The psoas muscle was a main focus throughout my modern dance training. It was one of those buzz muscles that teachers often mentioned in New York classes. Lengthen the psoas, release the psoas, strengthen the psoas, all to allow maximum flow and ease in movement. We’d do exercises to understand the relationship between this crucial muscle and movement of the hips, legs, pelvis. If you have a weak psoas muscle modern dance is most challenging. You need the muscle to be all of the above, strong, lengthened and most of all relaxed to move fluidly, freely and with utmost ease.
This is also the case for something as simple as walking. Having a psoas muscle functioning at its absolute best not only benefits a dancer, it’s crucial for runners, cyclists, athletes of all kinds. Understanding the importance of this muscle and a few simple exercises could dramatically change the performance of ones chosen sport or even something as simple as walking.
What and where exactly is the psoas?
The psoas is a rope-like muscle located deep in the belly, which runs obliquely from spine to the femur. The psoas is joined at the hip by the iliacus which travels from hip to thigh. Together the psoas and iliacus make up the iliopsoas, the body’s most powerful hip flexor.
Sitting for long periods of time shortens the psoas and unfortunately the muscle’s own intelligence remembers this state perpetually, until something is done about it.
A shortened psoas can cause severe problems such as lordosis (I know this one) knee pain (and I know this one), hip pain and tight quadriceps and can effect all the muscles surrounded by it, including the it-band which will cause further problems to the knee joint, hip and pelvis. It can also causes lordosis, the anterior pelvic tilt and hunching. They are some of the physical problems which are really only the surface problem.
Why is the psoas known as the fight or flight muscle?.
This muscle has become known as the ‘fight or flight muscle’ because of how it is deeply effected by emotions sometimes causing very problematic outcomes. When the body is under stress, anxiety or trauma the psoas muscle contracts. It’s immediate reaction is to pull in, shorten, tighten, all because of the very primal and basic instinct to protect. The more we look into body-mind connection the more understanding modern day medicine can see the relationship between storing emotional memories and physical pain.
While the ancient mystics, Sages, Buddhists, Suffis and alternative medicine practitioners have known this for thousands of years, we are only now beginning to understand that we store pain in our body. The physical body in fact is a much more complex and intelligent computer to hold this information than the mind with so many layers of muscles, tissues, cells, each of these holding it’s own karmic imprint or pain DNA.
What’s more interesting is popular psychology has confirmed that re-living the past, re-talking it and expressing it through therapy is not always the most efficient, practical or appropriate way to deal with stored issues and negative emotions. Today’s psychologists seem to be finally catching up with what Buddhists have been practicing for years. When you have an uncomfortable thought, memory or moment in the present, feel it in your body i.e feel the area in your body that is mostly reacting to this thought, become aware of the sensation, allow that feeling to rise to the fullest and watch it slowly dissipate. Become aware of the reaction to that in the entire body. Mostly there is a sense of relief, release and relaxation. I am not suggesting that this method is suitable for everyone, it’s not. Some people really benefit from the more clinical and traditional styles of psychotherapy. I am encouraging this as an alternative approach to releasing tensions, something to practice to observe and see what happens.
For example often when we are in trauma, the stomach will begin to contract at a rapid speed. The immediate reaction is to make it stop or react to it. What if we fully feel that contraction and allow it to happen? If it is pushed away that moves the emotional pain from the surface and deeper to the core where it may cause more harm such as turning into illness, anger or even depression.
To move as freely as dancer both in motion and metaphorical, the psoas needs to function at its utmost best. Keeping the psoas muscle strong, lengthened and soft is one way to begin to pay attention to it. The more body awareness we have the more in tune we can become of sensing reactions in our bodies. If we really get that, really understand it and embody that practice, we have the opportunity to let go in each and every moment.