If you're into any kind of fitness you've probably heard this muscle's name batted around, it's become a bit of a trendy keyword in mobility, but for VERY good reason.
I had heard yoga teachers mention that we carry a lot of emotion in our hips, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. So during my yoga teacher training (I'm now offering online yoga classes for TMS if you'd like to find out more, click here), a fellow student and acupuncturist I buddied-up with on the course asked me about my back pain and where exactly it was. She already had a deep understanding of the mind-body connection having trained in Chinese medicine, so she knew exactly what was going on as I explained my back pain symptoms to her.
She led me to an article that explained why the psoas muscle was so important and why it might be the key to me understanding the relationship between my stress and the intense back pain I had been experiencing for so long.
The psoas is the 'deepest' muscle of the human body, it affects our structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning. We have two psoas muscles that run from our lumbar spine (low back) starting at our lowest rib, down through our hips and into the top of our thighs. They basically connect our backs to our legs and are responsible for lifting our legs, flexing the hips, side-bending, spine stability and standing up straight.
Our stressful lifestyles and suppressed emotional states run on the adrenaline of our sympathetic nervous system. When our nervous system is in this state it triggers our fight or flight response (read more about why this happens here) - which in turn activates the psoas muscles - as it is the psoas' job to jump into action to curl your bodies up into a ball and freeze, flee away in fear or fight to the death. So the correlation between a body that is in a constant state of stress that has exhausted overactive shortened psoas muscles it pretty easy to understand.
This was a MAJOR lightbulb moment for me, I love a good anatomy geek-off and I could now see an obvious valid reason why back pain (and other stuff - read on) was such a common area for chronic pain suffering. This showed me a clear connection between my emotional state and my physical wellbeing. On my worst days, I couldn’t stand up straight - this now made total sense as a tightened psoas pulls your pelvis into an anterior tilt and your torso bends forwards to accommodate the shorter muscle. As my anxiety flared, so did my psoas, so constantly contracted that I could literally feel the muscle through my skin, hard like a rock - a clear sign of an overstressed mind causing a spasming over-stressed and shortened psoas. It still annoys the life out of me to this day that I saw so many Physiotherapists and Chiropractors over and over with this clear issue, and none of them knew about the relevance…anyway...there’s more.
Most of the large nerves that come out of our lumbar spine have to run through the psoas muscle, these nerves are connected to our internal organs, pelvic organs (oh hi there pelvic pain!) and many of the major nerves going to our legs (welcome to club sciatica!) If there is persistent tension in this area then these nerves become compressed as they travel through the constricted psoas muscles. So again, it’s pretty clear that a mind that is in constant flight-or-flight mode would trigger a chronically stressed psoas, causing anything from back pain, leg pain, hip pain, bladder pain, nerve pain, pelvic pain, and even respiratory/digestive/reproductive issues.
As the lumbar nerves and blood vessels pass through and around the psoas, the tightness in the psoas can not only constrict blood flow and nerve impulses to the tissues, organs and legs but it can also shorten your torso decreasing the space for your internal organs. This affects food absorption and elimination so it can contribute to many different digestive problems such as constipation, and from what I’ve read, even contribute to sexual dysfunction, infertility and intense menstrual cramps as it puts added pressure in your reproductive organs!
The psoas muscle is connected to our diaphragm muscle at the bottom of our ribcage through connective tissue which affects both our breath and fear reflex. The diaphragm is in charge of deep 'belly breathing' it basically pulls air in and pushes air out of the lungs. A constriction here can make your ribcage thrust out of its natural position causing you to overuse your upper chest instead, resulting in very shallow restricted breathing which limits your amount of fresh oxygen intake and encourages over usage of your neck muscles (hi neck pain!).
You’ve probably experienced this before when feeling anxious, your breathing seems to only stay in the very upper part of your chest, it can feel difficult to get enough air - whilst the rest of your lungs, neck and even shoulders feel small compressed and tight.
Your psoas muscles also create a sort of muscular shelf that your kidneys and adrenals rest upon. As you breathe deeply into your belly your diaphragm moves up and down and in turn, your psoas muscles gently massage these organs, stimulating blood circulation. But, when the psoas muscles become imbalanced, so do your kidneys and adrenal glands, causing physical and emotional exhaustion.
From what I’ve learned in yoga anatomy lectures, the psoas muscle is like our body’s second brain, another emotional centre. This is where old emotions can be stored and if we can properly relax them, they can lead to big outbursts of emotional release. I’ve seen this first-hand in a yoga class and find it really fascinating. At first, when I saw it happening I thought 'damn that stretch must have really hurt, she's crying'...but no! According to psoas expert Liz Koch, the psoas is known as the 'muscle of the soul' and is far more than a core stabilising muscle; it is an organ of perception, composed of bio-intelligent tissue and “literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.”
By now you can probably see how this realisation and research COMPLETELY BLEW MY MIND. Watch out for it in your own body, when you're anxious - how does your lower back feel, the front of your hips, your chest cavity when you’re stressed and flaring. What about your neck and shoulders, tummy and pelvic region? This awareness was key to me understanding what was going on in my body and how it related to my emotional state...and applying scientific anatomical theory to what was a puzzling maze has helped me better understand our nervous system's role in our emotional health.
Paradoxically, and contrary to what MANY physiotherapists, chiropractors and even yogis may teach, I wouldn't necessarily recommend targeting this muscle with deep stretching or overdue focus and attention. As we know, in TMS, when we give our symptoms too much attention, the neuropathways in our brains actually strengthen, and we perceive those problematic areas as being a scary threat, our symptoms may flare even further.
First, try focusing on softening the mind and the body will follow... The yoga I teach is not a substitute for the emotional work at all, which is important to note!
I know this was long, but I felt it was very important stuff. I hope you learnt something new! To find out more about how to relax the nervous system and release this type of tension in your body with ONLY emotional work, check out my Recovery Journey Roadmap.
You can also watch a video interview about my recovery here. Reach out with any questions you have and follow me on Facebook or Instagram for more resources and updates on everything chronic recovery.
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