Always wise to check with students the understanding of an oft repeated piece of information in the yoga room. Love it when they say something along the lines of “..no idea..” and then..”..we just nod along with you…”. Great stuff!
In our sensory yoga practice, it is hard enough to learn to tune into our nervous system and to recognise how some habitual movement patterns affect us, without trying to imagine the impact of a very large but deeply hidden muscle – the psoas.
This psoas and the iliacus form a powerhouse in the central area of the body, The psoas muscles (major and minor) lie along the spine, all the way from the 12th thoracic vertebra to the 5th lumbar. The muscle fibres pass downwards and forward over the pelvis where they join with the iliacus. The iliacus is a triangular-shaped muscle that fits into the iliac fossa – the curved surface of the largest pelvic bone. This muscle group inserts into the femur.
The iliopsoas stabilizes the pelvis and affects pelvic tilt. It flexes the hip and it works as we sidebend the trunk. It also assists in lateral rotation of the hip. This YouTube link shows the iliopsoas in motion..
The iliopsoas connects the femur to the spine, the lower body to the upper * inside body”. It is our primary fight-flight muscle and helps us to stand our ground, as well as run away. It’s role in the startle reflex is key to our sensory yoga practice. When facing danger we become hyper vigilant, we freeze, breathing quietens, adrenaline floods the body. When the danger passes, the body returns to balance. However, the complexity of being human, of modern life means that may of us hold onto a startle reflex that we can’t escape from. The muscles that we have always used to protect ourselves kick in – the powerful neck extensors set the head forward, the scapulae brace and the the powerful hip flexors protect the soft belly. If this pattern becomes an unconscious coping mechanism then a default setting is laid down in the cortex and chronic tightening of the neck, shoulder and back muscles will result in pain.
The startle reflex is a posture of pain. It’s a painful reaction to the environment. This over-adrenalized, immobilized attitude to the world is a major source of pain for millions of people.
In our yoga practice we cultivate awareness of unhelpful habitual patterns through positive functional movements and relaxation. We try to free the body of tension. Many of us become aware that we hold ourselves in a pattern of extension because chronic use of the iliopsoas tightens and shortens it. A chronically tight iliopsoas pulls the lower vertebrae forward, thus interfering with the natural support provided by the lumbar curve. Compression of the discs leads to pain. This anterior pelvic tilt pattern is often accompanied by weakened abdominals. Once the psoas shortens the quads tend to tighten and individuals can experience pain in the groin and hip as well as the lower back.
It is easy to see how the iliopsoas can be tightened through unbalanced gym work such as crunches without due attention being paid to the lower back and gluts. For runners, a Canadian magazine article recommends “rest, release, stretch..” Cyclists may suffer for their sport and lose power on the bike as a result of a tight psoas. Also, much is written about the iliopsoas being shortened by prolonged sitting. Many stretches are posted and good physiotherapy is the key to rehabilitation when injury is present but in our embodied approach to yoga we know that it is more useful to re-educate ourselves by noticing an unhelpful pattern and then learning how to break it. “Noticing” an unhelpful pattern requires heightened awareness and that this generally comes hand in hand with relaxation. If we can relax, nurture our breathing and stay within our range of motion, we can begin to “feel” what is going on in our body. Many of us have disconnected in the business of “doing”.
To be continued…