The Mysterious Psoas Muscle
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!
Three 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.
3. It's nickname is "the hip hiker" since it helps us lift and move our hips.
Many people, both women and men, deal with psoas issues. When the psoas is too tight or out of alignment, it’s quite common for people 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
- “Sucking” in the tummy (yes, allow your belly to expand and breathe!)
- Over training
- Sitting too long
- Poor posture
- Poor muscle alignment
- Impact of childbirth
- Scar tissue adhesions after abdominal/hip 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 in your life & your body
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, as a massage therapist 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; these all impact the health and alignment of the psoas itself. This can help alleviate stubborn low back and hip pain.
We do a simple assessment first to find out if the psoas is out of alignment and can check after each session to monitor progress.
Bellydance movement is also extremely healing for the psoas and pelvis, back, abdominals, and core in general. As a dance therapist, I incorporate these healing movements and stretches in addition to massage to bring the psoas back into health and alignment.
It’s important to develop a strong core through proper breath work and exercise which I offer as a core specialist 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.
cover photo credit: vickihobbs.com
Here are some stretches to do at home that can help.