Therapeutic Yoga can be used to help your body return to a balanced state.
The psoas located on the front of the spine and hips can cause hip and low back pain when it is out of balance. The psoas is truly an admirable foe. If you overuse it, it will fight back with a vengeance, can spasm and leave you standing crooked and in pain; if you ignore it and allow it to get short and tight, it can lead to years of cascading muscle imbalances and injuries.
The psoas can be a tough muscle to understand. In part, this is due to the fact that you can’t really understand a muscle in isolation. You need to understand the company that it keeps. What most people think of as one large muscle, is really two. The Iliacus and psoas have different origins, but insert into the same point on the inside of the upper thigh. The psoas originates off of the front of the last thoracic vertebra, and each of the five lumbar vertebrae. The iliacus originates off the inside of the rim of the pelvis.
When the psoas is short, it pulls the vertebrae forward and accentuates the backward arch in the low back. When the iliacus is short, it pulls the pelvis forward. Muscles don’t get out of balance on their own. It’s a combination of poor postural habits, sitting for hours at a time, and weakness in the muscles on the opposite side of the body.
Muscles become strained when they are always taking on too much work. I often seen people with a strained iliacus and psoas and long, overstretched hamstrings, weak buttock muscles, and weak muscles in the lower belly. These three groups of muscles help to support the pelvis and spine. Many yoga sequences can excessively overstretch the hamstrings with too many forward folds and ignore the psoas with very few backward bends that control the movement of the pelvis.
Here are three strategies to tame that unruly psoas and bring it back into balance.
Give Your Psoas a Break
For the strained and reactive psoas, you can’t stretch it. It’s already sore and overworked. Stretching the psoas will only cause more irritation to the muscle. Your best strategy is to relax the muscle. Lie on the floor with your legs supported on a chair. Use each exhale to allow the hip creases to become heavy. Imagine the legs sinking into the floor and the low back releasing. Hold this position for 5 minutes. Placing sand bags or bags of rice on the hip creases assists the psoas and iliacus to release. Perform this 1-3 times a day.
Strengthen Your Butt
In order to reduce the work your iliacus and psoas have to do, you need to bring them some help. Think of the hamstrings and gluteus maximus as supporting cast members. When they are shorter (especially important for those overstretched hamstrings) and stronger, the psoas and iliacus don’t have to work as hard. Bridge pose – Lie on your back, bend your knees, and bend your elbows to 90 degrees. Press down with your feet and the upper arms and squeeze your buttocks as you lift your hips. Gently draw in your belly to keep your back from arching. This lengthens your iliacus and psoas as you strengthen your gluteus maximus. In order to engage the hamstrings, energetically draw the heels towards the buttocks. Hold for 5 breaths and lower. Repeat 3 times or until you feel a slight burn in the buttocks or back of the thighs.
Lengthen Your Hip Flexors
The muscles on the front of the hips and thighs are called your hip flexors. These are the muscles that lift your legs and are comprised of the Iliacus, psoas, and rectus femoris (middle muscle on the front of the thigh). If you spend most of your day sitting, it’s likely that your hip flexors have become short. Gently stretching them can take tension out of your low back and hips. Only try this if stretching your psoas feels good. Step your right leg forward into a high-heeled warrior I with both hips facing straight forward. Draw your belly in to support your spine in a neutral position. Bend the back knee to stop the pelvis from tipping forward. With the belly engaged, slowly straighten the back knee and push the left hip forward. You should feel a gentle stretch in the front of the left hip. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat this on either side 3 times per day.
Janet Carscadden, PT, DPT, OCS, Cert MDT, E-RYT 200, is the owner of Evolution Physical Therapy and Yoga and is passionate about educating yogis and her patients about how to use yoga to restore balance to their bodies and minds.
Dr. Carscadden has two upcoming workshops on Releasing the Psoas.
Saturday April 2, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., Burlington Yoga Conference
Friday April 29, 5:45 p.m. – 7:16 p.m., Evolution Yoga
Psoas Release on the Yoga Wall