Psoas stretches? Or strength exercises? Lengthen the psoas, or make it stronger?
(If you need a short primer on how muscles work, you might want to read this article as a starting point.)
These questions come up for yoga teachers all the time, both in our own bodies and in our work with students. We have been perpetuating a few untruths about the physical bodies in the yoga world and it is no surprise that students (and we ourselves) get confused about what we “need” to do.
The world has become fascinated and obsessed with the idea of core strength. This is partially due to our sedentary lifestyle. It is also due to our obsession with the aesthetics of “six pack abs” or “flat tummies”. We think a stronger “core” will make our bellies leaner, so let do that, more and more. But then we end up with pain in movement, or limitations to our range. Then we think our psoas must be tight or weak, so we had better stretch it to fix that. WHAT A MUDDLE TO BE IN!
The first question is: do you have pain? If the answer is yes, then our mission is to restore healthy functional movement without pain. If you don’t have pain, you can try to deepen your awareness to explore what sensations you are having, and maybe question if you need to fix anything at all.
As yoga teachers and movement professionals, we are not necessarily trained sufficiently to know how to diagnose and treat our students who have pain. That said, I have been to many people who are supposedly trained enough to do that who have given me advice that is either oversimplified, blunt, ineffective or plain wrong, so I think it is possible for our insights into the body to be valid. If we start from the right place.
I wonder if this stretch/strengthen diachotomy is asking the wrong question. Maybe we need to think about how to keep the psoas responsive at a full range of movement, how to mobilize the spine, pelvis and legs effectively, what postural and emotional habits are limiting the functionality of the psoas and how we can balance all of that to create more efficient movement and a better life experience.
Many people instruct lunges as a way to stretch the psoas. Having observed my own body, the technique of lunging usually offered to people by yoga teachers and other physical therapists 1. doesn’t lengthen the muscle overall. Instead it dumps weight into the hip joint and inguinal ligament, which passively overstretches the muscle unevenly. 2. Does not reduce pain. 3. Does not facilitate a better range of movement. My backbends were better before I spent 5 years dumping weight into my psoas and tucking my tailbone in lunges.
For me, the answers come from movement and awareness. From exploring our habitual patterns of movement and our nature and design. And from being honest and sensitive around pain and what actually works in our observations of our own bodies moving. It comes from moving in a way that avoids extreme “stretches” in favour of dynamic exploration of the full range of movement.
ENJOY YOUR EXPLORATION.