Exercises to stretch the psoas muscle and get rid of your winter blues
By Bekki Jo Pritchard
Photos provided by Baptist Health/Milestone Wellness Center
With spring right around the corner, it’s time to shake off your winter blues and to stretch, strengthen and tone your mind, body and soul. Not only does winter bring cold, gloomy and sometimes snowy days, but it also brings the winter blues. According to The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the winter blues may cause one to experience mood shifts, feel lethargic and depressed. However, if symptoms begin to infiltrate all aspects of personal and professional life, one may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. The direct cause of SAD is not known, however, as the days get shorter and the nights get longer in the winter months, the lack of sunshine upsets our biological clock and often causes depression. With a lack of sunshine, serotonin, the chemical in our brains that makes us happy, lowers production offering more aid to depression. Because the body is depressed, melatonin, the chemical that makes us sleep, also drops in production leaving the body tired, depressed and sometimes anxiety-ridden.
I myself have experienced the winter blues and sometimes even SAD. I am not one who takes medications or synthetic products, so I am always in search of natural, effective ways to treat the issues, not the symptoms. Prior to COVID-19, I attended a seminar with YogaFit called Healing for Physical Emotional Trauma. I learned a great deal of very useful information that I could work into my career as a yoga and pilates instructor, but also for myself and my struggles with anxiety. One of the best pieces of information that I learned was that the psoas is the “muscle to the soul.” The psoas is the largest core muscle that runs down both sides of the spine and diagonally through the core combining with the iliacus, commonly known as the iliopsoas, to attach to the femur. The psoas connects the spine to the legs so your body’s balance and stability rely on it.
What does this have to do with depression and anxiety? If there is pressure or contraction of the bottom of the psoas, there is a restriction on the diaphragm which restricts the body’s ability to take deep breaths. If there is contraction at the top of the psoas, there is a restriction to digestion causing acid reflux, stomach aches, bloat and discomfort. I am not sure about you, but when I feel depressed or anxious, I have all of these symptoms.
The psoas, iliacus and diaphragm have the largest network of sympathetic nerves that control the fight or flight response in the brain. This means, if I release the psoas, then the sympathetic nerves will relax the brain which will allow the body to relax. This will put less pressure on the diaphragm, allowing for deeper, lung-expanding, healing breaths and less pressure on the digestive tract, causing less bloat, fewer stomach aches and overall belly discomfort.
In my quest to shake off my winter blues and stretch, strengthen and tone my mind, body and soul, releasing my psoas has been my top priority by spending extra time on the Pilates Reformer at Baptist Health/Milestone Wellness Center. Here are my top exercises to help release the psoas and to breathe your way to the best spring 2021 can offer! Please contact me for a complimentary session on our Pilates Reformer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702.352.8929.
Standing Lunge Stretch
Place one foot on the floor and extend the other leg on the carriage of the reformer. Place hands on the bar, keep your torso upright and begin to slide the machine back and hold the stretch. Breathe slowly, controlled and as deep as possible to allow for the iliopsoas, or hip flexor, thigh and torso to stretch open. Complete on both sides, holding for at least 30 seconds and repeating 3-4 times for maximum benefit. This exercise can also be completed on your couch at home, window seat, park bench, etc.
Stay in the same starting position as the standing lunge stretch. Reach your hand behind you, bend your knee and clasp your hand at your ankle. Adjust your knee so there is no pressure on your knee cap. Square your shoulders, chest, rib cage and pelvis forward and slide the machine back and hold. Breathe slowly, controlled and as deep as possible. This allows for the iliopsoas, or hip flexor, thigh and torso to stretch. Complete on both sides, holding for at least 30 seconds and repeating 3-4 times for maximum benefit. This exercise can also be completed on your couch at home, window seat, weight bench, park bench, etc.
Hamstring/Adductor/Abductor Stretch Sequence
Lie flat on your back with your head in between the shoulder rolls. Place the right ball of your foot on the foot bar and extend the left foot to the ceiling hooking your foot in the Pilates ring. If you do not have access to a Pilates ring, a towel, belt, or yoga strap will work. Press the machine away and hold. Allow the right heel to sink low into a calf stretch while lengthening the left leg to the ceiling, flexing the left toes back towards your face. Create softness in the extended leg towards the ceiling. Feel your tailbone press down while your left heel lifts towards the ceiling. Breathe slowly, controlled and as deep as possible. Hold for 1 minute, complete both sides 3-4 times.
Keeping the right ball of the foot on the bar and the left foot extended to the ceiling while it’s still hooked in the ring, place the ring in the left hand with your right arm resting next to you. Allow the left leg to extend out to the left side. Press both hips firmly into the carriage and lengthen your left leg out to the sidewall, flexing your left foot back towards your face. Breathe slowly, controlled and as deep as possible.
Keeping the right ball of the foot on the bar while the left foot is still hooked in the ring, reach up with your right hand and grab the ring allowing your left arm to rest next to you. Keeping both hips bones down on the machine, stretch the left leg across your body. Keep both hips down, flexing the left foot back towards your body. Breathe slowly, controlled and as deep as possible.
Hold each stretch for one minute, completing both legs 3-4 times. All three stretches can also be performed on a mat, the floor and/or your bed.
Assisted Ball Back Bend
Sit up on the Pilates machine and place a mid-size to small fitness ball behind you. Sit against the ball with your legs either bent or straight out in front of you. Place your hands behind your head in order to fully support your neck and slowly begin to take your gaze up the wall in front of you to the ceiling and begin to backbend over the ball. If your neck is healthy, you can extend your arms over your head or out to the side. Otherwise, keep your hands behind your head and let your core stretch open. Breathe slowly, controlled and as deep as possible.
This exercise can also be completed by placing the exercise ball on the floor or up against the couch. Hold the stretch for one minute and repeat 3-4 times.
Begin in a standing position then slowly roll your chin down towards your chest and roll down towards the floor. Let the crown of your head hang down and press your heels into the floor as you lift your sit bones toward the ceiling. Turn the tops of your thighs slightly inward and bend or soften your knees, avoiding locking out the knees. Bring your weight to the balls of your feet and keep your hips aligned over your ankles. If you are unable to touch the floor, please use a yoga block, water bottle or any sturdy item to place your hands on for the optimal stretch. Breathe slowly, controlled and as deep as possible. Hold the stretch for one minute and repeat 3-4 times. The stretch can also be performed as a seated forward fold if you prefer to be on the floor.
Here’s to a great spring 2021! Don’t forget to get outside and soak up a few rays, sunscreen included, and make sure you’re getting your rest and drinking plenty of water. For a complete list of personal trainers, Pilates trainers and group fitness classes, including Pilates and yoga at Baptist Health/Milestone Wellness Center, please visit baptistmilestone.com.
Bekki Jo Pritchard, BA and MLS, Certified Pilates Instructor, Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Barre Instructor RYT 200 Yoga Instructor, Adjunct Professor of Sociology, College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas, NV and Adjunct Professor of Sociology, Craftonhills College, Yucaipa, CA.