The psoas (pronounced so-as) is a little known muscle that influences everything from breathing to back pain, movement to emotions and structural balance and integrity to organ functioning.  So why do so few of us know about this centre of our being?  And what has it got to do with our diaphragm?

First let’s look at the psoas more closely.  The psoas originates from the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae and 12th thoracic vertebra (the bony bits either side of the vertebra) and inserts on the inside of your upper femur.  It lies deep either side of your spine and snakes through your pelvis to your femur.  It is the only muscle that attaches to both the spine and the femur.

The functions of the psoas include flexing your hip (thigh to chest), flexing your torso (chest to hips), tilting your pelvis forwards and laterally rotating the hips.  It also functions to stabilise the spine, acting like guy ropes on a tent.  It is made up of both fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres as it is both a mobiliser and a stabiliser.

It is also believed by some that the psoas has a direct link to the most ancient and instinctual part of our brain stem and spinal cord,  the reptilian brain,  which houses our survival instincts, and is shared by every single reptile and mammal on earth.

Liz Koch, author of ‘The Psoas Book‘ writes:

“Long before the spoken word or the organising capacity of the cortex developed, the reptilian brain, known for its survival instincts, maintained our essential core functioning. The way we live today, constantly rushing, competing and achieving, has the psoas in a constant “fight or flight” state.”

More about that in a minute.

So what about its connection with the diaphragm?

Your diaphragm is your largest breathing muscle and it is connected to your psoas through fascia/connective tissue.  So if you are not using your diaphragm to breath, this will hinder the activation of your psoas.  This is the connection I want to focus on here.

Our emotional core

The diaphragm and the psoas are a reactive emotional centre.  When we are confronted by a tiger, i.e. we feel fear or are stressed (our body and mind do not differentiate between these two) our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we enter a fight or flight (or freeze) state.  When this happens certain physiological changes happen in our body.  One of these changes is our breathing which becomes shallow and sharp as our heart pumps harder ready to fight or run away.

This stress or fear reflex can also trigger poor posture as we draw forward into a hunched survival posture or foetal ball for safety and to hide our vulnerabilities.  And what happens when we close in on ourselves like this?  We can’t breathe properly, our movements become sluggish and we shut down.

Give it a go – stand with your head down looking at your feet, slump your shoulders and cross your arms in front of your chest.  How do you feel physically and mentally?  How is your breathing?  Then stand up straight with arms out to the side, chest open, shoulders back.  How do you feel now?

More tigers, lots more!

Once the fear or stress or “tiger” passes our parasympathetic system takes over and enables us to return to a relaxed state.  But if we experience one stress after another we become locked in this fight or flight response.  Before we meet the next tiger our body has not dropped to that bottom line –a relaxed parasympathetic state – before we are back up into a full on fight or flight state again.  Over time our body and mind learn a new bottom line which we think is relaxed, but it is not.

Think about your average day.  What stresses do you encounter as you progress through it?  Trying to get the kids out the door on time, stuck in a traffic jam, someone cutting you up as you drive to your appointment, mountains of emails awaiting you at the office, your boss breathing down your neck about deadlines, working out the logistics of getting your daughter to her gym class and cooking dinner, not being able to do what you need to do because the computer says “no”!  Our mind and body responds to all these situations as if they are tigers!

We live hectic lives in which we often feel trapped and we struggle.  Among the muscles that accumulate tension, the psoas is one of those most responsive to emotional state and because of the lives we live, it is rarely relaxed and activated.

Fight for survival

Being locked in our sympathetic state means our body starts to struggle to meet its two most basic needs that are fundamental to survival – to breathe and to move.  Without our psoas we cannot move as it is the psoas that initiates hip flexion.  Our body will sacrifice anything to move, so if it can’t achieve this through the psoas muscle, it will look elsewhere to do this.  The body starts to use other muscles and soft tissues, which are not designed for this purpose, to drive hip flexion.  This leads to our body collapsing and imploding and has implications on the functions of strength, power, flexibility, endurance, speed, balance and agility, as well as other systems such as the immune system, making us prone to injury, illness and disease.

As Liz Koch, a renowned bodyworker and author writes,

“The psoas is a messenger of the core…. Coalescing the central nervous system with enteric (gut) brain, the psoas literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish…. Illuminating an energetic resonance, our psoas is truly a dedicated support system for being a coherent human organism.”

Next time

How to use your diaphragm to breath and switch off the fight or flight reflex.

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