I had never heard of the Psoas Muscle before I started yoga (pronounced So-Az).
Often called a hip flexor, it’s the muscle that connects the spine to the legs. It starts around the middle of the torso, runs either side of the spine, sits behind the digestive organs and runs through the front of the hips to connect to the thigh bones.
Whilst it’s a key muscle in our core, the reason I find the psoas fascinating is because of it’s relationship to stress and anxiety.
When we’re stressed, our psoas tightens and contracts. When we’re stressed, we instinctively want to curl into a ball. It’s part of our fight or flight instinct to protect our vital organs if we were under attack.
This is the psoas in action.
The psoas is the muscle that contracts when we sit. It flexes our trunk and keeps us upright. So when we sit for 8, 12,16 hours a day, this muscle becomes tight.
Even if we have no stress in our lives, long periods of sitting will cause the psoas to tighten.
When the psoas is tight, it affects our ability to breathe deeply. This is because the psoas is attached to our diaphragm, our breathing muscle. If we can’t breathe deeply, our nervous system senses a threat or danger and the fight or flight response is activated.
Tight psoas = poor breathing = STRESS RESPONSE
Our nervous system is what connects our mind and body. And the psoas muscle is the primary muscle involved when the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) is activated.
When we consciously release and relax our psoas, it sends a powerful signal to our nervous system that we are safe, free from danger and we can relax. This signal activates our parasympathetic nervous system which is known as the relaxation response.
When we’re parasympathetically dominant our blood pressure is lower, our heart rate lowers, our breathing slows, our muscles relax, blood flows to our digestive organs and the fear centre in our brain (the amygdala) becomes quieter and the executive function of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is back in charge.
When the nervous system is relaxed, it relaxes the body and the mind.
This complex process happens within minutes when we learn to consciously relax.
The Psoas is the key to relaxation
Because the Psoas is so connected to our nervous system, it’s a key muscle to target when we want to lower our stress and anxiety.
When people ask me about the best yoga poses for stress and anxiety I will give them Constructive Rest Pose. These people get frustrated with the simplicity and ease of Constructive Rest Pose because they can’t feel a stretch.
Stretching a tired overworked muscle is only going to create more stress and anxiety and in my opinion, this is where many people get it wrong.
Aggressive stretching of the psoas is a terrible idea. Especially if you sit for more than 6 hours a day, have any muscle tension in your body or experience stress and anxiety. This kind of stretching will aggravate our stress and make us feel worse.
Stretching a tired muscle that hasn’t first been released is like tugging on a frayed rope. Poses like Constructive Rest soften the Psoas first so it is more supple and then it can be stretched.
I think the reason people like aggressive stretching is because it feels good. Whereas subtle yoga poses like Constructive Rest often feel like we’re not doing anything.
Give it time
There is no such thing as a quick fix, especially when it comes to chronic stress and anxiety.
It’s only when we make a conscious effort to nourish our nervous system on a daily basis using our breath and body that we will begin to lower our stress levels. And if we’ve been highly stressed for years, it’s going to take at least a year to unravel some of that stress.
The good news is that small daily habits, done consistently, over time, add up to BIG results.
When I understood the relationship between the Psoas and the nervous system, my attitude and approach to my body and my yoga practice changed. Instead of forcing my body to its end range of motion, I learned to do less. When we do less it creates a feeling of safety in the nervous system. When the nervous system feels safe, we can relax.
My Yin Yoga classes have a strong focus on releasing the Psoas. That’s why so many of our clients have found lasting relief from their anxiety and stress. We help busy, stressed and anxious people relax their body, calm their mind and tame their anxiety.
The Art of Relaxation is our signature program on the Psoas, Nervous System and Relaxation. It’s now open for enrollment.
In the meantime, I’ve created a Psoas Release video you can try for yourself.