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Does the Psoas Speak Pilates?

Messages from the Psoas Muscle, an interview with Liz Koch


Updated June 18, 2014

Women doing Pilates exercises.
Kristian Sekulic/E+/Getty Images
Everything from the head to the tailbone is generated out from the core, so like an octopus; movement emerges from and reverberates back to the midline. Nothing is anchored in the core. - Liz Koch

The psoas muscle lies deep in the core of the body. For those of us in Pilates and other exercise sciences, where attention to the core is paramount, the psoas is an important, yet enigmatic muscle. Our understanding of what the psoas is and its role in the body is still changing. One of the reasons for that is the work of expert Liz Koch, who has been investigating, teaching, and writing about the psoas for over thirty years.

In this interview with Liz Koch we explore the unique nature of the psoas, and how to work with the psoas through movement and release. Since this is a Pilates website, I've asked Liz some very Pilates- specific questions as well. Before proceeding, you may want to familiarize yourself with the psoas muscle by reading Introducing: The Psoas Muscle which covers the placement of the psoas in the body, and the basics of how it moves and moves us.

M.O.: It seems that in general we are overworking the psoas, creating conditions whereby it becomes chronically tight. How do we know if our psoas is tight or weak?

L.K.: The psoas is not only a core muscle, a Pilates powerhouse muscle, which is important to recognize, but it is also a primitive messenger of the central nervous system. The psoas reflects incoherency in the core - some disruption in the way we're responding to gravity. It could be as simple as the shoes you're wearing or as complex as multiple layers of injury and trauma.

The most obvious symptom of a tight psoas is restriction in the hip socket. The psoas literally moves over the ball of the femur head so when it is tight, it constrains rotation in the socket. Also, discomfort, pain, and aches in the front of the hip socket are symptoms of the lower psoas.

In the upper psoas, the symptom that is most prevalent is the sense of holding or tension in the solar plexus. This tension can push the diaphragm forward so that you’ll see limitation in the breath, a pulling up, compression, and a restricted belly. Low back pain is associated with tension in the psoas, but actually it is the other way around: the tight psoas is messaging an imbalance along the spine.

What you see in a constricted psoas is a psoas that is compensating for lack of integrity or moving towards safety. It looks as if the person wants to just roll up in a ball. This is not quite the same thing as collapse, but it's close. In both you’re seeing in part what the psoas messages – a lack of safety. As part of the fear response the falling reflex protects us when we are vulnerable.

Now why is the psoas tight? It’s tight because it is compensating for some disruption along the midline - usually over stretched or torn ligaments. In the Pilates world I'd say the first thing to look at is sacral iliac dysfunction. When it compensates it begins to dry and eventually shrink. The psoas is very juicy; it is the filet mignon. But when it has to behave in some other way, like a ligament, it loses its suppleness and begins to dry. For example, when you are in a car seat, you are in a static fall. The psoas is counteracting the fall. So over time, if we engage the psoas in a static holding pattern begins to lose its supple dynamic behavior; it drys, shrinks, and creates tension.

Your question was also about weakness, but I don't think the psoas is weak. The psoas is exhausted. That's the difference in our thinking process. If we think something is weak, we need to make it strong. If we think something is exhausted, we look for ways to let it heal and not be misused. It's a huge difference in strategy.

So, a Pilates class, is that inherently overworking the psoas?

L.K.: Years ago when Pilates people first entered my workshops, at first I didn't know what I was seeing. Then I found out they were doing Pilates. Later, people came in and I'd say: "Oh you do Pilates". And they would say: "Yes, how do you know?" So what was I seeing? I was seeing a held upper psoas.

I don't think that's so true anymore because Pilates has evolved and become more somatic in its orientation. One of the reasons I enjoy working with Pilates instructors is that you are focused on attention to detail – how you initiate a movement, and where to initiate that movement. In Europe there is a lot of somatic awareness but not very much in the U.S., so I think Pilates entering the fitness world with this enhanced sense of awareness is a gift Pilates is bringing to fitness.

It's not a big a deal to simply go one layer deeper than the abdominals and let go of your psoas. That's all you have to do. It's not that you don't have abdominal tone, but the abdominals are like an accordion - when they are alive and vital they simply close and open. There is no force when sensing the psoas, it's simply a process of allowing a balance between the front and back of the body, and the top and bottom. Behind the toning up is also a letting go that allows the toning up to happen in a more uniform way, with less rigidity and more vigor. It's less exhausting.

I work with a lot of Pilates instructors and I think Pilates is a living system. It's evolving and changing, which I believe all systems have to do. I believe if Joseph Pilates were alive today, he'd be evolving his work. He called it contrology. You might call my work, awareology. I'm more interested in awareness than control because I think ultimately that's where control comes from.

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