The Psoas: Key To Connected Movement

Saturday, April 23, 2016

This weekend, I had the privilege of attending a workshop by Liz Koch, author of “The Psoas Book” and all-around psoas expert extraordinaire. I first became aware of Liz’s work in the early 1990s as a student in the Laban/Bartenieff School of Movement Studies in New York City. I found the first edition of her book – which was really little more than a pamphlet – in a bookstore dedicated to dance and the movement arts.

I find the psoas a fascinating muscle that gets little respect. It is often overused (or poorly used) and subsequently becomes shortened, fatigued and disrupted in its job as a powerful postural “guide wire.” If it is not its proper length or in its proper resting place, it can exert a powerful effect on the diaphragm, the pelvic musculature and the condition of the lower back – not to mention its effect on how one holds himself upright against the force of gravity.

More fascinating is the psoas’ connection to emotion – especially fear. According to Ms. Koch’s research, the only fear we are born with is the fear of falling, all other fear is learned; yet the biological response of any kind of fear is the same – recoiling, contracting, and flexing.

Many, if not most, of our sports, exercise and dance activities encourage a contracted state of the psoas which, in turn, has the effect of destabilization of the lower back, a misplace pelvis and muscle imbalances between right/left side body, top/bottom body or front/back body. Additionally, as we mature from infant to adult, linear patterns evolve into patterns of spirals and diagonals that are often interrupted (via learned patterns) by a tight and constricted psoas. To effectively work with the psoas, though, requires that we relax the psoas before we attempt to stretch it.

   A very simple way to release the psoas is to lie on the floor with knees bent, arms comfortably at your sides or crossed over your chest and your head supported by a small, folded towel. You will feel the arch in the low back but make no attempt to “fix” this. Stay in this position for ten to twenty minutes breathing in a comfortable manner. When the time is up, you will find that the back has relaxed a little closer to the floor. Congratulations! You have relaxed the psoas’ attachment at the low back.

The most difficult thing about this practice, believe it or not, is that there is nothing to do except give into release and relaxation. For so many people, there is a need to fidget, to “add” to it by counting, changing their breathing pattern or mulling over their “to-do” list. Somehow, the act of doing nothing and letting go is not valid in our culture yet we know intuitively this is what we need. (It is a real head-scratcher for me that people won’t take the time to do this but will spend big cash to float in a water tank for ninety minutes – not that there is anything wrong with that but a daily practice of release is far more beneficial to the body than a monthly trip to float in a water tank).

Now, how to stretch and work the psoas? This is where a movement teacher can help you because – and this is where I sound like a broken record – a one-size application does not fit all. We all have different ways of moving and thus will require different approaches. This is a major reason why I do not like to pigeonhole myself as a “Pilates teacher” or a “Yoga teacher.” First, those labels are too easy to come by these days, and second, the foundation of those methods has been mostly lost due to the desire to do tricks. I see too many instructors turning them into the very exercise systems that they were originally designed notto be – and systems that serve to contract already-contracted or exhausted muscles like the psoas.

While I have clients who specifically want to work with Classical Pilates and Classical Yoga, they all get my “movement teacher” critical eye. As a movement teacher, it is my responsibility to help bring balance to their body and it may require some other types of work first.

There is a difference between doing what you want (which may exacerbate aches and pains brought about by a contracted, imbalanced psoas complex) and getting what you want (relief of back and hip pain for starters) by understanding the role of the psoas and then learning to release, relax, stretch and work it. Let me explain….

We often choose to do the things that are easiest for us and over time this tendency begins to rob us of our choices in how we move and the ability to reach our goals. I once worked with a woman who told me that she did an Intermediate Level Mat practice three times a week. When she showed me her mat work, she finished within five minutes. Five minutes! How did she do this, you ask? Answer: by removing all of the ones she didn’t like.

She didn’t like them because she struggled with them; yet they were exactly what she needed to do to reach her goals.  Her psoas was quite constricted which presented itself with an excessive lordotic curve and extended belly. Yet she was unwilling to work in such a way (i.e. challenging her ego) that would have given her exactly what she wanted.

Another client –male – wanted badly to have “six-pack” abs. Forget for a moment how ridiculous it is to use a six-pack as the marker of fitness and consider that the biggest obstacle to reaching his goals was his poor posture. When he sat, he was very “slouched” and could not find the muscles to correct this. When he stood, he had excessive lordosis. His low back was destabilized. Working for a six-pack requires excessive flexion but without balanced extensor muscles, and a lengthened and conditioned psoas), flexion exercises will exact a high price: a “bad” back, tight hips, and a misplaced pelvis that does not align itself with gravity.

To achieve these foundational necessities required him to work in a way that was uncomfortable to him, first because it was not a “pump and grunt” workout and second, because to work in a quieter way made him feel as if he was doing nothing – and doing nothing was a “waste” of time. He saw himself as an athlete (hey, there’s that ego thing again!) who needed to beat himself up to “get results.” Well, if “getting results” means continual back and neck pain, he’s well on his way.

To develop a fit psoas is going to require us to work in a way counter the usual fitness modes offered by health clubs and gyms but a fit psoas is so very important as a key structural support in the body. Without it, exercise is just a frenetic movement of arms and legs rather than overall, connected conditioning.