Mike was a week away from leaving on a 5-week trip to Italy with his wife. He came to me quite concerned about his ability to walk without limping and dragging his right leg along behind him. “I was told that it’s a problem with my psoas. Can you fix my psoas?” he asked. Every time I teach a Hanna Somatic Exercise Coach training I am asked the same two questions by bodyworkers, yoga teachers and medical professionals:
- What do you do about a tight psoas?
- What role does the psoas have in chronic pain?
I’m always curious about the obsession with the psoas, as if that one muscle controls the entire body. My answer is always the same:
It’s never just one muscle causing the problem.
While one might sense that the psoas is the main problem and must be “fixed,” it is never one muscle causing the problem. The brain doesn’t experience you as one muscle, but as a synergistic system of coordinating muscles. There is always a full body pattern of muscular imbalance going on in the center of the body. This pattern has become habituated due to stress reflexes – accidents, injuries, repetitive movements or poor postural habits – so much so that this pattern has become “the new normal” for the brain. The painful psoas is the symptom; Sensory Motor Amnesia is the root cause.
The psoas is a very important stabilizer of the lower trunk and aids in smooth, efficient and coordinated walking. It coordinates together, however, with other muscles of the trunk to move us forward in an easy, smooth gait. The psoas muscle can become tight and overly contracted as a result of habituation to any one of the Three Somatic Reflexes – the Red Light, Green Light or Trauma reflex. When our backs are overly contracted, the front of our bodies are slumped and collapsed inward, or one side of our torso tighter than the other, the psoas will work harder than necessary. Our pelvis will cease to swing freely and our gait will be labored and uneven. A chronically tight muscle that can no longer contract fully or release fully will and does contribute to chronic pain.
So what do you do about it?
In order to restore full muscle function and relieve the pain of a tight psoas you need to address the pattern of habituated muscle tension that is at the root of the problem. You must learn to release muscles of the back (that extend the spine), waist (that twist and bend us), and abdominals (that flex the spine) so that you have full, voluntary movement of the pelvis and all the muscles that control it. This is precisely what Hanna Somatics teaches clients in both a clinical hands-on session and when doing the Somatic Exercises.
Mike was taught to release his back muscles, which had become rigidly contracted due to years of carpentry and various construction accidents. In doing so he learned to regain balance in the center of his body. I taught him Arch and Flatten, Arch and Curl, the Back Lift , movements that helped the brain regain control of the back and front of the body. The he learned the Washrag, which released and lengthened the waist muscles for easier and more balanced twisting of the center. With the back muscles as well as the front and sides of his body a bit softer Mike could stand more easily on both legs. His walk became smooth and effortless and his pelvis moved when he walked. He experienced how his psoas wasn’t his problem. His tight back muscles were!
“How does your psoas feel now?” I asked him. “Wow, I can’t even feel it!” he replied. “I can’t wait to get Italy and start walking.”
***Most people benefit from a series of between four and six hands-0n sessions. The loss of voluntary muscle control takes place over time; therefore people need to take time to learn how to move well again. As I say to all my clients, “Rome wasn’t built in a day…”