Remember a morning when curling up into a ball and pulling the covers over your head seemed the only reasonable response to the upcoming day? Contraction into the fetal position may seem like one of the less debilitating responses to stress, but it’s rarely an option—at least not one with a satisfactory result.
Nevertheless, part of the stress response hardwired into our nervous system is the contraction of the major flexors of the torso—somewhat like the response of a caterpillar if you poke it with a twig. A verbal jab from a co-worker, the close call on the freeway, a long-standing argument with your spouse, free-floating anxiety—all of these elicit a contraction in the flexors. This is the tightening in the gut, the hunching of the shoulders, the sinking of the heart. As with all responses to stress, the problem is that the response becomes habitual, resulting in chronic tension and contraction, which we then experience as our “normal” state. Our yoga practice is an opportunity to undo this chronic tension, and establish a deep and abiding sense of harmony in the body and mind.
Tension in the Psoas
The psoas (so-as), an important flexor with an exotic name, is particularly sensitive to emotional states. It runs from the thigh bone through the length of the belly and is the major flexor of the hip—it’s the psoas that lifts the thigh as you walk. It also acts in conjunction with the spinal muscles to support the lumbar spine. The psoas is a paired muscle, originating on the lowest thoracic vertebra and each of the five lumbar vertebrae of the lower back, and extending down through the pelvis to attach on the inside of the upper femur. It crosses three major joints—the hip socket, the joint between the lumbar spine and the sacrum (L5-S1), and the sacroiliac joint (SI joint between the sacrum and the pelvis). So it’s easy to see that if the psoas is not healthy and strong, there are major repercussions throughout the body.
With a healthy psoas the weight is borne through the bones, and walking is initiated at the solar plexus instead of the knee or hip joint.
Chronic contraction of the psoas, whether from stress or repetitive activity, limits range of movement in the hip sockets, with the frequent result of strain in the lumbar spine and the knees. When tension in the psoas is asymmetrical, that is, one side is more contracted than the other, the resulting tilt of the pelvis effectively shortens one leg relative to the other, and causes compensation up the spine into the neck as the head tries to stay level. Tension also shortens the trunk and reduces room for the viscera, so the organs don’t work as efficiently. On top of that, when the pelvis, spine, and legs are misaligned, the weight of the torso is no longer carried easily through the bones, stability is compromised, and the psoas ends up trying to stabilize the pelvis rather than moving freely in its hip-flexing function. With a healthy psoas the weight is borne through the bones, and walking is initiated at the solar plexus instead of the knee or hip joint.
Through its attachments to the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the psoas affects a number of other important muscles, including the diaphragm, the trapezius, and the quadratus lumborum, which also attach on these vertebrae. Through these muscles, tension in the psoas has the potential to seriously compromise structural integrity and physiological functioning throughout the upper torso as well as the pelvis and abdomen. If the upper segment of the psoas is tight and constricted, the lumbar spine hyperextends, the chest collapses, the lower ribs thrust forward, and breathing patterns are affected. Many problems in stability and alignment in asanas, lower back discomfort or injury, integration between the pelvis and the chest, meditation sitting postures, and dysfunctional breathing patterns are directly related to tension in the psoas.
Hopefully by now you’re realizing that strengthening and/or stretching alone may not result in a healthy psoas. Repetitions of leglifts, sit-ups, weightlifting, even standing postures, when done mechanically, may only reinforce existing patterns and do little to restore a healthy resting length for the psoas. In fact, improper training may increase the tension, restricting blood flow and increasing rather than reducing the overall stress level. For that reason the systematic relaxation practice—and I do mean practice, regular daily practice whether you think you need it or not—can help with alignment, physiological functioning, and the host of evils we have touched on in the preceding discussion. A few simple stretches done with the intention to gently release the grip of these flexors and open up the breath will go a long way to restoring balance and comfort to all your postures.
Systematic Relaxation in Corpse Pose
For psoas problems, modify the basic corpse pose relaxation to encourage relaxation of the psoas itself as well as to induce an overall state of deep stillness and calm. If the psoas is shortened, it will tug on the lumbar spine when you lie flat, arching the back off the floor and straining the lower back. You can take the pull off the lumbar spine by supporting the back of the knees so the weight of the legs doesn’t pull on the spine. Roll a blanket or use a bolster under the knees to support the thighs and release the tug on the spine. Another option is to bend the knees, place the feet on the floor to the outside of the pelvis, and rest the knees against each other.
In both cases the angle between the thighbone and the lumbar spine is lessened, allowing the lumbar spine, sacrum, and pelvis to drop into the floor, and freeing the breath. Support the back of the neck and head and let the whole body rest on the floor. Make sure you’re warm (cover up if necessary) and arrange to be uninterrupted for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
Close your eyes, still the body, and turn your awareness to the breath. Allow the breath to flow effortlessly, smoothly, and evenly. Then move your awareness systematically through the body, starting from the head and moving to the feet and back up again.
Lie on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet on the floor near the pelvis. Then bring your attention to the back of the pelvis and settle deeply into the floor. Now draw one knee toward your torso with your hands. Breathe into your hip joint, and keep the pelvis stable. Soften the back of the pelvis into the floor.
Then slowly stretch the opposite leg out, sliding the foot out, extending the knee, but keeping the pelvis right where it is. Don’t allow the lower back to arch any further from the floor. By stabilizing the pelvis, extending the leg will lengthen the psoas. If you allow the pelvis to tilt, the psoas doesn’t lengthen or release, but pulls the lumbar spine forward, arching the lower back. Keep the pelvis in place by drawing the bent leg toward the abdomen.
Reduce overall tension levels; soften your face, jaw, eyes, root of the tongue, shoulders, upper back, belly, pelvic floor, and hip joints. Then focus on your breath—notice the breath dropping deeper into the body and becoming slow and smooth as internal tension releases. Stay for at least 2 to 3 minutes. Then release the bent leg to the floor and switch sides, repeating the pose on the other side.
Like the wind-relieving pose, this pose fixes one leg to stabilize the pelvis as you lengthen the psoas on the other side by stretching the leg. This is a more active and aggressive stretch than the wind-reliever. There are many variations on this pose. Try the variations here, but choose others if they are too hard, and work for a feeling of softening and release.
Start on your hands and knees. Step your foot up between the hands so your knee is directly over your ankle, and the thigh and shin are at right angles. Turn your back toes under and slide your back knee back to draw the thigh out of the pelvis. Then turn the top of the foot to the floor and lengthen the whole leg out of the pelvis.
Soften the front of the leg across the hip joint and all the way up the inner belly, dropping your sit bones and tailbone toward the floor. Breathe into the pelvic floor between the tailbone and the pubic bone.
Now turn the back toes under again and press the heel toward the wall behind you, straightening the knee off the floor, but without lifting the pelvis even an inch higher than it was with the knee down. Feel the thighbone surrounded by a supportive sheath of muscle, which gently draws it out of the pelvis.
To stabilize the pelvis, move the sacrum down and forward between the legs and press the front foot strongly into the floor. The whole spine stays long. Soften your face, jaw, eyes, and lengthen the back of the neck. Press the crown of the head forward as you draw the heel back so the body lengthens on the front side as well as the back side.
Hold for a comfortable length of time, continuing to deepen your awareness. Then bend the knee to the floor, flatten the top of the foot on the floor, and move the sacrum a little further forward.
To release the upper part of the psoas, engage the abdominal muscles to stack the torso over the pelvis, and press your hands onto the thighs as you draw the shoulders down away from the ears. Reach the sit bones down toward the floor and keep the lumbar spine long.
Then inhale and stretch the arms to the front and up alongside the face, without changing the orientation of the pelvis or spine. Stretch the arms out of the solar plexus and the belly. Take the sternum up and back, the pelvis down, and elongate the abdomen. Exhale the arms down. Repeat 3 to 4 times, holding for four breaths on the last repetition.
Finally, bring the hands back down alongside the foot. Shift your pelvis side to side, exploring your range of movement in any way that feels good. Then step your foot back and sit back on your heels in child’s pose, breathing into the belly and hip joints for a minute or two. Then repeat the whole sequence on the other side.
One Last Suggestion
In all your cross-legged sitting postures, the hip sockets must be higher than the knee joint, even if only a fraction of an inch. Otherwise the psoas, along with the iliacus, which inserts with a common tendon on the femur, works too hard to keep the lumbar spine from collapsing as you sit up straight. That means you need to prop the base of the torso so the weight of the femurs falls away from the pelvis. Keep the joints open, the inner thighs and lower belly receptive, and your posture effortlessly upright and alert. Then the nervous system can find the state of deep relaxation and simultaneous alertness that characterizes inner stability in body, breath, and mind.