unique role in the body, and has a lot of jobs to do: Stabilising the lower back, supporting the abdominal contents, initiating hip flexion (and your leg is the heaviest part of your body). With the general activities of our daily life unique in our natural history, our ancient bodies are starting to show the strain.
We sit, a lot. Our hips flexed at 90 degrees or less, the psoas is now in a shortened position. but it’s not resting – there’s a constant interplay of muscular activity working to keep you upright, and the psoas has a major part to play in that.
Often, a crossing of the legs or a snuggle on the sofa will further shorten the muscle temporarily – but how often do we go into these positions? And for how long? We curl up in bed, it stays short all night. Like any muscle that’s worked all day and shortened all night, it gets tight and stiff. This can pull on its upper attachments – the vertebrae of the lumbar spine – sometimes causing stiffness and aching there. Some have described it as a ‘dragging’ feeling, or that the back ‘just needs to click back into place’.
At the other end of the spectrum are runners. Runners who travel many miles… but struggle to lift their leg when they’ve done too many. Their quads are strong, their glutes are powerful, but their psoas might be struggling, and hip flexion just becomes too much.
Muscle of the Soul
When I originally started to research into this core stabiliser, I found various holistic websites calling it ‘the emotional muscle’ which I admit at the time made my sciency-focused mind scoff a little. We all accept that emotional tension can be held in our shoulders and neck – it’s clear for all to see. But for some reason we think it’s odd that tension could be held elsewhere your hands? “Fists of Rage!” Your feet? “It made my toes curl!” Your psoas…?
So what about when someone is about to whack us in the goolies? We bend our hip sharpish to physically protect ourselves and our internal organs. When someone breaks our heart? We curl up so tight in self-protection it can be stiff, even painful, once we are ready, to open our bodies tall again. The Taoists called it the ‘Muscle of the Soul’ and on reflection I can see why.
Not only does stress affect our minds, our body, in sympathy, will try to protect us too, by holding this tension, in preparation for Fight or Flight. Even the happiest of lifestyles sitting at a desk doing what you love can have an effect on the psoas (and your posture) as described above – imagine what emotional stress, fear of redundancy, problems at home, relationships, feeling rubbish, can add to this deepest of muscles. It also attaches to your diaphragm, in the words of every Yogi: literally ‘connecting to your breath’… but that’s for another blog another day.
With the regular studies showing back pain to be the major physical reason to be off work, it’s no longer news. But it is massively important to tackle, and the best person to start that is YOU. And it’s simple – keep moving, but this time with better awareness. Here’s a classic stretch to try, to see where your Psoas is at, and perhaps your soul too…
The psoas will feel a stretch in a basic deep lunge. It’s useful to do this stretch next to a sofa or steady chair so you can rest your hand on it if needs be. A stretch is supposed to be restful, but there is a tendency to wobble about – and consequently tense the muscles – in the early days before you get into it. Try to sink deeply forward into your hips until you aren’t holding yourself actively in the pose, and feel your inner thighs stretching too. Ensure you have padding for your knees! Take a little time, 2 or 3 times a day, to start feeling the benefits.
A key element of getting it right is to not arch your back too much. The lower spine has a natural curve to it, which is fine, but try to avoid a deep bend in your lower back as this may well aggravate any existing back pain. Rather, try to think of your back thigh and your spine as a continuous line. If this means that you are initially feeling like your upper body is leaning forward, that’s fine too, you should still feel a stretch in your hip. Try to take deep belly breaths throughout the stretch – that will contribute to the psoas’, and your, relaxation.
For the more bendy among us, this photo with a reach and side stretch will elongate the psoas further and open up the side of the back too.
Hold all stretches for at least 20 seconds. The more you tune into your stretching the more you’ll appreciate why this works: You will feel, after about this time, that suddenly the stretch becomes easier – usually as you breathe out. This has given the body time to release the contraction any new and elongated pose stimulates in the body as a precaution. The Psoas, like a cautious animal, often needs a gentle introduction to the new world of pain-free movement.