From Pain to Possibility
Episode 14: Psoas: Sacred, Subtle, Powerful
Intro: You're listening to From Pain to Possibility, with Susi Hately. You’ll hear Susi’s best ideas on how to reduce or even eradicate your pain and learn how to listen to your body when it whispers so you don't have to hear it scream. And now here's your host, Susi Hately.
Susi: With this episode, I want to explore the psoas, and the reason being is that there's so much out there about blaming the psoas for issues. And not that I'm making it wrong, by any stretch, it just makes it a curious muscle for us to explore in relationship to the way we feel and the way we act and the way we do our activity of daily life.
What I think about the psoas is I believe it to be quite a sacred, powerful, and subtle muscle. When you look closely at it—it's orientation being somewhat vertical and a little diagonal, attaching from T12 and then each lumbar vertebra and then onto the femur—there is no other muscle that has quite that orientation, connecting the upper body to the lower body and lower body to the upper body. And then when you look more closely at the muscle, it actually has these individual attachment points, being T12 and each lumbar vertebra. So some anatomists will say we don't actually have one psoas, but we have several psoae, because the line of pull, or the angle of pull, at T12 is different than at L4, so its impact on the spine will be different.
So it makes it curious, along with the notion of, what is the actual primary role of the psoas? Some anatomists will say that it's a spinal stabilizer. Others will say that it's a core stabilizer, and distinguish between those two concepts, spine stabilizer versus core stabilizer. And then there's also people who’ll say, “Oh, no, no, no. It's primarily a hip flexor.” So there's some debate out there about what its actual role is. And my job here isn't to weigh in on that debate, but rather to bring it forth, because it's curious and interesting about the conversation that can be around the psoas.
If we take a look at the psoas, even from another perspective, is that it crosses three chakra points. And yes, I know it's quite esoterica mind, but just think about it: crosses third chakra, second chakra, first chakra. So there really is this psychically powerful state that is the psoas.
So where I want to take this conversation next is into its relationship to persistent pain, because that's really where I spend a lot of my life, helping my clients. And when someone comes in with a psoas issue, what I like to have conversations with them about is that the psoas didn't wake up one day and decide to wreak havoc. The psoas actually responds to the forces at play. It responds to the various mechanical and kinesiological and anatomical forces and mental/emotional forces at play. So when we're exploring it, we can't explore it in isolation to all those others. And those others probably have a really good influence on the way that psoas is feeling and is being experienced. So again, the psoas did not wake up one day and say, “I am going to wreak havoc.” Rather, it responds to the forces that are at play.
So it's not uncommon for me to see issues up in the shoulder girdle or in the pelvic girdle through the pelvic floor or even how the leg bone swings in the pelvis. Some people start to see a correlation between their mood and their mental-health state, even at stages of their cycle and how that psoas is experienced. What's important here is the way that that psoas is experienced is very much a subjective event. And I let my clients really hone into what is subjective in terms of an experience, because when they can hone in onto that which is subjective, as their body begins to shift and as their ability to bear load and absorb forces changes, that subjective experience is also going to change, too. So I'm a big, big fan to get a good sense of what someone's experience is, whether it's a feeling of tightness or a feeling of shortness or twistedness or dryness or just an unresponsiveness to it.
I also like to explain how the psoas can act to give us the feeling of being light and grounded. You may have seen people who it looks like they're holding themselves up by a hook in order to prevent collapse. And oftentimes that can arise because there isn't that inner scaffolding to help them bear that load or absorb the load, and so they've used grip and rigidity to keep themselves upright. You may have also seen people who are slumped, or maybe not so much slumped, but it's like the turtle head has slipped or is sinking into the shell or the springiness of their spring has become less springy, right? So not necessarily a slump, but there's just something about their vitality spring that is a little bit less. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that if someone looks like they have a hook that's pulling them up or there's a lot of rigidity or that they're slumped or their spring is less springy, it doesn't necessarily mean they've got psoas issues. But I have seen those states be present to people who have expressed that they have psoas issues. So it becomes curious because the psoas is a muscle that can provide us that feeling of being light and grounded and stable and solid to enable us to move from fast to slow and slow to fast, so that when it comes back on line, there is that feeling of vitality that really becomes ever present.
So when it comes to helping the psoas find its new space—in other words, helping to resolve the symptoms that a person has experienced—a lot of times, we begin at the psoas area directly. People might get bodywork releases, or they might use a massage ball, or they might get adjustments or needling or many other techniques to help with settling that psoas out. And people will then feel really good, like, incredibly good, because there's some relief to that tissue in and around the psoas and the psoas itself.
I've also found that that specific relief has about two days of feeling good, and then the person will begin to yo-yo back to what it was before. And that lets me know that there is a sustainability issue that's present, and I found that when people have a sustainability issue, it's often related to other areas of their body that aren't online with the change that's happened through that area of the psoas. So one of the things that I like to make sure of, especially when I'm working with another practitioner who is involved in the care, and they're specifically working through that psoas area, is I want to make sure that I can help them create sustainability in that relief stage. And in the early stages, that's exactly what's happening, is let's just get some relief. Let's reduce some of those symptoms so the person can rest and their system can rest. Their nervous system can downregulate, and they can just take a big, collective exhale on so many levels. And then once they experience that, then we can start into a retraining process and helping them learn how to move their body and recognize the patterns that are contributing to why the psoas is responding the way it is.
It’s one of the great things I find when people are learning how to move again, because they didn't realize, because it was all in their level of unawareness, they didn't realize just how well they compensated. And sometimes it can give people the experience of, “You have got to be kidding me.” And they might say something a bit more cussy like, “Holy shit. This is the way I'm moving? I'm, like, in a big mess.” And I like to remind people that the fact that they're now aware, they're consciously aware of how they're moving, whereas a day ago they weren't aware of how they were moving, now they can actually address the issue that's at hand. And so then when they can start to see how they move and how they compensate in relationship to what their psoas is or is not doing, they can start to see how creative that they are and how their body and how their mind, how their nervous system really wants to help them out to enable them to do what it is that they want to do.
So it's all good, it's all good news when someone discovers what they weren't aware of and now they are aware of. As uncomfortable as that awareness might become, they now can make change. They now have clarity. As they begin to do that, they start to have more and more days with a psoas issue that feels a lot less. They might feel like it’s less tight or less tension or less twisted or less fill in the blank, whatever the word was. Or/and they might also just feel like they're more on their feet or they're more grounded or there's a skip in their step or their brain feels a lot clearer.
Remember what I said at the beginning of this, that the psoas crosses three chakra points. So it becomes really interesting that when the tissue in and around those areas starts to function better and the tissue that's related to those areas starts to function better, that a lot of our selves becomes more online and more connected, and that greater connection leads to a result that's just better all over—greater vitality and a greater skip in the step.
Then what begins to happen is once someone is in that retraining period, they get into a refinement period, because what will tend to happen is when someone starts to feel really good, if they've been active in any regard, they're going to want to get back to the activity, whether it is a desire that's, like, “Yes. Now I'm ready. I want to go and do it,” or it's just happenstance that something shows up—a hike, a ski, the ability to go skating, or something that they just haven't done it in a long time—there's an opportunity, and they feel really, really good, and they want to jump on it, and they go and do it. And then they realize that they don't quite have the stamina, they don't quite have the scaffolding, they don't quite have the sustainability to do that activity.
So then we're in a place of refinement, right? So the retraining moves into refinement. They haven't gone back. They aren't playing Snakes and Ladders. They haven’t gone down the snake and are back at square one. It's more that they're now realizing what their bandwidth actually is so that they've got the clarity on how their shoulders or their hips or their pelvic floor has related to the way their psoas feels, or the way their psoas is functioning is relating to how their shoulders, their pelvic floor, their pelvis is functioning. They're now going off and doing these things, realizing that they’ve just overdone it, and now they can come back and bring that information back into the mix and say, “Okay, so now I know how all these pieces of my body are relating. Now I know how this web relates, and I now know how this relates into these bigger, more-complex activities.” So now they can take that information and refine the way that they're moving so that they're able to do that activity they really, really want to do. And so the cycle continues to go, and they typically now have a much better sense of internal locus of control, and with that internal locus of control, they know that they can reduce their symptoms. They know they are their own best support. They know that they have their back.
And what becomes really interesting when we look at the pain science, and particularly what David Butler talks about, and he's from the NOI Institute out of Australia, is the idea of SIMs and DIMs. And when we can increase the Safety In Me and decrease the Danger In Me, symptoms go down. And I can't think of a better form of support than our own internal support, our own internal sense of, I've got your back.
So it becomes interesting, this experience of helping someone with their psoas, understanding the orientation of where it attaches to, esoterically the power and the subtlety that exists around the psoas, the impact mentally and emotionally to the ability for that psoas to load and to move forces through our body, and how our whole body is able to absorb and move forces and what that does to the psoas as its function. This idea of being grounded and light at the same time, solid and stable, the ability to be agile, all of those characteristics apply to a psoas that is responsive, a psoas that is alive, a psoas that is turned on. And so much of this comes from this really subtle, kind of quiet place so that when the psoas comes back on board, the drama that can come from it being very uncomfortable all falls away, and there's just this quiet power that resides, this vitality that simmers and that glows, that skip in the step.
If this has gotten your interest and you want to dig in more and explore more about the psoas, I've got an online course coming up on the psoas specifically. It's two hours, and the link is in the show notes, and I would love for you to join me to explore more of the psoas and this sacred, subtle, powerful muscle and how it contributes to our well-being and how our whole well-being contributes to it.