When we feel threatened, we hunch protectively around our center. Neck scrunches, shoulders pull in, belly tightens, legs press together. When the threat passes, we relax into a more comfortable posture. If the threat remains active for a long time, or if we stay in emergency mode after trauma, our muscles remain protectively tense, even when we try to relax.
Years of tension lead to pain, and we withdraw our awareness from the tense areas. We fight the tension as if it were external to us, stretching fiercely or asking others to dig in and relax our muscles for us. We criticize our own posture and obey injunctions to “stand up straight!” by pulling against existing tension, adding even more tension.
During this exploration, say hello to what you sense, and to whatever judgments arise in response. The goal is to perceive, connect, and make space for change, without expecting any particular result.
As you sit or stand or lie down, allow yourself to settle into your position. Sense into your relationship with the surface supporting you. Give yourself a long time to be exactly as you are: your usual, everyday self with your usual, everyday tension.
Check inside for movement
After a long time of resting into your usual position, follow an intake of breath into awareness of tension. Do you sense a pull, holding, tightness, or clenching that might want to lighten or let go from the inside? Is there any motion your body wants to make to get more comfortable? The sensation might be, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was holding there!” as a shoulder drops, or “I have more room than I thought,” as a hip moves back.
If you feel numb, you could invite awareness into tension by curling up more tightly than usual. Hold, hold, hold, then let go. Does anything feel different?
If some tension releases that was pulling against deeper tension, you might find yourself curling inward more. Allow this to happen. You might also find an impulse to uncurl from the inside, bringing your body into a more open posture. Rest into your new position for a while, then repeat the process.
After a shift, you might notice a deeper breath, maybe with a catch in it, stomach rumbling, or a sensation of warmth. There might be a click or pop as bones readjust. Pain might ease, or sharpen briefly, or pulse and ache.
Follow a breath in, and let your attention settle down toward your belly. Is your belly soft, open, resilient, and receptive to the motion of your breath? Or is it held tightly, resisting the breath as it comes in and goes out?
You could bring a hand to meet your belly with gentle contact, sensing how that feels in both your belly and your hand.
Rest into your present experience with your belly and your breath. As your belly relaxes over time, you might find that your voice, your truth, and your emotions flow more freely.
The psoas muscles deep in the core (see diagram) often contribute to curled posture. They originate at the front of the lumbar spine on each side, interweaving at the top with the breathing diaphragm. From there they spill down over the front of the pelvis and wrap around the top of the femurs.
The main muscular action of the psoas is to flex the hip, bringing a leg closer to the belly. It also contributes to side-bending, sit-ups, and leg rotation at the hip.
Constructive rest position
In “Core Awareness”, Liz Koch suggests many explorations for becoming more aware of the psoas muscles. One is constructive rest position, lying face up with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Sense into your experience in the present, and give your body ample time to rest into gravity and support.
After resting, you can experiment with allowing one leg at a time to lengthen slowly along the floor until fully extended. Do other muscles try to help? Be curious about how the motion could be easier. Can the leg float down and back up? You could stay with just the part of the motion that is easy, even when that is a tiny shift in position.
Lie on a foam roller
Amy Bennett suggests lying face up on a foam roller, with the spine along the length of the roller. Sit at one end, then gradually roll your spine down. This position asks your chest to open and your shoulders to slide back and down. A short rest on the roller can disrupt a tension headache and show your body new posture options. A rolled up blanket or towel along the spine instead of the foam roller gives a more gentle stretch.
Uncurl your tail
When frightened, ashamed, or showing submission, animals tuck their tails between their legs. Humans have the same impulse, although our tailbones nestle inside the pelvis. When you put your hands on your hips with thumbs pointing back, then let your thumbs slide down and together along your sacrum, they point toward your tailbones.
Bring your awareness to that area from the inside, and invite your tail to uncurl. Allow the uncurling motion to propagate up your spine through each curve. At the top, your chin might tip down, allowing your gaze to take in more of the room. You might find that your belly softens, your shoulders drop, and your weight settles more firmly into your seat. Try uncurling your tail while standing and in motion as well.
Stand on the outside edges of the feet
Curled posture includes pulling the legs together protectively, especially after sexual assault. This shifts the body’s weight toward the inside of the feet. While standing, experiment with shifting your weight toward the outside edges of your feet. Sense into the springy lateral arch. This shift can allow your whole body to widen and give the sacrum more space at the SI joints, relieving chronic sacral or low back pain.
Listening to tension often leads to awareness deeper in your body. Susan Riggs suggests also checking in with your surface, your skin. What do you sense about your contact with your clothing? With the air? You might find it easy to sense into some areas, while other areas might be numb or blank.
You can do these explorations while sitting or standing still, or in bed at night. You can do them while in motion, whether walking, biking, or driving. You can weave them into a meditation practice. At first, little may happen, or the same place might release every time. Over time, the body acquires more choices about how tightly to curl, and when to uncurl.
The first half of Liz Koch’s book Core Awareness describes her metaphorical discoveries about the psoas and its role in the body. The second half contains detailed instructions, including photos, for explorations toward awareness of the psoas and inner core.
Psoas image from wikipedia’s psoas article.