Q. At a recent yoga class the instructor dismissed us with a friendly reminder to flex our spiritual muscles. I thought she was joking but she even had a name for it, which I can’t remember now. Is it true? Do we really have spiritual muscles?
A. Yes, if you view body/mind/spirit as one, and not separate. I bet the muscle your yoga instructor was referring to is the Psoas (pronounced so-as). Psoas is short for iliopsoas, a muscle in the hip flexor group that is important for standing, walking and running. The psoas is the deepest muscle of the body and affects structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility and strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning. The psoas is the only muscle that connects the spine to the legs; it allows us to lift our legs so we can walk. It is not uncommon for yoga classes to begin and end with hip opening poses that involve the psoas and other flexors.
Liz Koch, author of The Psoas Book, is credited with naming the psoas the “muscle of the soul.” A 30th anniversary edition of the book was published in 2012 and it is the go-to guide on the subject. Much more than a core-stabilizing muscle, the author considers the psoas an organ of perception, because it is composed of bio-intelligent tissue that “embodies our deepest urge for survival and our elemental desire to flourish.” Koch’s research on the subject, and that of others, has uncovered significant relevance between this muscle group and our health, vitality and well-being.
Our knowledge of the psoas health connection is not new. Ancient eastern wisdom supports the importance of yoga asanas (postures) for releasing and elongating the psoas muscles to restore comfort and balance. And in Chinese medicine, the lower back – specifically pain in the left and right back hip area – represents our ability to ask for and receive help. Many healers and health professionals agree that most back pain is associated with psycho-emotional pain.
In addition to connecting the legs and spine, the psoas also connects to the diaphragm through connective tissue. The diaphragm modulates breathing and is related to the physical symptoms associated with fear and anxiety. Koch believes that there is a direct link between the psoas and the reptilian brain, the most ancient interior part of the brain and spinal cord. Her book emphasizes that our modern, fast-paced lifestyle chronically tightens and stresses the psoas, triggering our old survival mechanisms – freeze, fight or flee.
Stress and tension causes the psoas to contract, tighten and shorten, leading to painful conditions including hip degeneration, digestive problems, menstrual pain, infertility and more. Our fast-paced, modern lifestyles are not much help – Koch cites restrictive clothing, shoes that distort our posture, too much time spent in cars, and other modern day “conveniences” as potential aggressors. She believes the cumulative effect of neglecting our well-being may lead to anxiety, depression, digestive distress, chronic back pain and more. No one has disagreed with her findings.
But is the psoas a real spiritual muscle? The psoas is called a spiritual muscle because its connective tissue is considered bio-intelligent. While the reptilian mind is related to our fundamental need for survival, the bio-intelligent mind has a more stabilizing effect that recognizes our elemental desire to flourish. The psoas may be just a muscle, but it is said to cultivate the kind of inner awareness necessary for sensing messages. Working with the psoas helps ground us to the earth, conduct energy throughout the body, and reconnect us with the life force of the universe.
A good yoga teacher can tell you more about the psoas, but you can flex other spiritual centers by paying attention to your well-being. Spending just two minutes a day in contemplation, introspection and meditation will make a noticeable difference. Without sounding syrupy or overly reward-based, I’ll simply say that any time invested in mindful attention is time well spent – a boost in stamina, core knowing, and creative inspiration are among the smaller compensations. If the psoas could speak, it would say, “Relax.”