Psoas Magic

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PsoasInterview with Jonathan Fitzgordon […]

How is the psoas different from other muscles? In our fields there tends to be this magic surrounding it that isn’t necessarily attached to other muscles like the biceps, for example. 

The psoas is the most important muscle in the body for three reasons: One, it brought us up to stand. The lumbar curve was created when we came to stand upright by the psoas, which to me is an unbelievable concept. Evolutionarily, psoas has no function in any mammal until we came up to stand, and in coming up to stand the psoas pulls the lumbars forward and creates this curve that is everything.

The second thing is that it’s the muscle of walking. It is the muscle responsible for propelling you forward. There are a lot of muscles helping it, but essentially walking is falling, and falling is all about your psoas. There is all of this wonderful stuff about whether or not the psoas a hip flexor. I buy into the idea that technically it is not a hip flexor. It’s really kind of interesting because we learn that the psoas is the main hip flexor of the body, but technically a healthy psoas never flexes, which is really kind of a cool concept. When it’s happy, it lives in the bowl of the pelvis and it just lengthens as we walk, but it never flexes. The bottom of the psoas is never being drawn closer to the top of the psoas in the classic example of flexion, like I flex my biceps.

Then the third thing is that it’s a muscle of trauma. Which is this crazy concept that there is a muscle in your body wherein you’re storing your emotions. And I don’t understand even what that means. I just know that when I get my traumatized people sitting before me, and I put them into constructive rest, they start quaking. They start basically having an epileptic fit. It’s not a painful thing, but you can put them into other positions, and it does not happen. You can lay them flat on their back with their legs out, and they’re laying flat. You do any kind of weird thing, and they’re just sort of doing it, and then you put them into constructive rest, which puts their psoas in an odd position, and all of a sudden they literally start quaking. That’s very humbling to me. That just blows my mind in terms of the magic and the mystery.

What’s the deal with the psoas and trauma?

It’s all about the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system. The big question is what happens to the body to make the psoas go south? There are two different things: there’s emotional trauma, and physical trauma. And then the question is, what creates the environment to let it heal?

What I love about all of this stuff is it’s not about action. It’s not about doing. For some people, you might be able to stretch your way out of your trauma. You might be able to figure out a way of healing yourself by doing. But we live in this weird doing culture where everyone thinks doing, or for example wearing bigger shoes or something, is going to solve something.

And what’s fascinating to me is the individual’s ability to decide okay, I’m going to now let go of all the things that have happened to me, whatever the trauma is. I honor everyone’s trauma, and I think we’re all traumatized. The most common thing I see is that workplace trauma destroys people. It destroys their bodies. Things like having bad bosses, working with people they don’t like, this all affects the sympathetic nervous system. And that’s psoas; it’s that people get stuck in flight or fight.

For so many people, once they’re stuck, they have no clue how to get out. And that’s where running, or doing, doesn’t help. A lot of people instinctually run to get out of flight or fight, but again it gets back to action doesn’t always do it. But that’s really the thing about psoas and trauma. I don’t think you can really be stuck in the sympathetic [fight or flight response] without being stuck in your psoas as well. They’re kind of part and parcel.

Why do we have to “not do” to get the psoas to release? Can you talk some about how it responds?

Let’s see how to put it. I think mentally we are trained that doing accomplishes things. And the psoas is doing all the time. These core muscles are so busy because they never really shut off. For example, your pelvic floor never really shuts off because you’ve got to keep from peeing. And your psoas is holding you. If you’re upright, your psoas is working. So I talk a lot about ideal resting linked to muscles, and that your bones should hold you up. I try not to confuse people, but in truth your bones hold you up, but your psoas never stops working. Your psoas is acting as the thing that is holding your spine on top of your pelvis, so it never gets to shut off. Just like your pelvic floor never gets to shut off because of going to the bathroom.

For me, there is this idea that the psoas gets traumatized. And I really believe we’re all traumatized. That’s a fine, healthy thing. I go to cross the street, a car almost hits me, I jump. That’s traumatizing and it’s beautiful, because I let go and I move on. It’s the people that can’t let go and can’t move on. Those are the people who get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, they get stuck in a place of heightened response. The simplest way to describe it is they’re walking on eggshells all the time. They have to figure out what it means to shut their body off. And so many people I work with, these Type A people, they can’t. Their brain, their body is not programmed to do nothing. I say, “Do constructive rest.” And they say, “Can I read?” And I say, “No. For fifteen minutes I don’t want you to read.” And they can’t handle it. So I say, “Then don’t do it. Do it when you’re ready to do it.”

It is literally about relaxation. It is about taking your body that is living in a heightened state, and figuring out how to help it relax. And it’s amazing the amount of people who say to me, “Oh, please, tell me just lay down on the floor for a half hour! I’m happy to do it.” Then they come back the next week and I say, “So how’s it going?” And their response is, “Oh, you know, I didn’t really do it.”

Some people just get it. If they want to be out of pain, they do the work. Because if they’re out of pain, they’re happy, right? Other people come in, “No I didn’t do it.” I look at them and I say, “I’m charging $180 an hour these days. You can keep giving me that, but it’s going to serve you nothing. I don’t mind taking your money, but there is something that’s not letting you shut off emotionally and mentally. When you say to me, ‘Oh, I’m happy to go home, lay down and do nothing.’ But then go home and forget about it, or just don’t do it, to me that means your body is not ready to go through what it has to go through.” And I don’t blame anybody! Because it’s trauma release.

What does my sleeping position tell me about my psoas?

Technically we should sleep on our back. That lets everything shut off, and your body recharges. And very few people sleep that way. I don’t do it, I sleep on my side. Very few people are actually putting their body at night into a place of rest. If you have psoas issues or if you have trauma issues usually you curl into a fetal ball, which I think is really bad for sleep. The worst stuff is when you accommodate your tired and shortened psoas by sleeping on your belly or sleeping with one knee hiked up.

You talk a lot about the trouble with tucking the pelvis, so tell me more about that.

The whole world suffers because we tuck our pelvises. The second you tuck your pelvis you are not using your psoas anymore. Some people stick out their butts too much, and have too much of an anterior tilt. Honestly I think I’ve met one in all the years I’ve been doing what I do. I don’t see that nearly as much as I see posterior lumbars. Everyone thinks they have a “sway back” and it’s 1% of what I see.

Why are we tucking our pelvises?

We are 300,000 years old or something like that, we as homo sapiens. We’re the only bipedal creatures on the planet and in the course of millions and millions of years of evolution there has never been a curved lower back. We are it. We’re the first ones. In a way we do not know what to do with our bodies. I really believe we all lean backwards simply because we can. There’s an arch in the lower back and we don’t know what to do with it, so we sink into it backwards.

What happens to the psoas once we tuck our pelvis?

The psoas is a back body muscle. It lives in the back plane of the inner thigh when you’re standing, and in the back plane of the spine when you’re standing. It’s holding your spine upright, and then it gets into reciprocal inhibition because as psoas engages, it pulls the lumbar forward, the erectors [spinae] can lift up. That’s what is holding us up. The minute you tuck your pelvis, your psoas at the bottom is no longer in the back body. By tucking under, you’re moving the lesser trochanter towards the midplane of the body, or if you’re in an exaggerated turned out dancer mode, it can even move to the front of the body. And the minute you do that, you’re not being held up anymore by your psoas. Once the psoas can’t work functionally, it is open and vulnerable to all the other problems that come with it.

What does the psoas have to do with chronic pain?

People think I’m nuts, but all pain is psoas. Your shoulder pain is your psoas. Your neck pain is your psoas. That doesn’t mean that you do constructive rest and your shoulder pain goes away, because there’s other stuff to be done. But it’s almost always related to your psoas. What I mean by that is that it’s core stuff as well.

What are the most common pain patterns that you see that are directly related to an out of whack psoas?

There’s a classic pain that I know no one is diagnosing correctly because of the amount of people that are coming to me with this pain and saying, “Oh, I’ve been to nineteen doctors.” I think doctors are just incredibly ignorant in terms of the psoas. They don’t think that way.

But the classic pain is a wrapping pain from the inner groin and it comes around to the top of the hip into the lower back. To me, that is your psoas pushing on the inguinal ligament, and the pain you’re feeling is the inguinal. It is a ligamentous pain. That is your classic tight psoas pushing on the inguinal ligament and causing you pain that’s going to wrap to your lower back. Almost all lower back pain is psoas related, what happens is your psoas goes south and your quadratus [lumborum] shuts down. Something happens in the psoas, and the quadratus shuts off.

The amount of menstrual pelvic pain connected to the psoas is unbelievable. Women who come in with a lot of pain as a result of menstrual cramps, constructive rest is an incredible help for that.

Almost all slipped discs and herniated discs are psoas related. Psoas doesn’t cause it, but if you buy into the idea that the psoas is this pulley that holds you upright, if you’re not using your psoas correctly, there is no way you’re going to fix your herniated disc. You can go to a chiropractor, and they’re going to put your spine back in place, but if you walk back into your tucked-pelvic life, it’s just going to go right back out.

IT band pain is purely psoas related. Because it’s all tucked pelvis, and the minute you tuck your pelvis, you’re out of your psoas. The biggest runner issue for me is people who run with a tucked pelvis. And then they want to know why their IT bands are so tight! The IT band’s job is to stabilize the knee in extension. The tensor fascia lata helps to abduct the hip, and internally rotate the hip. And that means that your IT band, when you’re standing in neutral, should be basically wrapping forward. It should be in the medial plane of the body. The minute you tuck your pelvis, you pull your IT band to the backplane of the body, then the IT band and the psoas stop working together you get pain. And the IT band, which isn’t a muscle, doesn’t accommodate nearly as well as many muscles. You can do bad things to muscles and they don’t complain in the same way as when you do bad things to your IT band.

With inner thighs it is the same exact stuff. The minute you tuck your pelvis, you lose your inner thighs. The minute you lose your inner thighs, your psoas again is not supported at its base.

That’s why I teach people to work the holy trinity of muscles. The pelvic floor stabilizes the pelvis to let your psoas work. Inner thighs build strength to let your psoas sit at the back plane of the body. And the abdominals, with an emphasis on the transverse [abdominus], helps you stabilize your lumbar spine to have the psoas in the right place.

So over and over and over again, if your pelvis is not in the right place, you’re pretty much toast.

How does one “find their pelvis” or get to a healthy psoas place in standing?

Stick your butt out is a general instruction. It’s pretty basic: find your pelvis. To do that, first, shut your butt off. Everyone is constantly gripping and working their butt. And when you’re standing, your butt should not do anything. Maybe some will disagree with me with that, but I think that’s a fact. Your gluteus maximus should be completely relaxed when standing. I guarantee when you’re standing tucked under, your butt is hanging down on your hamstring. It is sitting on the back of your thigh. I say give your butt a room of its own. Your butt is not meant to sit on the hamstring. It’s meant to be a beautiful, lovely bubble that is in a space of its own. Once you do that, that should be the exact spot where it is easy to shut your butt off.

Second, find your pelvic floor. To find this I tell people actually tuck under more, and then do a Kegel or do Mula Bandha, depending upon what language they’re speaking. When they do that with an exaggerated tucked pelvis, their pubis gets in the way. You lift the pelvic floor and the pubis gets involved. Not everyone feels that, because it can get really subtle. Then I have them stick their butt out way too far. Now they do that same Kegel, and their sacrum is going to get in the way. The sacrum blocks the lift of the pelvic floor.

Finally I have them split the difference. They bring their pelvis to a place where when you do a Kegel and Mula Bandha, the energy is clear, it goes straight up the spine and it actually goes into the abdominals. Your rectus [abdominus] should engage when your pelvic floor engages. It’s a secondary action. Now that lift is up the central channel. You should be in the same place as shutting your butt off and giving your butt a room of its own, and that is an untucked pelvis.

That’s your Kundalini energy. That’s your chakras. That’s the whole ball of wax! And people freak out about sticking their pelvis out. They feel ways that they really don’t look. There’s this weird disconnect.

So why don’t people find the most supported standing place naturally?

Once people have done all this work to find their pelvis they have an interesting choice to make, because they had perceived that they were standing up straight, and I am showing them that they are not. If they believe me, then they have to look at the way they perceive themselves. They have to change the brain. It’s purely Pavlov. If you perceive standing up is actually leaning backwards, then you have to change the way you perceive standing up.

First, you’re going to have to spend some time to get a core like I have. I don’t work out that much and I’m not the strongest person in the world, but I’m solid. And I do carry extra weight, which is fine.

But the other thing is you’re not going to go from your bad posture to perfect posture in an instant. You need to go from bad posture to a weird apelike good posture. There’s just no way you’re going to be able to suddenly go from leaning backwards slightly to being perfectly upright.

I tell people, slump over. Just do whatever you’ve got to do to do the opposite of what you’re doing. Don’t try to be perfect. Let go the other way. You’ve been doing one thing badly for so long, why not do the other way badly for a little bit?”

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