In my post in January I highlighted the effect that our modern lifestyle has on a very important movement of the hip called “extension”. Hip extension (pic 2) is critical, as both a supporting faculty for the spine, as well as the mechanics of human gait.
About 80% of all people report having Low Back pain at some point in their lives (pic 3-5). It is also one of the most costly medical interventions in our society, right behind diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The habitually shortened state of the Psoas muscles (hip flexors) is one of the most central culprits in the lack of mobility in hip extension.
Unlike any of the other muscles in the entire muscular system, the Psoas also interacts with the respiratory system. The main muscle of breathing, the respiratory diaphragm, shares some of its tissue with the Psoas, which essentially means that the health and function of the Psoas intersects with the health and function of the breath, and vice versa. This points to a very interesting relationship between the mechanisms of respiration and the mechanisms of movement. When most people think of movement exercise, they seldom think of the breath. Breathing is however, part and parcel of any movement protocol, and deficiencies within it, correspond to deficiencies in our musculoskeletal system.
Whether by design or accident, our modern educational system has not prioritized teaching individuals about the intricacies of musculoskeletal function, which upon examination would seem deserving of highest regard. The sedentary culture within which we are becoming progressively immersed, is tempting us away from the natural and functional use of our bodies, losing, among other abilities, the muscles necessary to maintain integrity within the lower back. Although there are more factors that influence the occurrence of Low Back pain, the role of the Psoas has a direct effect on the ability for other muscles to perform their job.
The effect that the diminution of hip extension has on the widespread occurrence of Low Back pain, is unequivocal (pic 6 & 7)
One of the postural effects that the sedentary nature of the modern lifestyle imparts is prolonged pathological sitting. We sit on the side of our bed when we wake up in the morning, at the toilet shortly thereafter, the breakfast table, commute to work (whether its by car or bicycle), lunch, dinner, you get the point! We even sit at the gym while working out! This affects more than just our musculoskeletal selves, as the Psoas also play an Autonomic role. Due to its rich innervation by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which governs what is colloquially referred to as the “Fight/Flight” response, the high stress levels that are reported globally, provoke SNS excitation, which by its innervation of the Psoas, exerts a constricting effect on them (pic 8 & 9).
The evolved survival utility of this neuro-muscular relationship has its basis in the protective effects of stimulating a movement at the hips that would help the individual escape a threat by running away, or flex/fold at the hips, thereby protecting the vital organs.
The world renown neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D. is almost single-handedly responsible for unveiling the amount of stress that humans and primates are particularly subject to. His work has outlined that the ancient utility of the SNS has not been updated to include the modern stressors that most people experience. The widespread financial and professional sources of stress do not require the same strategies that human beings have employed in the ancient context of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, to fight or flee. This therefore, imposes a more chronic effect by stimulating the SNS for a period of weeks, months, and even years. The circumstances within which humans evolved for tens of thousands of years before the onset of the Agricultural revolution, presented stressors that last just a fraction of the time that our current stressors last. The Fight/Flight response has for so long been the perfect tool for the job in confrontation with more immediate threats of predatory animals, neighboring tribe, or turbulent weather. Since the modern threats of stress most individuals are exposed to last so much longer than any threats of the past, the Fight/Flight response’s ingenious mechanisms of action have become dangerous by the continuous output of cortisol. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone that has incredible utility for short durations, but becomes corrosive and damaging to the tissues of the body during longer exposures. This often sets up a vicious cycle where physiological stress exacerbates the dysfunction of the Psoas, which in turn exacerbates more stress by degrading the individuals physical life quality.
Since the pelvis is the foundation of the spine, and the hips so strongly influence the movement of the pelvis, we are better suited to address this essential support system by re-educating the movement into the hips that has, for many of us, been under-developed. Because hip extension is antithetical to the common flexed hip position, it’s improvement can also become an antidote to the associated challenges of SNS psycho-emotional hardships.
A hallmark of any physical pain and injury that people suffer, is the concurrent stress associated with the loss of physical and locomotive function. By remedying the pathology of a muscle/s, the individual likewise remedies the pain of that pathology, whose links to psycho-emotional symptoms are consistent with the neuroanatomy of the relevant body part. This is quite a powerful realization, that can empower the individual to administer a more concrete plan of action and bring relief into an area of life that they may have previously thought to be unmalleable. The conscious experience that gives our individual lives its character and pulse, lies at the core of everything we appreciate and enjoy. Consciousness is, as an obvious matter of fact, that which allows us to have experience, whether it’s enjoyable or not. It is what we experience with. To learn that we can interact and intercede into the quality of our experience by using the levers and dials of our own anatomy, is one of the most powerful discoveries we stand to have.
One of the deepest lessons that we embody on the timeline of our Yoga practice, is that the so-called “physical” practices of Asana and Pranayama, work across all the layers of the human being. The late BKS Iyengar commonly expressed his distaste for the erroneous description of Yoga postures as merely “physical”. This is absolutely consistent with the observations of science. There is no such action that can actually be described as purely physical, on account that the mind is what issues these commands to move the arms and legs, and the signals that travel to the muscles travel along neural pathways. As this inclusive and more complete way of relating to our body dawns on us, we can only benefit and become encouraged to commit to our practice the way that we commit to other aspects of our life.
The degree of hip extension necessary for Natarajasan (pic 1) does not come about without due preparation and training, nor is the presence/absence of pain contingent on this amount of flexibility. Flexibility is afterall, just an adaptation of the body to repeated movements over a period of time.