What is Psoas?

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Based on a personal history as a medical professional and somatic practitioner with background in martial and contemplative practices, these comments are long overdue. Liz Koch is bringing fresh clarity and innovation to this tradition as she breaks new ground in understanding integral structure and function: the body as process.

The story of every body is written in an ever-refreshing pixelated environment, an ocean of shifting light and motion, multitudes of biochemical gates constantly opening and closing. There is no permanent story. There is only a whirlwind of accumulation, adaptation and shedding around a seemingly constant and ever-mysterious core of sentience, practice, and belief, processing, light undergoing re-creation, temporarily held in a limbo of semi-existence, and constantly evolving.

Discovering and living in that core intelligence is to live on the ground, I daresay in the ground, to live in oneself in a deeper way than most of us know or imagine. It is also to redefine the meaning of self as well as relationship. There is also a superimposed cultured body, the body shaped not only by ontogeny, physical development and the family milieu, but also by the philosophies, commercial, social and political practices of modernity which objectify the body as we become removed from the fundamental nature of humanity as beings worlding the world.

Being conditioned to cultivate a subjective self while objectifying the body is to become lost, to remain in the world but not of the world. This is an ongoing ‘decontexualization’ separating us from the most intimate internal process, and thus also from the larger milieu, distorting a conscious interactive fluid sense of being and place. To be more precise, real embodiment, according to Koch, is to reconnect with the animal body, animal knowing, the subjective experience of being and becoming ourselves and the world, and of being created by the world. It is to shift from the world as object to the world as subject, which is to approach the dissolution of Other.

For Koch, psoas is a sense organ, though conventional western anatomy considers it a muscle. Its function is a material path to orienting our somato-emotional experience, awakening this subjectivity, which is a deeply enlightening and enlivening path. It is the perceptual vehicle not only of descent into core experience, but of the material connection between the energetics of grounding, our connection to the earth, response-ability to place and self and the felt sense of integrity. It also transmits the ascending character of spontaneous (rather than calculated) presence, the energetics of a whole being responding to gravity in a restorative way and moving from a living center, immersed in a continuous flow of feeling, creativity and intuitive connection to dynamic possibility. Except that arriving at this quality of integrity also undermines our habits of creating and perceiving Others. This is a profoundly awakening experience. 

Psoas (I hesitate to objectify it by calling it ‘the’ psoas) is not only a material link between the dense body, instinctual motivations, the limbic system, the sensuous connection between the upper and lower body, but a process linking the animal and the spirit body. Rationality remains an essential function meditating instinctual motivations, functioning to connect the limbic system and the animal brain with the fulfillment of spiritual aspirations, the activity of the cortex, bridging the experience of the world as it is and the motivations and formulations defining the pursuit of a fulfilling path.

In a dry anatomy lab, medical students learn the physical location and quality of psoas as a pair of structures and connective tissues along the back wall of the abdomen arising from and adjacent to the spine, stretching from the lower ribs, traversing the transitional curves of the spine, through the pelvis all the way into the hip. And in that inert context, it mechanical functions can be defined according to its geometry and power dynamics.

But in the living state, the muscular and connective tissue relations of psoas include intimate communication with the rhythmic rising and settling of the diaphragm, the stabilizing fascia of the lower spine, reaching around the abdominal wall to the crest of the pelvis, down through the pelvic organs and through the hammock of muscle stretching across the pelvic floor to finally embed itself as a subtle but powerful primary mobilizer of the hip. Normal psoas is related to the aliveness of the muscular hammock spanning coccyx to pubis, mediating generative relations to the earth and the sky, the gross and the subtle, the energetic, the electro-magnetic, the physical and the metaphysical, taking and giving away, becoming, arising and disappearing.

From an evolutionary view, homo erectus undergoes a lengthening of the psoas to permit a fully upright posture. The unfolding of these events is still fraught with limited or distorted function. Many bodies, formed as they are by culture, bodies of every ethnicity and race, remain in conflict with themselves regarding the interaction of psoas, the abdominal muscles and the powerful erectors of the spine. Distortions of the poses may have antecedents in the earliest experiences of life and trauma of every variety. It’s a delicate balance rendered there, easily descending into either torsion, rigidity or collapse. We’ve all seen it and most of us know it. But in the best of worlds, psoas mediates a responsive attention and motility in a body that doesn’t need to adopt complex compensatory and increasingly rigid patterns to marshal its reserves or experience its own capacities.  

What we know and see and feel in western culture is the image-making apparatus set to convince us of the dominance of more superficial musculature of the trunk: spinal erectors and the abdominal wall. We internalize the messaging of the patriarchy in the ways we present ourselves to others, in how we move and respond to the murmuring of emotion in our social relations, in how we exercise, fortify and protect ourselves against what we perceive as a competitive and even perpetually threatening world. The externalized conflict is expressed as superficiality, as progressive dissociation from lived experience, as the disconnection we have wrought upon ourselves in pursuit of the ideals and ideology of individuation, independence, competition, dominance, and our profoundly mistaken reliance on purely rational approaches to ‘problems.’ 

White privilege is a field of action permitting–even demanding– we get away with denying the wild, the erotic, the darkly and brightly creative, the subtle sensuality and continuous effervescence of the sacred. Re-sacralizing—or restoring a capacity to process experience more fully involves a literal re-centering of our attention to a different locus, a different viewpoint not so much about who we are but what we are. That locus is the energy center known by the Chinese as dantien, by the Japanese as hara, the Hindus as the swadisthana chakra. These words all refer to roughly the same thing: the source of power or intuition, the creative center of subjectivity, Koch’s ‘core awareness,’ a self-balancing, self-generating healing and restorative source, the descent into ancient wisdom, the alchemical cauldron that is the fluid, in its most primal function, keystone of human structure, the sacrum.

The systemic legacy of colonialism is white supremacy. We’ve witnessed the postures and behaviors of white supremacy in the most graphic forms and countless images of people of color being brutalized and killed. But that is a mere whisper of the deep and long history of dominance expressed in the movements, gestures, tonalities and finalities embedded in cultured white and black bodies. The non-verbal micro-rituals defining power, the learned gestures of deference and submission, the careful constraint of expression, the rigid hierarchies deciding who and when one may be permitted to assume one’s full stature, to fully inhabit one’s generative and creative integrity, to give voice to intrinsic intelligence beyond intellect. 

Historically marginalized people who assume their full stature (whether standing or kneeling) may be perceived as a threat to the prevailing power structures. The full access and activation of the muscles connecting the animal body to the soul, one’s relationship to the midline, the feet firmly planted, the unflinching gaze, the voice firm and direct–that quality of definitive physical presence without rigidity, aggression or retreat, unimpeachable moral certitude clearly speaking unassailable truth, that expression of intrinsic power communicates an integrity and expressive capacity that directly threatens the systemic barriers devoted to keeping those qualities of awareness and fearlessness from spilling out into the wilds beyond the limiting corrals of truth defined by whiteness. Those entirely conditioned in the epistemologies of whiteness cannot even comprehend such a thing. It’s immediately triggering to the hyper-defended identity of whiteness. 

Women are particularly subjected to those constraints as Susan Griffin articulates so well in her book of essays, The Eros of Everyday Life. We live under a tyranny of abstract thought at the expense of feminine life force. Women continue to be deemed inferior because they cannot be objective, because they typically live closer to the cycles of life and death than men, because they swim in a hormonal soup of creative eroticism, because they are subject to the turbulent and unpredictable, uncontainable currents of emotion or maybe they live somewhere beyond the fortress of rationality in which white patriarchy hunkers down. Historically, even the inclination of the pelvis was regarded as evidence enough of female inferiorityHow much further from an authentic comprehension of biology, sensuality and erotic vitality could that possibly be?

The body is and continues to be a key battleground in this era of late-stage capitalism and the deconstruction of the legacies of modernity, supremacy and domination. It’s a long and complex journey. And we may not have as much time as we think to recover the animal within. But the closer we look, the more we will find our true selves there.

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