Originally Published in OMagine Magazine
Deep inside the core of the body, the psoas muscle (also called iliopsoas) is so embedded, the general population doesn’t even know it exists.
The psoas (pronounced so-as) is a large and complex part of our anatomy. It attaches at the mid-low back, travels underneath the organs of our belly and digestive system, and attaches at the upper inner thigh.
It’s the only muscle that connects our upper and lower body.
We use our psoas every time we walk, sit, stand, lift a leg, tilt the pelvis, and perform many other bodily functions. It cradles our abdominal organs, plays an important role in our pelvic and low back health, and is a key messenger of the central nervous system. Fundamentally, it has all kinds of structural, postural, and stress response significance. It’s activated every time we’re stressed–and releasing it greatly impacts our emotional state.
Overlooked in mainstream culture because it can’t be beefed up or slimmed down, this muscle is anything but superficial.
My first psoas instructor, Brenda Dowell, helped me identify, understand, and commit to taking time to release and pay attention to my psoas muscle. She encouraged me not to “work on it,” but instead to develop a relationship with my psoas. Her work led me to Liz Koch, the grandmother of psoas psychology. Eventually I combined my own background in movement with the new information I was learning from my new “relationship” with my own psoas.
My discoveries surprised me.
I learned that my psoas vibrates differently in the company of different people. I discovered it acts as an early warning system, tightening up before I enter an unsupportive situation. The first few times it did this I had no idea what was happening.
There’s a section on one of the paths in the woods where my psoas would suddenly begin to ache and hurt on one side. This had nothing to do with the terrain, and wasn’t happening on other, longer hikes. One week I used this particular hike to have regular phone meetings with my colleague. She helped me realize the point in our calls where the pain was reoccurring each day. On two occasions the sensation was so strong and foreign that I had to end the call. I tried reversing my course and approaching the area from a different direction in a different timing–my psoas reacted again.
Leaving that area of the path, the pain suddenly disappeared as though it hadn’t happened. The only thing I could consciously associate with that spot was briefly losing my dog there a year before. My pup was on a leash now, so I wasn’t worried about it at a conscious level–but was my subconscious remembering, and signaling my psoas? Did my psoas remember, even if I did not?
I don’t fully understand my reaction, but I don’t need to. What I do understand from this and other experiences is that my psoas was signaling me to pay attention.
There’s an old soul, multidimensional wisdom in the psoas that defies logic.
Even now as I’m writing this, bringing awareness to my psoas by sensing it and breathing into it, brings a feeling of supportive clarity, and peacefulness. I feel my eyes relax even though I’m on the computer. I feel my shoulders drop and my spine lengthen. Breathing into my leg or back muscles can feel good too, but it’s not the same.
The psoas is completely different from other muscles.
The psoas is the filet mignon of the body. According to Liz Koch, chefs and butchers say the psoas is wildly multi-directional, sophisticated, sensitive, and different in every animal. Liz Koch also calls it intelligent.
Because this muscle is so unique, it requires a unique approach to interacting with it.
When people discover their psoas and label it a “muscle,” they tend to want to control and manipulate it like they do other parts of the body. They treat it like a project that needs a project manager.
Your psoas is not a project–it’s a portal.
The psoas is a portal to the more subtle side of ourselves–the intuitive, instinctual subconscious, and unseen parts of who we are. There is nothing new about the core body speaking to us. Whether it’s butterflies in our stomach, the way trauma or stressful news makes our bellies tighten, or our “gut instinct,” we often equate the core with the deepest most sensitive part of us.
The psoas is the muscular foundation of that core.
The good news is that simply learning about the psoas begins to improve our relationship with it. Here are some simple ways to lengthen, relax, and enliven this overworked muscle:
1) Take a few minutes right now to breathe and track the energy from your mid-low back, underneath your belly-organs, and down into your upper inner thighs. Imagine your psoas is relaxed, supple, nourished, and vibrant.
2) Go barefoot as much as possible, or wear comfortable shoes with a flexible bed that bends in half. Avoid clogs or other shoes that cause you to grip the earth as you walk.
3) If you drive a lot and have a bucket seat in your vehicle, put a book or other flat object across the seat to avoid collapsing your spine. The two bony-bones at the base of your spine (your sitz bones) should connect firmly with whatever you are sitting on. My favorite is the 2" x 8" x 12" (5 cm x 20 cm x 30 cm) chip foam yoga block. It’s dense enough for good support but also comfortable.
4) Practice constructive rest pose as pictured below. Start with five minutes and if it feels comfortable, gradually build to longer periods. Listen to your body’s messages and sensations as you practice. Come out of the posture if you experience any pinching or sharpness.
Interacting with the psoas is all about setting aside time.
If you’re like me, and need to remind yourself to slow down, this can be easier said than done. Go easy on yourself. When you’re ready to nourish your psoas, it will forgive you for having a busy life!
I have a great respect for my psoas, and for other peoples’ too. The psoas-related courses that Brenda Dowell and I facilitate are some of the most intriguing work I’ve done in my 25–year career as a counselor.
Through the psoas portal, people have a wide range of experiences: everything from discovering hidden wells of joy and freedom and clearing ancient traumas, to new intuitive aspects of themselves emerging. They often experience a new freedom in their range of motion, and feel more space, greater strength, and less constriction in their core body. All this without doing one sit-up or crunch!
It’s a mysterious muscle indeed. I’m grateful to all my teachers who help me cultivate the presence to explore it–I count my psoas as one of those teachers.