What the body wants: the muscle of survival and why it deserves your attention

Psoas_Tenderpoint

One of my first introductions to the power of the mind-body connection was through a set of muscles called the ‘psoas’. These are the muscles that attach our lumbar spine to the legs. They’re often called the ‘fight or flight muscles’ since they are a first responder to conditions of threat, allowing us to high kick, bring our knee towards our stomach in defense–or run.

Several years ago, I was in a traumatic relationship with a man with all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Although the relationship only lasted a few months, the experience had left me terribly depressed and anxious and my self-confidence in tatters.

As I gradually gained the strength to end the relationship, something very strange happened to the tops of my inner thighs. They began to throb with a kind of pain I had never before experienced. I hadn’t done any demanding exercise to explain it, but it felt as if these muscles had been massively over-worked. It felt incredibly uncomfortable, like a cry for help that I didn’t understand. It was particularly concentrated in the dip below my hips, half a finger length towards the pubic bone, which later, when I became more familiar with anatomy, I learned was exactly where the psoas muscles connect with the tops of the thighs across the hips. No matter whether I was sitting, walking or lying down, this part of my body kept on screaming as if for attention. The feeling was like being trapped in burning building without begin able to find the EXIT. I listened to calming music on Youtube, tried to meditate (impossible!) and went for walks by the sea. Probably the latter helped more than anything else, but what I actually needed was not so much to calm down but to RELEASE the huge stores of built-up tension as I had continually ignored my body’s signals to remove myself from the abuse.

What I didn’t know then was that my psoas muscles had become trapped in a chronic sympathetic nervous system response. They were communicating something very important to me. GET AWAY. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been able to release this trauma response much more effectively and saved myself days of agony. (Literally running would also have helped but I’m a lousy runner and I generally end up injuring myself).

The psoas muscles are engaging when our legs quiver or shake during an episode that we experience as threatening. Those of us who have had to work to overcome a fear of public speaking know what it’s like to stand with fight or flight neurohormones flooding our system with a neuro-chemical scream of “run!! while we are forced through external pressures to continue to stand still. The audience members may not look like saber-toothed tigers, but this is how our nervous system is experiencing them. Our psoas muscles tense, sending neural signals to our brain to gear us up for a motivated response to a threat to our safety. Our brain responds by sending cortisol and adrenalin to help us to mobilize away from the threat (flight) or towards it (fight).

When we don’t move in response to the brain’s SOS signals our legs can begin to shake uncontrollably, because our bodies are trying to discharge excess energy that is not being discharged through mobility. Although this can feel embarrassing, it is actually our body’s way of protecting us. What happens this protection protocol fails i.e., when faced with a perceive threat we can’t expel this urge for motility, this energy becomes trapped as emotional tension. The psoas muscles are a prime target for this tension to reside since it is the psoas muscles that recruit the movement that signals to the nervous system that we are responding to the perceived threat. When the nervous system doesn’t receive this message, it continues to put out a cocktail of sympathetic system chemicals that keeps our body’s on high alert. This becomes quickly exhausting, physically and mentally, since we will certainly sense this tension psychologically as a dis-ease, a relentless and deeply embedded anxiety.

I wish I had known two things while lying in bed with my psoas muscle chain on red alert but without much of a clue how to calm myself. One is TRE or Trauma Release Exercises and the other is what Marlysa Sullivan, assistant professor at Maryland University of Integrative Health calls “constructive rest”. It’s a term first introduced by Mabel Todd in 1937 in her book, The Thinking Body. Sullivan describes constructive rest as ‘…a position of complete rest in which the spine is relieved of the weight of the arms and legs, and the major joints are free to release into gravity and fall into rest. The goal is to distribute the weight of the body so that no work is required in order to maintain equilibrium.’

If we feel tension in our psoas muscles, it’s logical to think that we need to stretch it more, but this isn’t necessarily helpful and can cause a counter-tension to occur. Sometimes we need to encourage the psoas to relax and release by creating an open resting space around it. Lying on the back with a folded blanket under the shoulders, legs elevated, perhaps up on a couch, a couple of bolsters or a deep-seated chair is one such position.

TRE followed by a position of constructive rest is a very effective way to relieve tension.

I like Charlie Maginness’ explanation but your can run a search and find a session that works for your temperament. Some people call it Tension Release Exercises because not everyone identifies with the word ‘trauma’. It looks far more dramatic than it feels. Most people find that TRE feels very natural and is not frightening at all. On the contrary, it feels oddly soothing. Having said that, it is of course possible that someone might experience anxiety with this practice, so take it slowly and stop and take breaks if you need to. Or if it seems like too much right now, simply put it aside for another time. I would recommend watching this video a couple of times before trying it yourself. One thing that Charlie Maginness leave out is the TRE ‘break’ which allows you to stop the tension release shaking by straightening your legs and pointing your toes. I will be doing my own video on this topic soon, but in the meantime if you’re feeling stable and curious I recommend you give it a go. Just be gentle with yourself and don’t overdo it.

You might find, like me, that you want to lie down for a while afterwards in bed or on a couch. When I’m going through a period of restless sleep, I find it helpful to do these exercises just before bedtime.

My dehydration story – don’t let this happen to you


If you’re suffering from a significant number of the following: constant fatigue, muscle soreness, weakness and lethargy, unexplained headaches, insomnia, irregular or fast heartbeat, low blood pressure, brain fog, dizziness, memory loss, attention deficit, confusion, clumsiness, unexplained mood changes, skin ‘tenting’ (skin staying erect for more than 2 seconds when you pinch it), pruney or wrinkly fingers, sudden appearance of face wrinkles, bad breath, dry mouth, dry or flaky skin, inability to sweat, dark urine with strong odour and decreased urination, sweet cravings, sluggish bowels, nausea, blurred vision, extreme thirst and reduced physical endurance-(phew!)-then chronic dehydration may be your problem.

Of course, these are also symptoms of many other health conditions, but it is worth to consider chronic dehydration as a possible cause if you have been exposed to long-term fluid-depriving conditions. Why? Because if left untreated chronic dehydration can require hospitalization and can even be fatal. And secondly, it is really easy to treat. You just have to not make the same mistakes I did. It seems counter-intuitive but it turns out that chronic dehydration, although initially the result of not taking in enough fluids, can actually be made worse by consuming large quantities of water, as I was about to discover.

I had returned home to France three weeks earlier, after spending six months in North India, much of it over the monsoon season. In monsoon, the humidity can remain as high as 85% with temperatures hovering in the upper 30s to mid 40s. In between the downpours, it is uncomfortable to stay outside for longer than a few minutes. Even a brief walk is exhausting. The high humidity + high temperatures is a perfect recipe for dehydration. I was not unfamiliar with the Indian monsoon, and at the time I thought I was drinking enough water. Looking back, I now realize that some of the symptoms of mild dehydration had already begun to set in.

Once back in France I drank less water initially, thinking I didn’t need as much now I was out of the extreme weather conditions of the subcontinent. When my symptoms worsened, I gradually increased my fluid intake. The often recommended water intake is 8 x 8oz glasses of water per day (about two litres) plus 12 ounces for every 30 minutes that you work out. But there are widely differing schools of thought. Water intake needs differ from person to person and depend on several factors such as age, sex, weight, activity levels, climate, etc. I was drinking over two litres of water daily, being careful to pace myself since I’d read somewhere that it’s better to drink slowly throughout the day rather than glugging half litres at a time, but I just felt worse and worse. After three weeks, I had almost every single one of the symptoms mentioned above and I woke up each morning feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.

I would begin to feel a bit better as the morning wore on, but I usually had to lie down by lunch time and would be a zombie by around 5 pm. No matter how much I lay down, I never felt properly rested. The nights were especially difficult. I woke up often, my heart thumping out of my chest. Some days were better than others but mostly I wasn’t good for much more than Netflix and fitful dozing. My symptoms were similar to the early onset of dengue fever (which I had contracted in 2014 in Delhi). Had I been so unlucky as to get it twice, and out of the season for it as well? Maybe I had succumbed to Covid-19 (which has similar symptoms to dengue in the early phases) even though my nasal swab test at the airport in Paris had come back negative. I’d read that false negatives from molecular tests such as RT-PCR were unlikely but not unheard of. Was it chronic fatigue syndrome? Or something even worse? My mind was entertaining all kinds of unpleasant scenarios trying to make sense of it all and my mood was teetering on the edge of depression–a condition with which I am quite familiar. Then I had a brainwave–or so I thought.

I would fast for three days and “reset” my system. Now, I’m not an avid faster. I intend to fast more than I actually do. But I had done several three day fasts over the past couple of years with very positive results. I would only drink water, I decided, and lots of it. It turns out that in my condition the fast was a terrible idea. And this is why.

Longterm exposure to the monsoon climate in India combined with improper and inadequate water consumption while eating a diet low in electrolytes had resulted in my body becoming dehydrated. This condition had become exacerbated after my return to Europe where the temperatures were still in the 20-30 celsius range; certainly not helped by the couple of glasses of wine I was enjoying two to three times a week, flushing water out of my system more rapidly than normal. We are more prone to dehydration as we age, and being in my mid-50s was also a factor.

What I didn’t realize was that the two litres of water I was drinking a day was now exacerbating the condition. My body was crying out for electrolytes more than water; sodium, chloride, magnesium, and potassium, which we need to deliver fluids to our cells. It was like taking packages to the Post Office when there were no postmen to deliver them. Even though I was taking in fluids it wasn’t getting to its destination. Then on top of this, I stopped eating for three days, increasing my water intake to three litres per day, thus removing all sources of electrolytes from my diet both liquid and solid.

Fasting while suffering from chronic dehydration turned out to be a magnificently bad idea. And all that extra water was simply leaching the few stores of electrolytes that my body had left.

By the morning of the third day of fasting I had to call in the army corps of engineers just to get to the bathroom. I could even feel a cavity forming in an upper tooth, that made it excruciating to brush my teeth (I was able to completely sort this by using a time-honored Ayurvedic technique of ‘pulling’ which I’ll blog about another time). I started racking what was left of my brains since the mental fog was so thick I was having trouble stringing rational thoughts together. Had I felt like this before, other than when I had dengue? Yes. Yes, I had. When I had been dehydrated. I looked up the symptoms and they all ticked off like a perfect mark. One word hovered over all else with rays of sunlight streaming from it and harp music (well, I was practically hallucinating by then)–electrolytes. I dragged myself to the supermarket and bought a packet of powdered electrolytes and electrolyte-containing foods (avocados, bananas, Greek yoghurt, olives, pumpkin seeds, miso soup, chocolate milk, turkey, etc.). Less than half and hour after dosing up with electrolytes, I felt a small improvement. I ate the foods gradually at 15 minute intervals. I continued to drink water (though much less) with electrolytes added throughout the day and I actually managed to stay up until 9 o’clock. The following morning I felt what it was like to wake up refreshed. And so the healing began…

Now, two days later I’m back to normal. I feel incredibly grateful to have my health back and will never take my new best friend for granted again. Electrolytes. Don’t leave home without them.

  1. https://www.webmd.com/women/news/20120120/even-mild-dehydration-may-cause-emotional-physical-problems#1
  2. https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-re-dehydrated
  3. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2018/11000/Dehydration_Impairs_Cognitive_Performance__A.21.aspx
  4. https://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-dehydration#causes
  5. https://www.bustle.com/p/7-reasons-youre-still-dehydrated-after-drinking-lots-of-water-15727442
  6. https://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/g19705799/electrolyte-foods/
  7. https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-nutrition/electrolytes-food
  8. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-much-water-should-you-drink
  9. https://www.healthline.com/health/does-alcohol-dehydrate-you#causes
  10. https://www.healthline.com/health/overhydration#types
  11. https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-nutrition/electrolytes-food

How to bring your foot forward in Surya Namaskar

FROM THE LOCKDOWN IN VARANASI, INDIA. A breakdown and step wise guide to how to master the transitional move between 2 key poses of Surya Namaskar. This transition often eludes the beginning student who arrives at the resolution after weeks of trial and error and often without really understanding how they have accomplished it. The transition between these two poses – Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), once properly understood, will allow us to really enjoy the sequence and progress in our practice, while the techniques that we learn to accomplish it will teach us a great deal about how yoga works. Bon courage!

Hold the pose like a baby

When we hold the pose like a baby, we are gathering together a bunch of positively co-conspiring conditions that can lift our practice to a whole new level. This simple single phrase is a kind of Western mantra, a syntactic formula that delivers meaning on several levels at once; mental, emotional, physical and metaphysical. If this is sounding a bit far-fetched, let me show you what I mean.

So what does in mean to ‘hold the pose like a baby’?

Imagine holding a baby in your arms. Really imagine it, not just visually. Feel the weight on your chest. What is the sensory input? What feelings does this act pull out of you? Even if you’re not a massive baby fan; even if you’re worrying about it dribbling on you (or worse), you will probably feel immediately protective — a sense of responsibility to keep this tiny fragile creature safe from harm. You will likely feel some goodwill towards it, so vulnerable and new to the world, remembering that this was once how you yourself were. You might feel a sense of friendliness, affection — even love. You will naturally give to this baby the lion’s share of your attention, without conscious effort. And as a result of this increased attentiveness, you will be responsive to the baby’s needs, adjusting your hold, tightness, looseness, and so on; adapting to changing conditions. From the ground of all of these conditions, the better parts of your nature will emerge like a shoot emerges from prepared and watered soil. All of these qualities that holding this baby engenders in you; attention, care, friendliness and responsiveness, will envelop you in a sense of immediacy and presence — in a more direct and less filtered experience of the moment. Holding a baby, in short, brings out the best in us, if only for a brief time.

attention, protection, friendliness, responsiveness

So when we hold the pose like a baby, we hold the pose with the best of our attention; we hold the pose with a sense of friendly protection and a responsiveness to the moment; a little extension here, and little relaxation there, not too tight, not too loose, and so on. When we bring this metaphor to bear in our practice, our relationship between our body and the poses themselves completely transforms. We are kinder to ourselves, we are less likely to hurt ourselves, we become more creative, more open and curious, more receptive, and more attentive. Even our breath becomes finer, just as it does when we hold a baby and we begin to match our breath with the subtler baby’s breath. We begin to notice subtle changes, and discover techniques and methods to enter poses that had eluded us in the past. We will progress in ways we never expected. Not from pushing ourselves harder from the pressure of some internalized voice of judgement, but from holding ourselves more lightly with an attitude of friendliness and joyful responsibility.

How not to hold a pose/baby

It can be very edifying to examine the attitudes that we don’t want to dominate when holding a baby, since it’s not a given that we will be inspired to express the best in ourselves every time we practice. We can then examine the same attitudes in relation to our asanas. In examining these negative qualities through the metaphor of holding a baby, we can really see how they impact not only our yoga practice but many other aspects of our life, and how we can cultivate their opposite.

Inattentiveness: I’m holding a baby but my mind is wandering
Result in practice: General unsteadiness; inability to remain present in the pose and tendency to lose track of the posture.

Judgement/Expectation: I’m carrying this baby all wrong and if it cries I’m a terrible person.
Result in practice: An inability to identify and thus rejoice in progress causing a lack of vitality and joy. A tendency to take set-backs personally and to become easily discouraged.

Arrogance: I’ve held thousands of babies. I have nothing more to learn.
Result in practice: An inability to receive or absorb new information.

Recklessness: I could throw this baby up in the air and catch it in one hand.
Result in yoga: Not adequately preparing for poses, resulting in a greater chance of injury.

Pessimism: I’ll never be able to hold a baby properly. I don’t have the ability.
Result in practice: Lack of trust in one’s potential causes a lack of confidence that manifests in half-hearted and mediocre effort.

Impatience: When am I going to be able to put down this baby?
Result in practice: Loss of balance, focus and dissipation of energy.

We can all recognize some of the attitudes in this list when it comes to our yoga practice. We’re all human, after all. What is really encouraging is that in our asanas, we can turn all this around simply by asking two simple questions: what does that pose baby need from me? How can I respond to it?

We can take all of this far beyond the boundaries of the yoga mat into how we hold opinions, for example. Opinions, even well-conceived ones, are nothing more than mental postures. The Buddha warned against attachment to views and advised that these were the most difficult attachments for us to let go of. Even recognizing opinions as attachments is difficult, since we tend to identify with our ‘views’ so closely, almost as if they define us. If we can hold our opinions as gently and as gracefully as we hold a baby, the ground we walk upon will become a much friendlier place. That’s a big ask, but we can begin with the pose — we can hold the pose like a baby — and go from there.

LOCKDOWN YOGA: Vagus nerve hack for neck tension, anxiety and more

From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. This fast, effective (and very cool) biohack begins with a demonstration of how movement of our eyes muscles connects to the suboccipital muscles at the back of the neck where the skull meets the spine. Yes, you really DO have eyes in the back of your head! Decompression of these muscles reduces tension in the neck, helps alleviate headaches, anxiety, sleep disorders and depression, and has been found to stimulate the Vagus nerve, a key factor in regulating the autonomic nervous system for overall well being. This is followed by the BASIC EXERCISE developed by Dr. Stanley Rosenberg that you can read about in his book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve.

LOCKDOWN YOGA: Diaphragmatic breathing and the yogic breath

From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. Today it’s all about abdominal-diaphramatic breathing. This kind of breathing – called the ‘yogic breath’ is fundamental not only to yogic practice but to our general well-being. Learn how to re-connect with this unique muscle that provides the key to navigating between the conscious and unconscious, between the external and energetic dimensions of our experience.

References include: Dr. Stephen Porges and Polyvagal Theory; Deb Dana (author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy) and Stephen Cope Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.

The well is not dry: How our practice sustains us, even on the bad days

water architecture colourful church
Photo by tyler hendy on Pexels.com

A few years ago, a friend called me feeling down. She had a very demanding job and wasn’t always so good about taking care of herself, but for the past year she had been really turning her health around. She’d been exercising regularly and paying more attention to her diet, and creating healthier barriers between her work and her personal time. And it had paid off. She had lost the pounds she had always wanted to shed, and she’d been feeling really positive mentally to boot. Then she fell ill. Nothing terribly serious, just regular garden variety flu. But it took her weeks to fully recover. She complained to me on the phone that she felt that the illness had really set her back and that all that work she had done on herself now seemed like a waste of time. She had not felt up to doing any exercise or even cooking proper meals. She felt like she was going back to square one.

I felt strongly that this was not the case. There was another way to look at it, I said. “All of that self-care, it doesn’t just go down the drain. It’s part of your condition now. It’s in you. It’s part of the reason you take care of yourself, so you can get through times like this.” She was sincere in her efforts and had built up positive habits. I knew that she would return to them more easily than she thought. This turned out to be the case, and not long after we spoke, she was her bouncy positive self again and quickly shed the extra pounds she’d gained snacking in bed.

When we build substantive familiarity in our practice–whether it’s yoga or some other form of mind/body system, meditation, mindfulness, whatever—when (not if) we have times when we’re just not up to it, the results of our practice are still there, available to us, however subtly. By substantive familiarity I mean when we have invested time, energy, attention and effort in our practice. Then those off times are unlikely to seriously derail us, though we may end up in the bushes for a while. And who knows what we might find there. They’re mysterious things these energy cycles, and time in the bushes might be exactly what we need.

Yesterday was not a great day for me. I didn’t feel like doing much yoga and kind of phoned in my practice. I over-ate, spent too much time online, and began to plummet mentally and physically by the afternoon. It took some effort to get up this morning. I dragged myself like a sack of spuds to my morning practice, which I eventually did a bit half-heartedly on the carpet in my room instead of outside on the grass like I usually do. But what happened was, that although, yes, it took some initial effort, after that effort, something warmly familiar kicked in. It was like the practice had created a groove that I could slip into without too much huffing and puffing. It wasn’t a brilliant session, but I knew I wasn’t plummeting any more, that all was not lost, that I could RE-SOURCE.

Regular practice puts something into storage. It turns into a resource, and when we return to it, as long as we have built a robust and sincere relationship, it will respond like a caring and supportive friend. It takes less effort than we imagine to enter that ‘groove’ again. We just need to have a bit of faith that it’s still there, and orient ourselves towards it. Not even a second of such practice is wasted.

It’s natural to have days when we aren’t particularly motivated, and worse. There will be the good, the bad, the ugly, and – sometimes the toughest nut of all – the meh. Just remember this. Your practice hasn’t gone anywhere. It doesn’t disperse like water on the ground. It feeds the well. And the well is there waiting. Sometimes it takes a  bit longer and demands a bit more effort to lower the pail. But the well has not run dry. And neither have you.