You have heard that tight hips, sore groin and low back pain are often related to tension in the large hip flexors (aka the psoas muscles). BUT what you may not know is that the best psoas muscle “stretch” for equestrians is actually a Somatic Movement called Pandiculation!
In this article I’m going to teach you how easy and painless it can be to relieve tension in your hip flexors!
Horse riders are acutely aware of how important it is to have “open hips” and a flexible back to properly administer the aids when riding and to have clear communication with a horse. Cyclists know that tight hips get in the way of pushing power and endurance. Dancers are frequently afflicted by excruciating groin or low-back pain caused by tight and abused hip flexors.
And the rest of us, because we sit so much in our cars or at the computer, are also all too familiar with sore hips, shooting pains and aching backs… As you may have noticed, stretching only offers temporary relief from tension.
Tight psoas muscles can cause:
- groin pain
- low back pain
- a “sway-back”
- shortened stride
- reduced endurance/energy
- restricted range-of-motion
- difficulty swinging your leg into a saddle
- a “chair seat” when riding a horse
- tension or difficulty “opening the hips” (in rising trot, for example)
You can quickly and easily reset the resting tension levels in your psoas muscles using Hanna Somatics exercises and by giving your brain time to passively lengthen your muscles with a ‘motor plan.’
These are the fastest and most reliable ways I have found to loosen and lengthen your hip flexors.
I’ll teach you a simple somatic exercise to relax your psoas muscles in a minute but first:
What is Tension?
Tension, put simply, is when a muscle or group of muscles are contracted. So a ‘tight’ muscle is a working muscle. Muscles are put to work anytime you want to move your body or when you respond to stress or trauma with involuntary reflexes.
When your muscles feel hard and sore, and you can’t seem to relax them no matter how hard you try… that’s chronic tension.
To say it another way, chronic tension is when your muscles are doing work for no reason, and seem ‘stuck’ or ‘tight.’ A total waste of energy.
What Causes Tension?
In a perfect world, your muscles should relax back into neutral after being put to work. But in the real-world, most of us end up carrying around some extra tension in the muscles we use most often. This tension accumulates a little bit at a time when we are stressed or doing repetitive motions, and becomes our baseline.
If a muscle is injured from over-work or being stretched too far, that causes the body to go into protective mode – like the fetal position – by shortening all the muscles around the injured area to ‘brace’ and protect it.
Any kind of repetitive motion, even when it isn’t causing over-work or injury, can also lead to tension in the psoas. Unfortunately, due to all the sitting we do, it’s inevitable that pretty much all of us have some degree of tension accumulating in our psoas muscles, every day.
This gradual accumulation of tension and chronic tension is also what defines our posture – it’s called Motor Sensory Amnesia, or MSA for short.
What Causes a Tight Psoas Muscle?
There are several causes of tight psoas muscles – and some of them are the typical hip flexor stretches that many people recommend! Over use, like intense physical training, or lack of use, like too much sitting, can also cause the psoas to become shortened and to feel tight.
Even something like sitting for extended periods is actually causing repeated contractions in the muscles that bend your body into the sitting position.
Over time, your nervous system learns to keep these muscles tight as it is constantly adapting to your ‘new normal.’ The result is chronic tension.
Why You Can’t Release Your Tight Psoas Muscle with Stretching:
All the muscles in your body that are used for movement are called skeletal muscles. Skeletal muscles can’t do anything without instructions. The instructions to either contract and ‘tighten’ or to lengthen and ‘relax’ come from your spinal cord or your brain.
So here’s the thing –
No matter how much you stretch your hip flexors, it can’t change the instructions being sent from the brain that maintain a muscles resting length aka resting muscle tonus.
Static stretching can loosen up the fascia and temporarily reduce the reaction of the ’stretch reflex’ but it has very little lasting effect on the tension level in the psoas muscle. Any length gained from static stretches usually wears off after a couple hours, and the nervous system always re-assert it’s instructions.
If a muscle was tight even when ‘at rest’ you can be sure that it was receiving instructions to contract.
How Do you Release or Relax the Psoas Muscle Without Stretching?
Most people suggest stretching, yoga poses, deep tissue massage or using trigger points to “release” the psoas. These can lead to temporary relief, but generally do not offer lasting effects, plus they are painful to do!
Because the nervous system is in control of the tension levels of the muscles, I find it more effective to go straight to the root of the problem – the messages coming from the brain and spinal cord.
So instead of doing traditional stretches, you can activate the reset button in your own nervous system by pandiculating.
Pandiculation – the Best Psoas Muscle ‘Stretch’ for Equestrians
Pandiculation is a natural polysynaptic reflex. It involves contracting a muscle or group of muscles by moving, and then slowly reducing the contractions back to neutral. You may not know it, but you have been doing pandiculations your whole life. You’ve seen a cat or dog pandiculate after waking from a nap. It looks like a full-body stretch, often accompanied by a yawn.
Pandiculation is nature’s method of preparing a body to move in a healthy, supple and functional way. It’s part of your parasympathetic nervous system, so it’s guaranteed to work for everybody. Because it’s a natural reflex, you already know how to do it. As we age and go through life, most of us do it less and less spontaneously…
The Secret to Becoming a Supple Rider
Thomas Hanna, PhD, founder of Hanna Somatics, discovered that by intentionally performing a pandiculation, we trigger the same self-care effects as an involuntary pandiculation. When we do a voluntary pandiculation, we cause our brain to do its own diagnostic on the muscles involved.
Instead of using leverage or gravity to mechanically put the psoas muscle into a stretch, we can mindfully contract and de-contract the psoas muscles. Doing this very slowly gives the brain time to notice how well the muscles are functioning.
Once the brain notices there is extra tension in a muscle, it can reset the resting level of that muscle back to neutral. It does this automatically! This resetting is often described as a ‘release’ or a ‘relaxation’ by bodyworkers. Rather than releasing the tension itself, we are changing how the nervous system is controlling the muscle.
Once the muscle is no longer being told to be tight, it is able to go back to neutral.
Ready to Relax your Hips with Somatics for Riders?
This simple exercise is a great one to do before you mount your horse or climb on your bike. Use this anytime you have spent an extended period sitting, squatting or kneeling.
Your psoas muscles are your main hip flexor, but they are not the only ones involved.
If you are serious about resolving your hip stiffness or pain, you will need to learn a few more exercises. I’m happy to help you!
Here’s how I can help:
Free Challenge to Start Unwinding your Tension
Join my 7-Day Somatics for Riders FREE Challenge. Learn 7 more somatic exercises that target some of the most common areas of rider tension. It begins with a seated version of the psoas exercise I taught you above, and an amazing series for your quadriceps, another group of muscles involved in hip flexion. The challenge also has one movement you can do with your horse! (for more exercises you can do with your horse, click here).
This free challenge is a great way to sample Somatics and learn some quick ‘brain hacks’ you can use at the barn or before you ride. BUT – most of our stiffness, aches and pains are connected to tension in the larger core muscles. To make lasting changes or get relief from chronic pain, you probably need to start with a full body session.
Somatics for Riders Full-Body Intro Course
For about 70% of riders, learning a basic full-body Somatics session will resolve most areas of tension or restricted motion. Get started with my NEW Intro Course. I have included an extended version of my Intro Mat Class in a step-by-step podcast style download for you, plus more! Get it by CLICKING HERE.
This is a collection of my most popular classes from all my years of teaching clinics and workshops with equestrians and athletes all over the world. Now available to you for just $37. It comes with a short e-booklet with written descriptions and photos of each exercise, and 10 bonus videos!
Dive Deep: the Posture Transformation Program (PTP) Course
If you are like I was, and are suffering from debilitating back or body pain that is making your daily life a trial, or keeping you from riding or enjoying physical activities, this course will help. Or, if you are a rider with serious competition goals or becoming the most supple and balanced partner for your horse, you may need more than the basic intro class I mentioned above. I invite you to check out my 8-week Posture Transformation Program. I’ll guide you through detailed movement classes to unwind tension in all the major muscle groups of your body.
In addition to the 8 incredibly relaxing Movement Lessons, you will also get weekly mindfulness instruction and practical lessons for taking these principles from the mat and into the saddle. This course includes lifetime access to the 8 weeks of PTP content, the Intro Mat Class audio download and ebooklet, and a monthly live group class with me, via Zoom.
If you prefer to find the answers on your own, there are a ton of free youtube videos available on Hanna Somatics, both on my channel and on those of my colleagues.
To your health!