Where Are the Psoas Muscles? (Pronounced “so-as”)
These deep set muscles are said to be the strongest in the body. The psoai (plural of psoas) are the only muscles which attach the upper and lower half of the body. The psoas muscles connect the throracic spine and the lumbar spine, then run through the pelvis to the femurs. The psoai are often referred to as the hip flexors.
What Do the Psoas Muscles Do?
Psoas muscles not only affect us physically in our spinal and leg movements, they support our balance, forward and backward bending and walking. The psoas responds to our emotions and thoughts too. The psoas is responsive to our fight flight and freeze responses. The psoas muscles are the first muscles to respond when we are alerted to a potentially dangerous situation. Our psoas muscles are also connected to our diaphragm via the fascia so have an affect on the way we breathe. The psoas has a relationship with our digestion too.
Emotionally, the psoas is linked to our ability to relax. It is believed that, the psoas muscles when healthy and relaxed, facilitate feelings of wellbeing and safety throughout the body.
Psoas Muscle Anatomy
The psoas muscles comprise psoas major and minor and also the iliacus (technically becoming the iliopsoas). Interesting fact - approximately 60% of the population are either missing one psoas minor or do not have a psoas minor at all. The psoas minor is believed to be changing through evolution to become a tendon.
How does Imbalance in the Psoas Affect Us?
Although the psoai are not actually attached to the pelvis, they can be responsible for pelvic misalignment due to differing lengths. Differences in lengths can lead to shifts, tilts or twists in the pelvis, sacroiliac (and in fact anywhere through the length of the spine). Due to the sheer strength of the psoas, any negative affect on the spine is likely to be significant and uncomfortable. Imbalances or tension in the psoas can make sitting still or relaxing quite uncomfortable. This can lead to inability to concentrate, irritability, difficulty sleep issues, digestive problems and negative emotions. Our posture and mobility is affected by the tone of our psoas muscles.
Can Exercise Aggravate the Psoas?
Our psoas muscles can become tight due to long periods of sitting, lying on one side in bed and general inactivity. However, poor choice of exercise can create problems. If for example, we do not vary our exercise but focus on just a few muscle groups eg only cycling, walking or running, the repetition can lead to the strengthening/overworking of the psoas, so creating an imbalance through muscle domination. It is possible the psoas becomes permanently contracted/shortened - so risking back problems as the psoas inflicts a pulling action on the spine.
When we sit or lie on our sides for long periods with flexed hips our psoas relaxes, during which time, it shortens. The more we adopt the posture, the more our body takes on the habit with muscles and connective tissues adapting to this “new normal”
Usually, when we feel tightness in our body, it is due to the connective tissue (myofascia) stiffness. During an episode of stress response however, the psoas muscle itself actually tightens. The more stress our body experiences, the more the risk of longer term impact. Psoas tension can be related to past trauma. Thankfully, in yoga the psoas is stretched during our practice, offering up possible release which may be felt in the region of the psoai or even somewhere else in the body.
How is the Psoas Linked with the Nervous System?
Most of the time we are unaware of the status of our nervous system - it functions in the back- ground seamlessly monitoring safety, responding to signs of danger and regulating after any incident.
Our body functions best when our nervous system in is the parasympathetic state ie the relaxation, rest and digest state when energy reserves can be directed to the healthy functioning of our digestion and musculature.
Our clever psoas muscles are the first to react when the sympathetic nervous system is triggered at moments of perceived danger. The psoas contracts, preparing for fight or flight. Once the danger has passed and the body feels safe again, the nervous system returns to parasympathetic state - as long as the tension is released.
If the tension is not released, remaining unprocessed, the psoas stays in the activated state even though, we may think we have relaxed. This leaves a state of disconnection between body and mind which can reside within the body. This can accumulate over time if sympathetic nervous system tension is not released and processed. Some bodies appear to be able to hold and cope with long held stress over years whilst others cannot. However, even those who appear on the surface to manage stresses for years, can suddenly find themselves very unwell as a result of non-processing of tensions and traumas. Ridding our body of stress regularly with practices such as yoga is beneficial in avoiding build-up.
What Happens when Psoas Tension is Released?
Our body is designed to be able to release psoas tension naturally and instinctively. In our yoga classes, through our postures and stretches, we reduce the likelihood of accumulating tension and facilitate release.
Signs of release can be spontaneous shaking, trembling, vibrating, yawning, laughter, tears. This healthy discharge of tension can be (but isn’t always) followed by fragmented memories or emotions for which we may or may not recognize links. We aim when releasing tension to do so little by little - avoiding overload which could result in fatigue or overwhelm. Releases can be experienced differently each time and differently for different people. Welcoming the uncomfortable experience as a natural functioning of our amazingly clever body is advised, reaching out for support from or discussion with your yoga teacher, yoga therapist or psychological support should the experience worry you. Occasionally, a feeling of being slightly off balance just afterwards but this settles.
Allowing the processing of this tension is a way of avoiding stored up tension negatively impacting life, through exhaustion or burnout. Releasing tension and achieving a relaxed psoas may allow you to feel more energized, bodily connected, grounded and settled. Often there is sleep and general mood improvement.
If you would like to explore any of the above through yoga therapy sessions with me, please get in touch. We can arrange a discovery call and work out how best to proceed.