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Hip Emotions: Is There Sadness in Your Hips?
The mind-body connection is what enables the ancient practice of yoga the foundation upon which to bestow its benefits of calmness and serenity. ‘What happens to the mind also happens to the body and spirit,’ issues yoga teacher, Donna Raskin, highlighting in essence what yoga, the Sanskrit word for ‘union’, is all about. Known to provide relief from physical discomfort and used to acquire a meditative state of mind, yoga can also be used to enhance function where mental and physical processes combine – in the dynamic of emotion. A holistic approach to interpreting physical discomfort as emotional blockage has encouraged a proliferation of styles, such as Forrest and Dru Yoga, which establish principles of practice upon motivation towards psychological healing. Yoga acknowledges the ability to hold emotional tension in various areas of the body, however the hips receive special attention as an area associated with emotional burden. Often referred to by yoga instructors as the ‘junk drawer’ or ‘attic’ of the body, our hips are considered a site of storage for emotions which we do not wish to confront and so tuck away into the deepest confines of our being. Physiologically, how can emotional burden be stored in the hips?
On a symbolic and physical level, we can consider how central the space of our hips is to the form of the body. Most often a place for a woman’s centre of gravity, this can infer a deeper connection to this area and the emotions it can hold, but for men also the pelvis is the seat of directive movement in the human body, imperative to proper alignment, balance and posture. Our peripheral nervous system, involved in the stimulation of emotional response in addition to other functions, establishes connections in the hip area to promote survival in times of emotional stress. From birth, the sympathetic nervous system response can stimulate a strong contraction of the flexors of the body, drawing ribs around the visceral organs and the knees up to the torso to offer protection should the infant suffer a fall. In this the hip muscles, particularly those of the iliopsoas complex, are activated which will later be used to run, kick or stand ground as the body grows more sophisticated in its ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. The psoas major is unique in that it is the only muscle which connects the spine and leg bones and, hinging on the central nervous system that attaches through the spine into the brain, can be regarded as an extension of the survival-focused reptilian brain in classic brain theory. Fascia (fibrous tissue) also connect the psoas to the diaphragm, causing an interdependency of breath with the tightness and movement of this muscle.
Stressed out of balance
The link between the hips and instinctual reflexes associated with fear and stress looks to offer an explanation for the storage of suppressed emotion in this area. Whether to dodge or flee an attack, much rests on the hip muscles being able to perform their function with power and speed. The site of some of the strongest muscles in the body, in an instant the hips are charged up with excess energy to maximise the body’s kinetic potential. However, it is rarely the case when subject to the mundane stresses of work and domestic life that we use this energy as nature intended. In turn, the calming influence of the parasympathetic nervous system works to neutralise and suppress the effect of the sympathetic contraction response, governing the ‘rest and digest, feed and breed’ gland and organ functions of the body to create the state of balance necessary for optimal health and function. Prolonged periods of stress or trauma can inhibit the ability of autonomic nervous system to maintain harmony when overstimulation becomes the benchmark for homeostasis, resulting in adaptation that resets the standard for normal. Under these conditions, constant stress can seem a fact of life or in more acute cases, dysfunction can manifest as a prevalent sense of anxiety or fear, heart palpitations, insomnia or adrenal fatigue. Tightness in the hips and other muscles of the body often feature due to insufficient relaxation of the muscles subject to the contraction of repetitive mechanical or psychological stress. The tightness itself further inhibits relaxation for when the psoas is tight, deep abdominal breathing is constricted. At the core of yoga and meditation practice is awareness of the breath as the breath is key to achievement of a restful state. As Guru T. K. V. Desikachar states, ‘The quality of our breath expresses our inner feelings.’ A tight psoas interferes with the movement of the diaphragm which in turn affects the ability to activate the parasympathetic response. This is achieved via signals from neuro-receptors on the wall of the main abdominal artery when, in deep inhalation, abdominal pressure is high.
Cases of acute psychological trauma often find its genesis in the freeze response in particular since by nature, trauma is ignited by intense fight/flight experiences without resolution. Like a circuit breaker, the freeze or immobility response enables the body to cope with inescapable situations without risk of energetic overload whilst activating an analgesic mechanism that reduces pain in death. In Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine PhD. highlights the capacity of wild animals to discharge excess energy in the aftermath of a freeze response to life-threatening events by shaking. The significance of this is noted by Levine to enable the animal to return to normal function minus any effects of trauma. The tendency of humans and domesticated animals however is to harbour the energy seeking resolution in fight or flight within the nervous system. Levine states, ‘Intense frozen energy, instead of discharging, gets bound up with the overwhelming, highly activated, emotional states of terror, rage, and helplessness.’ (Levine, 1997) Vicious cycles of emotional debilitation and immobility ensue. Therapeutic approaches like Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), designed for survivors of war and natural disasters, can demonstrate the relevance of the psoas in trauma recovery by utilising exercises that relax the psoas. With the capacity to provoke neurogenic muscle tremors that originate from the psoas, stored energy related to trauma can be discharged and resolved.
Considering the role of the psoas in energy storage and trauma release, the desire to cry during an intensive hip opening yoga class - as related through experience by a wealth of yoga blogs and articles - is not as unusual an experience as it could seem. Tears of forgotten anguish in pigeon pose have been noted to strike from states of a calm or even cheerful disposition and is perhaps yoga’s most common example of hip-related emotional catharsis. Facial unwinding, not unlike yoga and TRE in its relaxing effect upon the tissues of the body, is a practice of massage therapy ‘in which a client undergoes a spontaneous reaction in response to the therapist’s touch.’ Practitioners theorise the occurrence of emotional release in conjunction with facial manipulation with an understanding that is not dissimilar from that which is advocated by Levine. Upledger developed the notion of the energy cyst, ‘foreign energy … derive[d] from non-physiological sources, such as from external trauma, pathogenic organisms or severe emotional shocks.’ With the body unable to discharge this deposit of ‘foreign’ energy in the fascia, he promotes that unwinding facilitates its release, often accompanied by expressions of stored-up emotion apparent as crying, shaking, laughing, etc. (Upledger, 1997) Stored emotions may offer lessons from which the subject can ‘discover blocks that may have been hindering [the] healing process,’ according to physical therapist, Carol M. Davis. She goes on to suggest that ‘not only the myofascial element, but also every cell of the body has a consciousness that stores memories and emotions.’(Davis, 2009)
Notions of the body consciousness have been influenced heavily by the work of neuroscientist, Candace Pert, whose research in the 70s pioneered an understanding of neuropeptides as the biochemical agents of emotion. Binding to specific receptors on the surface of the cell, these chemicals are capable of triggering a chain of biochemical reactions deep within, changing the aspect of the cell to either positive or negative effect. In this way, the cells of the body are capable of retaining the energy of a traumatic event. Pert asserts, ‘Repressed traumas caused by overwhelming emotion can be stored in a body part, thereafter affecting our ability to feel that part or even move it.’(Pert, 1999) As to how this could relate to emotion stored in the hips, Pert hypothesizes, ‘I believe that unexpressed emotion is in the process of traveling up … from the periphery, up the spinal chord, up into the brain. When emotion moves up, it can be expressed. It takes a certain amount of energy from our bodies to keep the emotion unexpressed … I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged lower in the body.’ With reference to the metaphysical principles of the chakra system, yogic tradition can coincide with this theory and site the location for these lower-body unexpressed emotions at the base of this neural pathway in the hips.
Do you practice yoga? How do you generally feel after a session of hip openers?
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Koch, Liz. "Psoas Health: Trauma Recovery Protocol." Massage and Bodywork: A Magazine Nurturing Body, Mind and Spirit, Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals, Jan 2004.
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Davis, Carol M., Complementary Therapies in Rehabilitation: Evidence for Efficacy in Therapy, 3rd ed., SLACK Incorporated, 2009.
Levine, Peter A, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1997.
Noback, Charles R., Strominger, Norman L., Demarest, Robert J., and Ruggiero, David A., The Human Nervous System: Structure and Function, 6th ed., New Jersey: Humana Press, Inc. 2005.
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Upledger, John E., Your Inner Physician and You: Craniosacral Therapy and SomatoEmotional Release, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1997.