The Mighty Psoas
This amazing muscle has a major influence on our movement and wellbeing.
The Psoas (pronounced soh-as) is one of the largest and thickest muscles in the body consisting of the Psoas Major and the Psoas Minor. It is the only muscle to link the lumbar spine (lower back) to the legs. It attaches to the twelfth thoracic (rib) vertebra T12 and lumbar (lower back) vertebrae L1 – L5, to the head of the less trochanter of the femur (thigh bone). It happily works with the iliacus muscle which runs from the iliac fossa (hip) also meeting at the lesser trochanter.
The Psoas muscle is the main mechanics of walking. It is critical for balance, alignment, joint rotation and range of motion. Its responsibilities include hip and thigh flexion and it influences lower back posture and the position of your pelvis. The Psoas is essentially responsible for holding us upright while standing.
A healthy Psoas moves smoothly and gracefully between trunk and legs maintaining stability and responding to every movement of the spine. With every step its relaxed motion massages vertebrae, viscera and organs. In harmony with diaphragmatic breathing, the psoas functions enhance circulation throughout the body.
‘The psoas is complex and mysterious, and though defined as a muscle, it is actually a very sensitive and responsive tissue; a vital part of your survival fear response, also called the flight/fight and freeze reflex. As part of the fear response, it is your psoas that propels you into a full run, kicks your leg in defence or curls you into a protective ball while falling.’ (Core Awareness by Liz Koch,)
The Dysfunctional Psoas
The Psoas often contributes to back pain when it is tight, shortened, or unbalanced. When the muscle becomes contracted due to injuries, poor posture, prolonged sitting, or stress, it can alter the biomechanics of the pelvis and the lumbar, thoracic and even cervical vertebrae (neck). An imbalanced Psoas where it is shortened on one side, will pull the spine and/or pelvis out of alignment. A weak and overstretched psoas can contribute to a weakened lower back that is vulnerable to injury.
The number of problems caused by the Psoas is surprising. These include lower back pain, sacroiliac pain, sciatica, disc problems, spondylosis, scoliosis, hip degeneration, knee pain, menstruation pain and digestive problems. Our psoas is responsible for issues like neck and jaw pain, teeth grinding, difficulties breathing (it pulls on the lungs and diaphragm) and even PMS symptoms (it pins the uterus when too tight).
The list can also include biomechanical problems like pelvic tilt, leg length discrepancies, kyphosis and lumbar lordosis. The tension exerted by the Psoas when in a contracted state may compress the joints and discs of the lumbar vertebrae. This pressure may cause degeneration and increase susceptibility to injury.
A dysfunctional psoas is responsible for referred pain down the front of the thigh and vertically along the lower to mid spine. The Psoas can activate trigger points on the abdomen, the quadratus lumborum muscles, as well as the piriformis, gluteal, hamstrings, and erector spinae.
Strengthening your Core and Relaxing your Psoas
Imbalances often lead to overcompensation of other muscles within the body, leaving them tight and overworked. The Psoas can then stay contracted because of these postural habits and trauma keeping it short and reactive.
Just strengthening and/or stretching alone may not result in a healthy psoas as it may also be reinforcing existing patterns.Unbinding and lengthening the muscles in your body that have been over compensating and supporting the Psoas imbalances is very important.
Below are some exercise from Core Awareness by Liz Koch and yoga poses from Yoga International to assist in releasing tension and gentle activation of the Psoas.
The Constructive Rest Position (CRP), releases both physical and emotional tension in the psoas helping to re-establish neuro-biological rhythms. Simply rest on your back, knees bent with feet on the floor parallel to each other in front of your hip sockets. Place your heels about 40cm from your buttocks. Do not push your low back to the floor or tuck your pelvis. Keep your arms below shoulder height, resting them over your ribcage, your belly or by your side. Rest in this position 10 to 20 minutes every day. Let gravity work for you, (Core Awareness by Liz Koch)
Child Pose relaxes through your spine and lower back. From kneeling position, bring your big toes to touch, sit back on your heels, lengthen through your spine, and rest your forehead on the floor (or hands if your head doesn't touch the floor). Relax your shoulders, rest your arms alongside you. Relax your face and your jaw and breathe.
If this pose feels uncomfortable, keep your big toes together but separate your knees as wide apart as you like. If child's pose bothers your knees, you can place a rolled up blanket behind them or practice with your hips a foot or so higher in the air (puppy pose), which can also be a nice variation if traditional child's pose bothers your lower back.
Bridge Pose to lengthen your Psoas. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor and parallel, (use a block if required) heels directly under your knees. Place your arms at your sides on the floor. Begin with a neutral pelvis (maintain a small space between your lower back and the floor), and keep your middle back on the floor. Press your upper arms into the floor to draw your shoulder blades into your back, open your chest and shoulders. Maintain a space between the back of your neck and the floor as you press your feet, upper arms, and (gently) the very center of the back of your head into the floor as you lift your hips (by pushing your knees forward) up into the pose. For a more restorative variation, place a block or bolster underneath your sacrum/pelvis (not your lower back).
The Low Lunge is a great stretch for your psoas? But there's a little more to it than just coming into the pose and pushing the pelvis forward—at least if you're looking for a safe, balanced stretch. Instead of pushing the pelvis forward, try this: Back out of the lunge a little bit, and engage between your hip points, drawing them toward one another and allowing the psoas to ungrip. Move your thighs back, especially your back thigh; even lift your back inner thigh up. Keep that, and lift up through your low belly a bit (so that you're not collapsing onto your front thigh).
Extended Lunge Then you can sink a little deeper into your stretch; stretch your legs apart from each other, like you're stretching your mat in two, and reach up through your arms. Envision your psoas lengthening in both directions as you stretch down through the legs and up through the spine.
Enjoy a few breaths here, then repeat on the second side.