The poor psoas. It’s so misunderstood.
This part of the body is responsible for so much of your day-to-day function that it often gets the blame when things go wrong. It’s no wonder. Functions associated with the psoas include:
- Upright posture
You know, insignificant things like that.
And yet people seem to be baffled when it comes to taking care of this particular tissue in the body. Its unique structure gives some clue as to why.
What’s the psoas?
The psoas is a cluster of tissues that in some ways act as a bridge between your upper and lower body. When we say psoas, we’re typically referring to the psoas major. You actually have two psoai (the appropriate plural), one on each side of the body. The psoas attaches at each end of your lumbar vertebrae before meandering down over the hip to attach along the inside of your femur.
If it’s attaching to each of your spine, that gives us an important clue:
You don’t want the stuff that holds your spine upright to be particularly “loose.”
This is what makes all of those lists of psoas stretches so counterproductive. If the psoas is stretched too much, that laxity leads to a sense of instability, which causes the body to clamp down with even more tension as a protective mechanism. Stretching just won’t cut it here if freedom of movement is what we’re after.
That’s what we’re after, right?
So what should you do for a “tight” psoas instead?
Start with release.
Think of it this way. When something is tense, and you pull on it, you’re essentially playing tug-of-war with that thing, right? Rather than play a painful and counterproductive game of tug-of-war with yourself, you’d be better off simply releasing that tension in the first place.
It’s like clearing off the chalkboard. Everything you write down afterwards is going to be much more legible if you start with a clean slate.
Releasing the psoas is relatively straight-forward.
What you want to do here is give your body enough sense of support that it automatically gets the hint that it doesn’t need that tension. You can do so more simply than you might think. My favorite way to do this is by spending about 10 minutes in something known as Constructive Resting Position (CRP). It’s a common shape you’ll see throughout the broad array of somatic practices, and it’s incredibly useful for giving your entire body a sense of support.
See “let go of that tension” is a pretty sloppy cue. You need to provide a container to “let go” into, or else you’re left with a mess (imagine simply “letting go” of a bowl of soup…not so smart). For our purposes the floor makes a perfect container.
CRP is simple. You lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet in firm contact with the floor. You might find that having a bit of padding underneath the back of your head allows your neck to rest more easily here. Once you find a relatively comfortable position, all you need to do is settle in. It’s particularly helpful to take note of where you feel contact with the floor underneath you (and how that contact changes as time passes).
10 minutes here is a game-changer. Yes, it can be that easy. If you’d like to take it a step further, here’s what you could explore next…
Restore length – no stretching required
After you’ve cleaned the slate by releasing unnecessary tension you have a great opportunity to teach your body more effective ways of organizing itself. It’s a chance for your body to explore different options that might be more effective.
Too often we force ourselves into new movements with excessive effort, but too much effort simply reinforces old habits. If you want to create new movements, you need to approach them with a bit more curiosity and exploration.
Here’s a way to get started:
- From CRP begin to slowly lower one knee out to the side and return to center many times (say, 12-15), sensing how smooth a movement you could make.
- As you go through multiple repetitions allow the movement to grow – remember there’s no need to rush or force into your end range here.
- Gradually explore how you can lengthen your foot away from your body as you do so.
- When you find your leg fully extended along the ground, take a few moments to notice what new sensations — if any — you are aware of within yourself. You might be surprised how different your right and left legs feel compared with one another!
Afterwards you might be tempted to repeat this on the other side. Before you do so, can you slowly make your way up to stand and check in with the differences you notice side to side?
Your body is actually intelligent enough to balance these differences out on its own, but if you’d like to, you’re more than welcome to repeat on the other side. If you do so, tune into any changes in your quality of movement on the right vs the left sides.
And to take it a step further…
As mentioned above your psoas acts as a bridge between the lower and upper parts of yourself. It’s intricately involved in your spinal stability, a big part of which is the ability to rotate effectively. It’s easy to overlook the importance of healthy rotation since we have so few opportunities — and so little apparent need — to do so in day-to-day life.
But good luck uh, walking without it.
This next pattern will give you a new sense of connectivity within yourself while creating a bit more space and ease in some of the stiffest parts of the body.
To get started:
- Make your way onto the ground in a side-sitting position (feel free to use support if need be)
- Imagine lengthening through yourself as you turn and look over your supporting shoulder – only as far as is comfortable for now.
- Repeat this a number of times, exploring how smooth and controlled a movement you could make this. Is it possible to see even a millimeter farther each repetition?
When you’re finished, take your time coming back up to stand once again. Check in with yourself to sense if there are any discernible differences from side to side. Take a few steps around the room here too. What’s your sense of support like on each leg? Your sense of length?
Put it all together
Finding a sense of release in your psoas is as much a matter of what you stop doing as what you start doing. Don’t forget: there are another 23 hours left in the day. What kinds of shapes do you make during those hours? Spending a few minutes on these movements is a good start, but always keep an eye towards what you can do to reduce the amount of time you spend stuck in one or two static positions throughout the day.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention: dealing with chronic stress or unresolved trauma goes a long way for the health of the psoas – and the rest of you! Our body’s physiological response to stress involves contracting away from what it perceives as a threat.
To learn more about what that process could look like, read this article.