Yoga & The Psoas-Stress Connection
Learning to cope with stress is key to building resilience. Like a sore muscle after it’s been worked, we become stronger after challenge. But too much stress has a negative effect on mind and body.
In this article we explore the physiology of trauma and chronic stress, its link to the psoas muscle and three yoga poses to counteract it and create calm and ease in mind and body.
Anatomy of Flight
Under stress, the body releases hormones that stimulate the “fight or flight” response. The adrenal glands, which rest atop the kidneys, release epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), preparing the body to resolve the stress or run from it.
A key muscle in this preparation — and running itself — is the psoas (pronounced so-az) muscle. The psoas is actually a triad of muscles made up of psoas major and psoas minor, joined together with the iliacus, to form one muscle called the iliopsoas (ill-lee-oh-so-az).
Together, this group of muscles forms the largest attachment of the legs to the torso. There are two sets, one for each leg, that originate at the sides of the spine (from T12-L5), and move through the pelvis (from back to front) to insert at the upper, inner thighs.
The psoas is linked to the diaphragm (the key muscle of breathing) through connective tissue called fascia. It’s also connected to both the kidneys and the adrenal glands through fascia. This whole area of the body is one of the first to seize up under stress.
When we take action to resolve or remove ourselves from stress, the hormones our bodies release will have served their purpose, and we can return to a state of ease.
In the case of chronic stress or trauma, when we can’t escape the circumstances, however, these hormones continue to circulate in our bloodstreams. It leaves us perpetually ready to run, puts us “on edge,” makes us easily triggered, reactive and anxious.
Physically — and this is made worse by all the sitting we do — this can cause a perpetually contracted psoas. This big muscle when over-contracted, exhausted to the point of shutting down or just plain tight, contributes to back pain, knee pain, sacroiliac problems and difficulty with relaxing and feeling grounded.
Hormonally, the adrenals become exhausted and the immune system depleted. This can cause hormone imbalances, disruption of the thyroid gland, weight gain (especially around the middle), constant fatigue, sugar cravings, depression and anxiety.
In her fantastic book on the subject, The Adrenal Fatigue Solution, Fawne Hansen writes, “… it is a very insidious problem that tends not to have an instantly recognizable or acute warning sign. Rather, you start needing one cup of coffee, then two…you just never really feel fully rested, even when you sleep in on the weekends, and always feel like you are dragging yourself around.”
What You Can Do About It
Anytime you feel or notice any of the symptoms listed above, there’s a chance you’re getting close to your ability to manage your stress. This self-awareness is the beginning of making change to relax into the stress, or to get yourself into a different, less stressful situation.
Check in with your lower body when this happens. Do you feel like you’re squeezing up inside, bracing yourself, or trying to lift up out of your seat? Has your breath (and diaphragm muscle) begun to feel tight? How about the sides of your body, do they feel short? Do you ache in the back of your waist or your hips?
Some ways to calm these physical symptoms could be:
- take slow, deep breaths, focusing on your exhale
- settle your weight down into your seat, or to whatever support might be behind you
- unclench your jaw and soften your eyes
- take a gentle side bend, perhaps reaching an arm overhead to lengthen your side body
If you were to depict a terrified person through a cartoon character, you’d probably draw everything in an “up” position. Eyebrows up, breath sucked in and up, even the hair would stand straight up. This “pulling up” effects the psoas, too; it pulls forward and up, dragging the thighbone with it.
Using yoga poses and deep breathing, you can settle back and down in your body. One way to do this is to re-align your psoas to relax back within the pelvis, rather than being contracted forward.
Start here in Supda Padangusthasana:
- lie on your back and stretch your left leg out on the ground; hold your right knee in your hands
- to align the insertion point of your psoas, roll your inner thigh down towards the ground —some good landmarks for this are both toes and kneecap face straight up to the sky, not out to the left
- tilt your pelvis to lift your low back off the ground (this will support your low back, kidneys and adrenals) and to anchor the back of your left thigh to the earth (they should be touching!!) —your right knee will move away from your chest in this action
- soften your left knee, so it doesn’t hyperextend (that would lift your thigh forward again), and stretch long from the middle of your waist out through the sole of your left foot
- only if you can keep this “thigh back” alignment, with your low back light on the ground, would you pull your right knee closer to your chest
- after thirty seconds to a minute, release and then do the other side
Don’t do this:
This yoga pose is ineffective at combating stress, easing back pain and releasing the psoas if you allow your straight leg to bunch up and lift off the ground. Many people think the posture is about pulling the bent leg to the chest; this is not true. It’s about pressing the straight leg into the ground, settling the psoas inside your pelvis and taking deep, relaxing breaths.
Now try this version of Setu Bandha:
- place your pelvis on a yoga block at its lowest height (a rolled up sticky mat also works if you don’t own a block)
- roll your feet to parallel, focusing on rotating your upper inner thighs down towards the ground
- visualize the pillars of your abdomen (your psoas muscles) settling back and down inside the bowl of your pelvis and along either side of your spine
- press both thighs back, resisting hyperextension at the knees, as if to stick your butt out and back into the block
- push strongly through your feet, especially the inner edges, as if to grow your leg bones longer
- allow your low back to curve into a gentle back bend, but relax your middle back, ribs and kidneys towards the ground at the same time
- hang out and breath in this posture for at least thirty seconds before lifting your hips and removing the block
The last (and most challenging posture because it’s active) is Anjaneyasana
Things to note:
- squeezing your legs towards one another activates the psoas; this tones and strengthens it in a healthy way, rather than a triggered-by-stress, way
- the action of moving your upper thigh back and hollowing out your groin on the back leg is the same as what you did in the previous poses (thigh towards the ground); it’s easier here because you can move your whole pelvis back to make more space for it
- when you lift your torso away from your hips, draw your floating ribs back and up to lengthen the origin of the psoas at the thoracic spine
- back foot toes turned under helps keep the foot, and therefore thigh, from turning out —kneecap should be pointing straight down
These techniques are meant to calm and ease an overstressed physiology, not to diagnose or cure anything. They may be useful to bring you back to a state of peace, so you can face the things that are challenging you. However, if things become too intense or overwhelming please seek help. Here are two resources:
Crisis Text Line (anonymous)