When I am teaching I often refer to the psoas in my classes and I have written about it many times as well and its a fascinating subject, far more interesting than most muscles. And in class recently someone asked me to explain why its important. But its such a big subject that talking about in class just takes too much time and I wonder if she was just trying to get out of doing the extra core work I had planned…..
Ok so what is the psoas? Well its two muscles actually, one on either side of the body emerging from the thoracic spine, T-12 to be exact and running down into the abdominal cavity and pelvis. It also attaches to each of the 5 lumbar vertebrae and it attaches to the lesser trochanter, the thigh bone. It shares the tendon attachment at the thigh with the iliacus muscle and so they work together and usually when we refer to the psoas in yoga we are actually referring to the iliopsoas complex. Take a look at the picture…. You can see where the psoas starts on the thoracic vertebrae just below the last rib…..follow it down, you can see the attachments on each of the lumbar vertebrae and where it flows down into the pelvis and where it finally attaches (along with the iliacus) to the inside of the thigh bone.
Ok now you know where it is, lets talk about what it does. It is most often referred to as a hip flexor, hip flexors are muscles in the front of the hip that act to lift the knee and bring the thigh towards the belly. But the psoas is actually more of a pendulum allowing the leg to swing free during the act of walking. So when the psoas is supple and expressive then there is a freedom in your walking, running and other movements. The psoas muscles are deeply affected by our movement patterns or lack of them. If you sit for long periods of time they shorten, tighten and dry out, losing their suppleness. They can pull the pelvis out of balance, strain the back muscles and result in back pain and sciatica. But a weakened, constricted and unresponsive psoas can also influence your digestion, affect the kidneys and adrenal glands which can then compromise the immune system. When the psoas is short, dry and constricted it can affect many things in the pelvis it can compress nerves and limit space in the pelvis.
The psoas isn’t just a muscle of movement it is also a deeply emotional muscle, it is affected by fear, love, anger, shame and trauma along with many others. It is also the muscle that moves through all three lower chakras, so it is deeply affected by chakra imbalances.
We tend to think of muscles (when we think of them at all) as two dimensional ‘things’. They contract, they expand, we can strengthen them or we can stretch them. That’s pretty much the extent of how we think of muscles. And if we were talking about your biceps I’d probably agree, but some muscles like the iliopsoas behave or act differently oh they contract and expand but they also ‘fire’ or ‘freeze’ and you can’t strengthen a muscle that is constantly firing and you can’t stretch one that’s frozen. That’s why when we talk about the deep muscles of the abdomen we often say to ‘release’ or lengthen them. These muscles need to be resilient and supple, they should be strong too but with a strength that is more of a tensile strength. We get this from rehabilitating our movement patterns and by liberating our breathing patterns. This is why yoga is so beneficial to those suffering from back pain. We aren’t just making your back muscles ‘bigger’ or ‘stronger’ yoga is changing the movement patterns that tightened up, dried out and created constriction in the deep core muscles.
In yoga it is the combination of breathing, that frees up tension and the subtle movements, that release constriction, that help create a supple and resilient psoas.
The easiest pose to do that helps release tension in the iliopsoas is Constructive Rest Pose; if you take my classes you see this a lot, whether in a gentle class, restorative class or a power class. CRS uses gravity to release deep muscle tension.
Lay on your back with the knees bent and have your feet and knees as wide as your hip sockets. Let the back be neutral neither lifting or pressing down the lumbar spine. Use no force. Let your breathing be easy, soft and relaxed. You can also try taking the feet a little wider than the hips and let the knees fall in towards each other. If you are in an active phase of back pain you can elevate the feet that can help keep the pelvis neutral.
Laying in CRP not only relaxes the physical body but also can activate the relaxation response and calm the central nervous system and that alone does a lot to ease back pain.
Try out CRP and let me know how you feel.
One of my favorite authors is a Somatic educator named Liz Koch she has been studying the psoas for more than 30 years her book “The Psoas Book” was groundbreaking in that it took a very complex subject and presented in a way that was easily digestible and it began my exploration of the workings of the iliopsoas more than 20 years ago. It is a wonderful and informative book that I highly recommend. Check it out!