For the Love of the Psoas…

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I love this muscle, because when we get it working properly and freely as Pilates Coaches it can make such a difference to our clients’ movement, performance, balance, and emotional wellbeing. The function of the psoas is also an important factor when dealing with lower back pain. So here I share a little about what I have learnt from Kinesiologist Douglas Heel.

For those of you who have heard of Douglas Heel, you will know that he combines science and coaching with a relaxed, happy and an almost meditative perspective. For those of you who haven’t heard of him he has devised a programme of coaching known as Be Activated.

In Be Activated, Douglas Heel teaches that in order to achieve full functioning movement and to reduce the risk of injury, the body needs proper sequencing, and when proper sequencing happens we can improve performance, we suffer fewer injuries, and our senses become more connected eg, our muscles, vision and mental clarity work together.

So what is proper sequencing?
According to Douglas Heel, all of our movement begins with the psoas. As the psoas is connected to the diaphragm and the glutes, this whole area is referred to as area one, so this is the first part in the sequence of movement.

The second part — area two — covers the muscles of the thigh and the trunk of the body.

Area three — is therefore the lower legs and arms.

Correct functional sequencing of movement is therefore 1-2-3, so if this isn’t happening the result on the body is that it becomes more prone to injury or poor performance.
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What is the psoas?
We know that the psoas initiates hip flexion, because it basically attaches the vertebrae of the lower back to the top of the femur, from your spine to your upper thigh. So all movement begins with hip flexion as we can’t move without lifting the knees.

The psoas is also the deepest muscle of the human body, and affects our structural balance, how muscles work together, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility and organ functioning.

The psoas is connected to our diaphragm through connective tissue or fascia, and therefore can affect our breath, but it can also affect our fear reflex. For example adrenaline from our sympathetic nervous system can chronically trigger and tighten the psoas, which, knowing how important the psoas is to our movement, could cause physical problems. So for those living a stress filled life, which becomes fuelled by adrenaline, we can see how pain could manifest itself in the body along with poor movement. We cannot separate the emotional from the physical when it comes to dealing with pain.

How Be Activated has helped me as a Pilates Coach

It has confirmed to me that breathing is central to the function of the psoas and therefore our movement and performance. So freeing up the diaphragm and ensuring we are fully utilising it with our breath is key to the way our body moves. So when I see a client and they feel restricted with their movement I always start with the breath.

If the diaphragm is restricted then the rib cage will be affected. The lateral sling of muscles then become restricted, but before we can fully work on these we have to check the psoas.

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I check the range of movement achieved when flexing the hip, and assess the level of strength achieved in movement at the hip, plus I look at posture to assess if the psoas is restricting or restricted in any way.

I also believe that the importance of talking to the client about their lifestyle, to try and get an idea of their stress levels that they experience on a day to day basis is crucial to achieving more movement. I try to find out as much as I can about the individual so I can assess the responses they may be getting from their sympathetic nervous system. Are they in the fight/flight/freeze syndrome which can affect their breathing and therefore affect the function of the psoas. Their medical history provides a fuller picture, for example are they coming from a place of fear of movement, how has any episodes of illness in their lives affected their confidence with movement etc. I then know that I need to work on their mindset and aim to try and achieve a connection with their parasympathetic nervous system to help them to become more calm, and confident within themselves. This will help their breath and in turn any restrictions of the psoas.

My final thoughts
My experience of using the Be Activated thought process and techniques has given depth to my Pilates coaching. I had a client who had recently experienced a sudden loss in her life, it was a complete shock, unexpected and it was the loss of her closest deepest love. She came to me with pain in her lower back, nothing had been diagnosed structurally with scans, there were no signs of herniated discs etc, but she could barely stand or put one foot in front of the other. I worked with her breath, her diaphragm, her rib cage, and I used some gentle techniques to activate her psoas.

The shock of her loss, and the fact that she had been functioning on adrenaline for a couple of months since, was restricting her diaphragm and in turn tightening the psoas. Her body had gone into freeze mode. Her movement wasn’t following the 1-2-3 sequence, it was more of a 3-3-2 sequence with the psoas and diaphragm not triggering at all. At our sessions I worked on getting her to focus on her breath, freeing up her diaphragm, her rib cage, creating space in her body. These restrictions were affecting the function of the psoas. The dysfunction of the psoas was then causing the issues and causing her inability to move without experiencing pain in her lower back.

Even without the Be Activated techniques, as Pilates Coaches there is so much we can do to help our clients find freedom with their diaphragm and focusing on breath and eliminating restrictions of movement.

Here is one thing I have used both in a group class and also in my 1-2-1 sessions, and you can try and test on yourself. Lying in semi-supine, firstly do some abdominal breathing, deep into the belly and see how it feels. Then place your hand over the belly button, and gently apply pressure then rub your hand side to side across the belly and repeat for approximately 20 rubs. These are rubs not sliding across the skin, but keeping contact between hand and skin and rubbing with gentle pressure. Once you have done this try the breathing again and see if this now feels deeper and freer. This is a method of activating the diaphragm and if the diaphragm and our breath is improved, then naturally our core recruitment and movement will improve because of the connection between the psoas and the diaphragm.

Be Activated techniques don’t give us all the answers, but certainly it adds to our knowledge and skills, and will help us to help our clients more.

Written by: Jane M Thomas of Jane Thomas Pilates, as featured on the BBC.

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