A Tale of Two Muscles

Have you ever thought something was such a good idea that you shared it far and wide? You just couldn’t shut about it because it was so important? The only thing is, you were telling everyone they should try it but you, um, never got around to it yourself?

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Obviously, I have. For at least a year I was telling my yoga students they should practice constructive rest, how they could benefit from it in just 5 minutes a day. The only thing was, I wasn’t doing it myself. I rationalized that I no longer spent large parts of my day sitting, like I did when I worked 8+ hours a day at a desk.

At the end of August I decided it was time to try constructive rest for 5 minutes a day. Every day. No excuses. It was time to put up or shut up.

I was astounded to discover that after 30 days I had improved the range of motion in my hips, my low-back tension was gone, and my anxiety had decreased!

What began as an experiment has become a daily practice.

What is Constructive Rest?

Constructive rest is a reclined position that allows your psoas muscles to relax. If you practice yoga, it looks like the prep for bridge pose; you lie on your back with knees bent, feet on the floor, hip distance apart. That’s it! Let’s break it down a bit more and see why this simple position is so important.

The Psoas Muscle

The psoas (pronounced so-as, as in, “So as I was saying….”) is a paired muscle that connects from the vertebrae in your low back to the inside of your upper thigh bones. On average, it’s about 16 inches long and each one is about the width of your wrist. The psoas helps stabilize your spine and is the primary hip flexor. It’s a deep muscle that also supports some of your internal organs because of where it’s located in the body. The lumbar plexus also sits between the 2 psoas muscles; it’s a never center. When the psoas is constricted, there is pressure on this nerve center that can reduce our sensory awareness. The psoas is also thought to be a repository for traumatic memories and experiences.

It’s our most primal muscle, the first to begin developing in the fetus. It’s so fascinating whole books – yes, books, plural – have been written about it. Sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight muscle,” it gears up for action when we’re in danger. Unfortunately, it also tightens up when we’re under stress and when we spend a lot of time sitting.

The Diaphragm

The diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle. It shares a connection with the psoas because it also attaches to the vertebrae in your low back. (For an in-depth discussion of the anatomical connection between the 2 muscles, as well as imagery, check out Dr. Ray Long’s blog.) Guess what? If one is tight or not functioning well, it affects the other.

If our breathing isn’t optimal, it sends a signal to our nervous system that we are under stress. This means our heartrate is faster, our breathing is more shallow, and our stress hormones are pumping, but our digestive and immune systems aren’t working as well. That’s great if we are under stress and need to act. It’s not so great if we’re in this state all the time.

Chronic stress contributes to innumerable health problems that medical professionals see every day – trouble sleeping, depression, anxiety, burnout. Without even realizing it, many of us aren’t fully using our diaphragm. We’re breathing in a shallow way and it’s impacting our daily life.

How Can We Help These Two Muscles?

Two of the benefits I found in constructive rest were that it relaxed my psoas muscles, which is what it’s designed to do, and allowed me to fully utilize my diaphragm in a breath practice. Win, win! Here’s what I did:

1. Lie back in constructive rest.

Lie on your back on a flat surface. Bend your knees with the soles of your feet hip-distance apart. Your feet shouldn’t be so close or far away from your glutes that it feels like effort to hold them there. Or, if you prefer, you can walk your feet out to the width of a yoga mat and allow your knees to fall together at the center.

Constructive rest

2. Breathe deeply.

Rest your hands on your belly. Take a few normal breaths, then began inhaling all the way to your belly. Feel your hands rise as your belly expands. Now, exhale from your belly as you empty out your lungs. Feel your belly contract. Practice this for a few breaths, then the next time you inhale fill your belly, then your ribs, then your chest. Exhale from your belly first, then ribs, then chest. This is called three-part breath. Keep doing it for the time you’re in constructive rest. It may feel counterintuitive, but this breath practice is designed to relax you.

3. Relax your mind.

Use this time to focus on your breath, not your to-do list. As thoughts pop in your head, let them float on by as you return your attention to your breath.

4. It’s only 5 minutes…. Seriously, you can do this!

I set a timer on my phone for 5 minutes. You can find 5 minutes in your day. Usually I practice it at home in the morning but sometimes that doesn’t happen, so I lie down on the floor of my massage space between clients, or I take 5 minutes after dinner on the living-room floor. Wherever. Whenever. It’s 5 minutes.

5. Notice.

When your timer rings, take one more breath, fold your knees into your chest and rock from side to side. You did it!

Folding my knees into my chest is when I first noticed how incredibly tight my left psoas muscle was. What did you notice?

Constructive Rest + Three-Part Breath = Ahhhhh

As I mentioned above, at the beginning of the Great Psoas Experiment, I was feeling anxious. I don’t think of myself as an anxious person, but I was having a lot of anxiety about money at the time. I felt calmer during as I made this a daily practice. I have also regained greater range of motion in my hips. I was really irritated that as a yoga teacher I was having a tough time bringing my foot forward into a lunge from downward facing dog. I had worked hard to be able to do that – as a matter of fact, it took me 18 months of practicing yoga to be able to do that without helping my foot through. After making constructive rest and three-part breath a daily practice, I am once again able to freely bring my foot through to a lunge from down dog.

I was attributing daily low-back tension to my work as a massage therapist, but guess which muscle is one of the big culprits in low-back pain? The psoas! (Note: there are A LOT of factors in low-back pain, so the psoas is just one.) My low-back tension went away. I still get discomfort in my low back on occasion, but not the level I had experienced for several months without questioning it.

Finally, and this is a weird Rachel-specific quirk: my left femur moved back into place. Now, I didn’t know it was out of place, so you can imagine my surprise on the second day of the Great Psoas Experiment when my left femur made this loud, grating KER-THUNK! as it moved back into position in my hip socket. It has done that occasionally since, though not quite as dramatically. I’m not sure, yet, what causes my femur to get out of place, but obviously a tight psoas muscle is contributing. Can you imagine how that was affecting my gait, my yoga poses, my body mechanics, basically everything?

All of this to say, this is why constructive rest and three-part breath have become a daily part of my life. I hope you’ll consider making them part of yours, too. And please, let me know how it goes!

With gratitude,

Rachel

Question for reflection: What have you tried and then wondered, “What the *&%$ took me so long to do this?”

© 2017 Rachel Regenold


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