The Mysterious Psoas

female-hip“It’s in the reach of my arms, the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips. I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”

-Maya Angelou

Most people haven’t heard of the iliopsoas muscle, generally called the psoas (“so’ az”), much less know where it is. The largest and thickest muscle in the body, the psoas connects our trunk to the legs, connecting along the lower back (T12-L5) and involves movement of the back, pelvis, legs, and indirectly, the arms. It is deeply buried under the abdominal muscles and down into the pelvis. Think of the psoas when you enjoy that swing in your hips!

Two Fascinating Facts:
1. It’s the first muscle that forms in the human fetus.
2. When a woman is giving birth the psoas helps to push the baby out.

It’s quite common for postnatal women to report “pain in the buttocks, sacrum and along the crest of the hips in the back”. This is the path of the psoas so it’s often the culpit when it becomes tight and contracted, including the hip flexors.

AREAS WITH SIGNS OF PAIN:
low back, hips, thighs, abdomen during bowel movements, while standing or hanging, even difficulty breathing

CAUSES INCLUDE:

  • “Sucking” in the tummy (yes, allow your belly to breath!)
  • Over training
  • Sitting too long
  • Poor posture
  • Poor muscle alignment
  • Impact of childbirth
  • Scar tissue adhesions after surgery (including c-section birth)

You might call it a “deep feminine” muscle as it can also hold deeply buried emotions and tension, just like the pelvic floor.  Alexander Lowen, MD, creator of BioEnergetic therapy, wrote: ”There is a bottom to our despair. It is the pelvic floor.” Though it’s not technically a pelvic floor muscle, it is a vital part of the same web of connective tissues (known as “fascia”) and also helps create stability in our core and trunk so one invariably affects the other. As children, many of us learn to tighten our pelvic floor as a way of shutting down or repressing fearful emotions and trauma. This is a common response of “flight or fight” by the nervous system as a coping mechanism.

Other spiritual and emotional solutions may be:

  • grounding with the Earth,
  • monitoring stress levels
  • assessing whether you’re feeling supported or not

Connecting with the psoas can open up painful emotions and memories but on the other side is the healing, reclaiming our freedom of movement, vitality, dreams, creativity, and sexuality.

Standard psoas massage tends to be a harsh, painful, and even shocking experience. Therapists may dig down deep into the area without allowing the tissue layers to warm and melt so the body can open up beforehand.

Though not necessarily comfortable, I practice the approach called “Muscle Swimming”, developed by Peggy Lamb, which is a more thorough and gentle method of systematically locating and releasing the psoas, abdominal, and secondary hip flexor muscles which all impact the health and alignment of the psoas itself.

Bellydance movement is also extremely healing for the psoas and pelvis, back, abdominals, and core in general.

It’s important to develop a strong core through proper breath work and exercise but rigorous exercise can be dangerous before the psoas is back in basic alignment. Think SAFE and EFFECTIVE exercise. As with all movement, listen to your body and avoid anything that doesn’t feel right (sharp pain, cramping, etc.) Meet your body where it’s at in the moment.

Here are some basic psoas stretches. Remember to breathe…

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Sacred Breath: Giving Ourselves Permission

breathing-meditation

“The wisest one-word sentence? Breathe.”
~Terri Guillemets

Breathing is the channel through which the human body is designed to discharge 70% of its toxins. The smaller percentage of toxins are discharged through sweat, defecation and urination. We don’t rid our bodies of toxins properly when we aren’t breathing properly; this means really filling our belly and lungs and fully exhaling, slowly and deeply enough to receive the oxygen that we truly need to function at full capacity.

We tend to forget and “outgrow” the full belly breathing that was so natural for us as babies. We can reclaim a major foundation of our health simply by relearning how to breathe by first becoming aware of our breathing patterns to see how often we actually hold our breath and checking in with our bodies throughout the day.

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In daily modern life, anxiety, stress, and trauma overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system (a system meant to be stimulated for only minutes at a time) on a consistent, on-going basis. We have become shallow chest breathers, just getting by with enough oxygen to survive while holding our bodies rigid.

Breathing affects our respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular, and psychic systems. It affects our sleep, memory, concentration, and energy levels.

Dropping our breath down to deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing makes a huge difference and helps to re-program our nervous systems away from chronic stress.

The diaphragm muscle is located just below the lungs and, like any muscle, becomes weak when it is underused. Instead, we overuse the secondary breathing muscles located in the neck and the back causing imbalances and leading to neck and back issues and tension headaches. Eventually they can build up and surprise us with a pulled muscle that we didn’t see coming.

It is also a foundational “core” muscle. It is the beginning point for core strength and core rehabilitation. Both the diaphragm and pelvic floor work in tandem and are both toned during diaphragmatic breath. If we don’t use our diaphragms regularly while breathing, we don’t build foundational core strength. Proper breathing is essential to the natural course of laboring and birthing. It builds deep core muscle strength which aids mothers during pregnancy and postpartum recovery.

Breath plays a major role in the functioning of the immune system; in fact, improper breathing is a common cause of ill health and, in some cases, life-threatening disease. Medical research reports the prime cause of 1.5 million heart attacks each year is hypoxia (a lack of oxygen). Scientists have confirmed that a key precursor of cancer is a lack of oxygen at the cellular level.

It takes time to correct our breathing habits and develop the diaphragm muscle but, with repetition and consistency, you will feel the difference. Try this lying on your back with you knees up and soles of your feet down on any surface, just before you go to sleep. Repeat each 10-20x.

MAKE NOTE: If you get lightheaded, dizzy, or nauseous, this is a sign of detoxification and lets you know that your body really needs this. Just back off and take a drink of water. Return to the breathing when you feel clear again.

  • Place your hands on your belly, inhale, filling it like a balloon.
  • Exhale fully.
  • Place your hands on the sides of your ribs.
  • Inhale deeply, expanding your ribs out sideways avoid your chest rising.
  • Exhale fully.

See what happens when you give yourself permission to take up some space and time and really BREATHE.

Sacred Body: Helping Ourselves

Nang Talinee, the Lao Earth GoddessSuppose… the body is a God in its own right, a teacher, a mentor, a certified guide? Then what? …. Are we strong enough to refute the party line and listen deep, listen true to the body as a powerful and holy being?”

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Women Who Run with the Wolves)

Our bodies are a sacred gift that, when cared for, are a vital part of our ability to live life to the fullest and be our truest selves. The body has great intelligence and is capable of profound healing and amazing feats as well as the little things that give us so much pleasure. It will also tell us when something is wrong.

Our job is to listen and respond accordingly.

Developing this relationship with our bodies is a skill that takes practice and support to develop because we are generally taught to do the opposite. The conscious connection between our minds and bodies has, in many cases, been weakened or even severed. We may walk around numb to the signals and signs as well as our emotions and feelings. We often feel guilty when we give priority and take the time to listen to our intuition.

But there is a big difference between thoughtful listening and responding and being selfish.

I find that one of the greatest challenges for us as women is valuing ourselves enough to focus our attention upon our own needs to an effective level.

Our bodies love to be loved and we are each the only person who can ultimately give that love. Movement, fitness, proper breathing, nourishing foods, plenty of water (dehydration is epidemic in this country), and the cultivation of a positive mindset can form the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. This is extremely powerful medicine. It can help us find our strength and balance in these times.

Reclaiming Ancient Feminine Wisdom

In our culture, postpartum is generally considered to be the first 6-8 weeks after giving birth. In some traditional cultures, the mother and baby are secluded, sheltered, protected, and nurtured for the first 40 days postpartum. This is to ensure that the mother’s womb and belly heal properly and that her full health and vigor is restored before she takes on the full-time job of childrearing.

What a humane and logical way to prepare mothers for perhaps the most challenging job they will ever undertake.

But in the modern world, without the family, community, and “village” structures in place, the health of families and often the postpartum mother is “falling through the cracks” of public health. It is alarming to me to see how many mothers have never received any support or education about postnatal recovery, including women with grown children. Many issues will not go away without proper care.

I’m witnessing how women beyond the socially acceptable period of 6-8 weeks, are often ashamed that they couldn’t “get it together and recover” during this short period. Sometimes they just give up or beat themselves up, adding to their sense of being burdened.

The true definition of postpartum is simply “following childbirth or the birth of young.” How can we accept that the term “postpartum” is now automatically synonymous with “depression” in our culture??

quote you matter

I’ve heard many stories of mothers whose health concerns such as diastasis recti (split in the belly muscles), inability to rebuild the core (aka “mommy tummy”), incontinence, constipation, depression, numbness around cesarean scar incision, and birth trauma are disregarded. Without proper education and support, women may not know what solution to pursue, or if a solution exists at all. These issues are often brushed aside, never to be addressed as the demands of parenting take hold. They may last a lifetime, causing further pain and complications.

Finding your voice in the face of being disregarded and owning the fact that you need help or to take action can be the biggest stumbling block. This is exactly why proper postnatal recovery support, education, and services are so important and necessary for mothers at any stage. Whether it’s a network of mothers, women, family, community, and/or women’s health and fitness professionals, mothers deserve to be respected and acknowledged for the priceless contributions they make.

The well-being of our children and our planet ultimately depends on the health of mothers.