Ah, the PSOAS (“so-as”.)
Some have heard the name; some just know it as a primary hip flexor.
This is an extremely important focal point for athletes or anyone desiring balance, alignment and pain free movement and optimal performance. Structurally, the psoas holds the spine up on top of the pelvis (with help from the piriformis – that’s another blog post…) In fact, the psoas and the piriformis are the only two muscles that connect our spine to our legs (with the piriformis doing it at the sacrum per picture to the left.)
There is a psoas on either side of the spine, and the psoas is comprised of the psoas major and psoas minor (though interestingly, some people don’t have the psoas minor). Those two muscles combine to create the iliopsoas. When we came to stand from all fours, the psoas major stretched across the rim of the pelvis creating the spine’s lumbar curve as the newly engaged psoas pulled the lower vertebrae forward and down.
The psoas is the “walking/running/cycling” muscle – functionally it lifts the leg up, flexing the hip and moving the leg up then out. Walking and running are technically “falling” and it’s the psoas major (and iliacus running inside the pelvic bowl) that prevents us from falling on our faces. Of course there are many muscles involved in the business of walking/running but the psoas initiates the movement of the leg that catches the upper body over and over again. The psoas falls back along the spine while lifting the leg, brings the knee to the chest, curls the spine and bends us at the hip. During walking (and running and to some extent pedaling), the psoas moves like a pendulum through the core maintaining its full length as the leg swings forward and back. A well-toned and properly aligned psoas makes standing and moving much easier and keeps hips and low back ideally pain-free.
When used properly, the psoas is a guidewire and sensitively responds to the movement of the spine and legs. When misused, overused or not firing, the psoas becomes rigid and limits movement. Over 50% of physical therapists focus on the psoas when low back pain is the issue (Anatomy 101 below helps explain why…)
Some posture experts, anatomy specialists and others believe the psoas is more of an organ – a perceptive organ – than a muscle. Interesting! The fiber of the psoas is different than any other muscle in the body and is believed to be biointelligent tissue. It is believed that the psoas is responsible for our “gut instinct” and where the body stored unprocessed trauma. It may sound a bit crazy, but when the body suffers a trauma of any kind and fails to work through it or fully process it, the residue of the experience(s) can stay on deep in our psoas, ready to manifest itself when you’re ready to process, or maybe even when you’re not ready. There are many reasons why – but this is believed to one of the primary reasons why people frequently cry during hip opening poses in yoga.
Also, the psoas serves as a “shelf” for several organs so when tense, it disturbs digestion and reproductive functioning, negatively impacts circulation and increases anxiety.
The psoas moves from the deepest core at the 12th thoracic vertebrae and comes diagonally forward to the front of the body, over the hip socket and down to attach on the lesser trochanter of the femur. It is the only muscle in the body that goes from above the waist to below and from the back of the body to the front. At the spine, it has SIX attachment points (T12 through L5), hence why it is such a critical focus for people with low back pain or pathology.
The psoas’ relationship to the diaphragm affects the breath. The fascia (connective tissue) of the upper end of the psoas co-mingles with the fascia of the diaphragm (the primary breathing apparatus.) Tom Myers calls this “where walking meets breathing.”
The psoas becomes short and rigid from sitting and inactivity. From the time babies are born, car seats start that closed front hip position that shortens the psoas. Sitting, sitting, sitting is the worst thing for the psoas, hips, hamstrings and low back. So get up and get moving.
HAPPY PSOAS MOVEMENT – STRETCHES FOR THE PSOAS, OTHER HIP MUSCLES and EVEN LOW BACK
(NOTE – this is mostly a mild backbending practice attempting to gently impact the length, suppleness and function of the psoas. This takes time so don’t be on a timeline or impatient.)
#1. OVER PROP HAPPY HIPS
– put a yoga block, bolster, firm pillow or rolled blanket at the hips, right along buttocks horizontally
– shoulders grounded heavily on floor
– bend right knee into chest (that’s the psoas helping you bring it in) and clasp fingers around right shin (a modification here would be to grab the back of the right thigh or to put a yoga strap or towel behind the back thigh and hold that in)
– keep left leg straight with left heel sharp to the ground; keep left foot flex by pulling toes to shin
– stay active with the left leg and continually moving it to straight – this is the psoas stretch in the left leg with help over the prop
– hold for approximately 30 seconds minimum or up to one minute, breathing steadily
– switch sides
– do two times each leg
#2. QUAD STREEEEEEEETCH
– since the quad is the gateway to stretching the psoas, this is critical
– from #1 above roll onto your stomach
– come up onto your left forearm and bring your left hand toward your right elbow on the floor
– reach the right hand back and as you bend the right knee, grab the top of your right foot
– (modification would be to put a yoga strap or towel around the right ankle)
– as you “kick” the right foot into your right hand, elongate the right quad and move the kneecap away and up
– hold about 30 seconds to one minute
– switch sides
– do two times each side
#3. LUNGE TOOK A TURN
– from all fours, step left foot forward and turn left toes to left to about “10 o’clock”
– place blanket or extra padding under right knee; place right hand on yoga block or stack of books or concrete block (you get the idea)
– let hips drop forward into deeper stretch in quad and hip
– rotate upper body to look back over left shoulder
– you may or may not be able to reach back for the right ankle (per picture); if you can catch foot with bent knee, great – that’s a quad and psoas stretch combo
– otherwise simply keep right leg stretched straight back with toes on floor
– hold for approximately 30 seconds (no less)
– switch sides
– do two times each side
#4. SIDE BENDZZZZZZ
– any side bend is good for several muscles including the psoas, quadratus lumborum, etc., etc.
– seated or standing, root down through your feet and activate the leg muscles for stability
– let the left hand slide down your hip or outer thigh as you side bend to the left with the right arm reach overhead
– bend directly from the waist, not from the low back
– keep the shoulders dropping down your back as far as you can drop them away from ears
– lift chin and breath smoothly
– hold approximately 15 seconds, relax and exhale further into the side bend
– switch sides slowly
– do three to five times each side
#5. UPDOG GOING UPTOWN
– hands will either be on the floor, or use to yoga blocks on their lowest height
– come to hands and knees, hands either on floor or blocks (as in pic)
– drop hips slooooowly forward toward hands and “drag” legs to straighten them behind you
– ideally if you can muster it, the only things touching the floor are you hands and tops of your feet
– energized through the spine, shoulders come back and down; work to bring the chest forward in front of the arms
– from the side, ear, shoulder, elbow and hip are in a vertical line with hips heavy toward floor
– if you feel a kink or pull in the low back, squeeze glutes, activate inner thighs toward each other and sharpen tailbone toward heels
– hold for five to 15 seconds, then move back to hands and knees
– rest in child’s pose for at least three to five breaths
#6. FINISH by laying on your back for a minimum of 3-5 minutes to soak in the effects of these postures on the psoas – and other functions.