I have this awesome thing I do before any ab-focused class. It makes core work amazing and effective. Except when it doesn’t! What is this strange process?
It’s the mysterious psoas release.
I had an amazing meet up with Petra Fisher and Trina Altman last week, and amongst many other things, we totally geeked out about the psoas release. How to do it, why to do it, who likes it, who doesn’t. There are differing opinions and perspectives on the psoas release, so I thought we should unpack it a bit.
Clients often ask if they are doing the release “right”, and I don’t really think there is a right way, except that it should be good for you. That might mean that you don’t even do it. If you don’t like oysters, you should leave them for the people who do. If you don’t like the psoas release, that’s ok. There are other ways to move your body that you love. Do those!
If you are intrigued, though, or if you are doing the damn release and kind of don’t understand why, here are some answers and demos for you!
I believe a psoas release should be a delicious, relaxing, aaaahhhh kind of experience. That means that it will look different for everyone, given that every body has different proportions. Our variations in torso length, neck length, pelvic position, muscle tension, energy levels, patience and pretty much everything else mean that your experience will not be the same as mine.
HOW DO YOU MAKE THE MOST OF IT?
In addition to the lovely, gooey happy place described above, there are a few alignment markers to this position.
-Your head and neck are fully supported with a gentle flexion (forward curve) in your neck. YOU NEED TO BE COMPLETELY COMFORTABLE!
-Your ribs and spine are able to gently drape down towards the floor. Maybe not on, but in that direction, rather than pulled up and away. YOU NEED TO BE COMPLETELY COMFORTABLE! (there’s a theme here, you see??)
Ok, those are the basics. Here’s where it gets complicated.
The height of your own personal bolstering at your head and neck will vary. It might be high or low.
You might need some extra padding under your ribs. If you are uncomfortable, your nervous system has a hard time letting you release, so feeling a sense of support under those tight muscles can be a game changer! Not too high, so you aren’t being pushed up away from the floor, just supported so you can sink in deeper.
Your legs might be flat on the floor with your hamstrings heavy to the mat. Or you might need something under your knees. That might be the key that makes it ALL SO GOOD.
If you have tight shoulders you might want something under your arms to take the pressure off your upper body. Do you see what makes this so hard to do? There are as many variations as there are human bodies!
And check the video below for a dozen other options that might be right for you. (just a little side note… there is no way for me to do a psoas release without looking like a turtle. It’s good to be humble…)
Here’s another variation… you might not need or want the psoas release! This was part of the discussion with Trina and Petra. Some folks just flat out don’t enjoy it. So umm… if the goal is to release your psoas and feel great, how effective will that be if you are just lying there not liking it?? Or maybe your psoas is perfectly happy where it is.
If you just want to rock out a release and carry on, go for it! Except for this one little bit I’d like you to read first…
SO THERE’S AN EMOTIONAL COMPONENT TO ALL THIS PSOAS STUFF.
Some people experience an emotional reaction to this position. It is not the majority by any means, and some people will feel it sometimes and not others.
Why does that happen?
Your psoas are implicated in the fright-flight-freeze response. When that response is triggered, there is a flood of stress hormones released into your body. The surge of adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol helps to activate, among other things, your psoas which are crucial to running, curling up into a ball and bracing yourself to fight.
Many people believe that when the stress hormones don’t have a chance to dissipate through action (you just can’t run away when your boss aggravates you!) or by a post-event shaking as would happen in the animal world, a portion of that tension stays locked up in your muscle fibres.
If you live in a state of hyper-vigilance or high stress, as is often the case for us in this modern world, there are many little surges of hormones all the time, and the psoas never gets to stand down.
Trauma survivors (and even those who have no major traumatic incidents or memories of such incidents) can certainly fall into these high-alert states.
Once we get into a position were the psoas can physically relax and release, there is sometimes an equivalent emotional release. I have had clients report feeling momentarily anxious or resentful or irritated. This is totally natural, but obviously unpleasant! You can choose to ride it out as it dissipates or gently move yourself out of the shape and do whatever you need to recover your equilibrium. I usually suggest some shaking and wiggling and stomping of your feet!
I am not a therapist, and I NEVER use the psoas release to intentionally pull a client’s emotions to the surface. That is not in my scope of practice and since realising how powerful a position this can be, I am always very upfront about giving clients the option to modify or avoid it. But it is a shape, and a way of addressing deep muscles that affect movement, and that IS in my scope of practice, as long as I am transparent about the potential effects. The power and agency are then in the hands of the client, where they belong!
So now you can go off and release like a pro. Or, if you want to dig deeper into the mysteries read on!
So, with no further ado, here are the FAQ about the psoas release
WHAT THE HECK IS THE PSOAS?
There is this amazing pair of muscles, one on either side of your spine. They run on a series of angles from the side of the back of your vertebrae (starting around your navel) to the inside border of your pelvis and then down again to the inside of your leg bone. That’s a lot of lines of pull and cool angles, so they do a lot of stuff!
They are also deep inside your trunk, so you don’t really “feel” them, any more than you really “feel” your diaphragm, even though it is moving and working for you with every breath! Likewise, your psoas are busy much of the time, working behind the scenes.
WHAT DO THEY DO?
We have, for a long time, been talking about the psoas primarily as hip flexors. If you go back up and look at the image, you can see that there is a connection to the femur (leg bone), so yes, when the muscle contracts there is the potential for the leg to be pulled in towards the pelvis. If the leg bone is fixed, as when you are standing on the ground, the pelvis might get pulled towards the legs instead.
The part we haven’t been paying as much attention to that I think is critical, is the fact that most of the psoas attaches to the spine and then travel through the trunk towards the pelvis. When the psoas are really active or tend to be held in a shortened shape (as is common for those of us who spend a lot of time sitting) the result can be a forward shear of the spine and rib cage as the psoas pull the vertebrae forward.
WHY SHOULD I RELEASE IT AT ALL?
When the psoas is pulling the spine and ribs forward it limits the potential for a variety of shapes and motions in your spine. One of the great things about your spine is that, because it is comprised of so many segments (vertebrae) it has many possible positions. Tight psoas limits those variations, so the associated muscles can get overworked and tired.
I often see clients who have lower and mid-back issues, or who have been told they have a hyper-lordosis and that they should do a pelvic tilt to stabilise their backs. What I usually discover is that their lower backs are actually ok, but the forward shear of the rib cage and mid-spine associated with psoas tension is creating the APPEARANCE of a hyper-lordosis.
Tight psoas makes it hard to perform the spinal flexion, folding and rolling shapes in your or your clients’ movement practice, subjecting your neck and lower back to extra strain.
OH MY GOODNESS, I HAVE A TIGHT PSOAS! AM I BROKEN FOREVER???
No, absolutely not!
Your body is an amazing thing. You have all kinds of ways to move and you are made to accommodate tensions, strength, abilities and weaknesses all over your structure. Your brain knows you need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and you can certainly keep going with a fantastic life!
Please don’t get stuck in the trap of believing that you have to be perfect before you are good. Alignment is one part of a big, complex puzzle. You can grow, learn, heal, improve, thrive and celebrate your body and your life and not worry about your alignment one tiny little bit!
So after all the pictures and videos and yacky talking points, here’s the gist of it:
– Set yourself up in the way that suits you best.
– Be aware that position may change as you hang out for 10 minutes, so be prepared to shift if you get uncomfortable (especially around your SI joint)
– Your optimal position will change over time. Be prepared to play with it!
– Hang out for as long or as short as feels good to you!
I’m the owner of Boomerang Pilates and creator of the Move SMART program. I teach teachers how to incorporate sustainable movement and authentic teaching in their classes.
Hi Alison, I enjoyed your article about the psoas and think you are spot on with the emotional release aspect, and l like how you approach. I use a lot of different options for my students, mostly based around kinetic mirroring, which essentially allow the muscles to relax as I support them. I am a little puzzled over your video of psoas release as most of these options I use to release the chest area – would love to hear your experience.
Hi, Deirdre, I’m so sorry I didn’t get to this earlier!! I often use those positions for the chest as well, especially if adding different arm positions. The intent for the bolstered upper body is allow the tensions created by the neck and shoulders to get out of the way and make space for the upper ends of the psoas to release. So this position is less about the lower attachments (although of course one part releasing will definitely affect everything!)and more about the upper attachments to the spine. By allowing the spine to drape down into either the empty space or, for some clients, my hands (as you wisely suggest) or even a bean bag, towel or blanket for extra support and sense of safety, we give the psoas fibres and the nerves connected to them, the chance to relax and release. The benefit to the chest and shoulders is a lovely bonus!