If you’ve taken a lot of yoga classes, or maybe (just maybe) are a fitness fiend who geeks-out on anatomy like myself, you’ve likely heard of the mighty psoas. Many refer to it as the body’s center of movement based on its location and myriad of physiological functions.
So, what is a psoas anyway? And how can yoga help alleviate its woes?
When you hear the term psoas the person is most likely referring to the combination of two muscles, the iliacus and the psoas major muscle—or, collectively, the Iliopsoas. In the interest of keeping it short and sweet, I’ll stick with calling it the psoas.
The psoas is basically a triangle of muscle fibers which attach on either side of the lower thoracic and lumbar spine and insert on the medial side of each femur (see graphic below).
Photo Credit: www.YogaAnatomy.com
The psoas can either make us perform hip flexion (i.e. when your legs come closer to your chest as in a forward bend), or can move the spine. Unfortunately, when our psoas is activated to move the spine it typically does so in bad way by drawing the tailbone down and forward, which shortens the muscles, removes the important curvature of our lower back and causes lower back pain. So, it’s not just tight hamstrings that contribution to back aches (though, lest you forget, you can address that issue with poses one, two and three of my most recent ALDC series on hamstring stretches). A tight psoas = a tight lower back.
In addition to these fundamental movements, the psoas might just be the most important postural and functional muscle in the human body. I called it ‘mighty’ for a reason! This muscle helps regulate balance, which is key to stability and agility through all the quick directional changes athletes have to make—whether that’s dodging a defender on the soccer field or avoiding collision with a spacy pedestrian whose head is buried in their smartphone while you’re trying to get through your urban jungle run (I digress). Better balance greatly diminishes the likelihood of injury.
For my yogis out there, the psoas is also the main pelvic girdle muscle used to stabilize the upper and lower half of the body in standing postures and is a key component of a powerful mula bandha, or root lock. Since our center of gravity is roughly at the base of our spine (the sacrum) and the psoas passes on either side of this pivotal bone, it helps regulate balance during pretty much any and all movement involving both the upper and lower body.
Enough anatomy and nerdy facts (for now), here’s the answer to that second question I asked in the beginning—how to get relief! For starters, you can open and lengthen the psoas with backbends to counter all the sitting we do this day and age. Any backbend will help. A yoga bridge, wheel or camel pose are all great options but ease into and out of them, listening to and respecting your body’s limitations.
The ultimate yoga pose for the psoas is Half Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). This deep hip-opener is where it’s at. When you bring one leg out in front of you, bent, and one behind you, straight, all while keeping your pelvis stable, you can truly isolate the stretch to the psoas.
Half Pigeon How-To:
1. Start by kneeling on all fours in Table Top position.
2. Draw your right knee forward onto the floor to the inside of your right hand, heel-toeing your right foot as close to the inside of your left hand as possible. Flex your right foot (protects the knee) and used your hands to align your right shin with the front edge of your mat. It likely won’t be parallel, but that’s your ultimate aim.
3. Walk your hands back to your hips for support as you slide your left leg back, untucking your left toes once you’ve extended the leg as far back as possible.
4. Alignment check! Make sure you keep your hips level and squared to the front. If necessary, place a block or similar prop under your right sitting bone to keep your pelvis square and supported. You do not want to force the right side of your butt to the floor by torqueing your right hip farther forward or toward the floor than your left. Plus, if the pelvis torques, you'll lose the psoas stretch.
5. You can stay up on your palms or slowly walk them toward the front of your mat coming onto your forearms, or perhaps releasing all the way to your forehead with arms extended forward.
6. Hold for 10-20 deep breaths (or 1 to 2 minutes). Slowly walk your hands back into your hips and come through Table Top position (and maybe a few Cat/Cows) before repeating on the left side.
Have you heard the BIG NEWS? Amy is opening a yoga studio (Yoga Heights DC) in Park View at the end of the month. She told us that the studio should be open for Yoga Week classes (April 28th - May 3rd) so make sure to add it to your Yoga Week To-Do list!