|The Almighty Psoas Muscle|
|Your Body’s Center of MovementThe foundation of our bodies and our yoga practice lies at our feet. In order to incorporate both physical and energetic foundations, we must examine our body’s center of energy, movement and balance which begins near the psoas muscle — the pair of deep muscles extending from the sides of the spine to the femur that are activated in postures like forward bending (paschimottanasana) and Boat pose; and lengthened in poses like Warrior I and Bow.To understand the psoas muscles, we first need to describe some of the surrounding structures. Imagine looking at a body from the front (anterior) then stripping the skin away. Peel away the layer of muscles over the abdomen and then remove the organs.
You’ll now be looking at the front of the spine with its large vertebral bodies sandwiching those sometimes not-so- happy, but very important discs. You’re now looking at your back/spine from the front.
Looking down a bit you see the inside of your bowl-shaped pelvis with your sacrum towards the back and the pelvic floor muscles in place connecting from it to your pubic bone. Lying over the front, and to the sides of your pubic bone, is a thick muscle that heads up to the sides of your vertebral bodies and drops down to connect to a spot on the inside and back of your thigh bone (femur). This is the almighty psoas.
The psoas gets a lot of attention, and for good reason. Roughly triangular in shape, the top of the psoas attaches along five vertebral bodies starting at the last thoracic vertebrae (T12) and continues to attach to each vertebral body, usually terminating at the next to last Lumbar vertebrae (L4). This completes one side of the triangle. From the ends of this side, we create two more sides that slowly come together and attach at that spot on the femur.
Because the psoas is triangular, the different portions of the triangle can have different effects on the spine, and therefore the body. Usually when we describe a muscle and the action that it does we talk about the bone that it makes move, in this case, the femur. The psoas insertion is on the femur. Movements happen at joints, so whichever joint is crossed by the psoas has the potential to be moved by this muscle. With the spine stabilized, as it mostly is, the psoas makes us perform flexion at the hip joint as in a forward bend. What happens if we stabilize the femur? Can the psoas then move the spine? You bet, and at this point we’ve reversed the origin and insertion.
If we stabilize the femur, the upper half of the triangle has the potential to pull the spine down and forward as it attaches to the last thoracic vertebrae. The lower half of the psoas pulls mostly on the lumbars and therefore pulls them down and forward, which would make the pelvis, tip forward and down. This sometimes shows up as a sway back. If you stand up and tilt your pelvis down and forward you’ll probably feel how short your low back gets. Back pain anyone?
How does the psoas show up in our yoga practice? Probably the most powerful place is in back bending in all variations such as Cobra, Bow, and Camel where we lengthen and open the front of our bodies, and important action that reverses most of what we do all day: sitting, driving, working on the computing etc. A tight psoas, along with other muscles makes back bends very difficult. When back bending, it’s often a good idea to tuck your tailbone (the opposite of the action described above). This will give length to your lower back. Yoga is about creating length in your body; find it wherever you can in your poses.
Aside from back bending, the psoas muscles are commonly used in forward bends to pull you down and forward. All too often people rely on their arms to pull them forward. Because the psoas also helps regulate balance, it is used in every standing posture to stabilize the upper and lower half of the body. Our center of gravity is roughly at the top of our sacrum, and psoas just happens to pass on both sides of this sacred bone so it helps regulate balance around our center of gravity, which is where movement comes from.
Chakras, Bandhas and Fred Astaire
If you look at the space between the top and the bottom of the psoas, you will find some interesting pieces of yogic anatomy. Within its’ span are the lowest three chakras which control our instincts for survival, sexual energy and power. If you incorporate bandhas (internal energetic valves) into your practice you’ll find the mula and udhiyana bandhas within the realm of the psoas.
If you come from this place, both physically and energetically, you will have an amazing practice. An example of someone who moved from this space is Fred Astaire who gingerly floated a few inches above the ground as he danced. His movement originated from his psoas. I doubt that he was consciously aware of it, but his movements emanated from his psoas to his toes and fingertips. I’m sure he didn’t know it but he also utilized the bandhas and the energy to move his body. Just like any of the great yogis teaching out there now, Astaire mastered this area of his body and called on it regularly for strength and energy.
Using The Psoas In Sun Salutes
Let’s do a sun salutation paying special attention to our psoas. With your weight evenly balanced on both feet, become aware of the space near the level of your navel. Imagine finding length from your psoas as your spine lifts from your center. Every time you inhale, feel yourself getting longer from your psoas and spine. Do your first sun salutation very slowly and imagine every movement growing and blossoming from this area of your body. After you’ve done a few Sun Salutations, find your way into Warrior I. Sink into your legs and feel how grounded you are. From that very grounded and strong foundation lift your torso out and up through your psoas; your arms are reaching from your psoas, your spine and head growing longer from — yes you got it — your psoas.
This article was reprinted with the permission of David Keil. This article is the Copyright 2005 of David Keil and may not be reproduced without prior written permission.
David Keil was introduced to yoga in 1989 by his Tai Chi Chuan teacher. Both the Tai Chi and Yoga practice at the ripe age of 17 began his research into his own mind-body connections. As an Instructor of Kinesiology at Miami’s Educating Hands School of Massage, David had developed a fun, informal and informative style of teaching. David has a private practice where he uses bodywork techniques to relieve chronic pain. A Licensed Massage Therapist and Certified Neuromuscular Therapist, David has taught seminars in Body Mechanics for Massage Therapists and has also worked with other local and national audiences. David’s current practice is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. For the past four years he has had the honor of studying with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, in Mysore (four separate trips) as well as with John Scott, author of Ashtanga Yoga, who he also has the extreme honor of teaching with. David is authorized to teach Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. For more information on David’s Ashtanga yoga schedule visit Ashtanga Yoga Miami or visit his other site www.yoganatomy.com
The pelvis: A keystone for yoga
By Liz Koch
The pelvis is the keystone of our physical structure and the foundation of a centered yoga practice. To feel centered and supported from within, our pelvis needs to be balanced and functioning as part of our torso without torques or twists. A balanced pelvis becomes a base of support for the spine, rib cage and head. It becomes a bowl containing and supporting the organs, nerves and viscera. A balanced pelvis frees the illiopsoas, the core muscle and increases range of motion in the hip sockets, preventing lower back and knee injuries.
The stable pelvis and the psoas muscle work in harmony-they form a partnership. The psoas muscle, a large, massive muscle, bridges the trunk to the leg. When used properly, it is a guide wire and as such, sensitively responds to the movement of the spine and the legs. When misused, the psoas muscle becomes rigid, limiting movement. Over time, misuse shortens the psoas muscle. A shortened psoas flexes and pulls on the pelvis, compressing the hip sockets and destabilizing the lower back.
As in any relationship, a dance occurs between pelvis and psoas. What often shortens the psoas is a destabilized pelvis, one that can no longer properly transfer weight from the trunk to the two legs. The psoas is then called upon to hold the trunk and leg together. Becoming a weight-supporting element, the psoas no longer can function freely as a muscle. It begins to function as a ligament and over time loses its suppleness as a muscle (i.e. begins to shorten).
In yoga asana, overextending, forcing a stretch and poor positioning can all stretch or tear pelvic ligaments, destabilizing the pelvis and shortening the psoas. Ligament damage or the overstretching of ligaments happens when they are under inappropriate tension. The pulling away of the bones one from another pulls, stretches, or tears the ligaments. Like the chicken and the egg koan, looseness in the sacrum and SI-joints calls upon the psoas to help hold the bones together. The body then further compensates by overdeveloping external muscles such as the hamstrings, gluts and adductors. This in turn pulls the bones further out of alignment and engages the psoas in holding the person together.
Proper positioning of the pelvis and releasing, toning and lengthening the psoas muscle is an integral part of stabilizing the pelvis. It is also an essential step in using the proper hip, pelvic and leg muscles, protecting the lumbar spine from compression and thus assuring the accuracy of each yoga posture. Focusing on the pelvis centers the work squarely inside the very core of your being.
To release the psoas, place yourself in the constructive rest position before you begin to practice asanas. Lie down on your back with the knees up and your feet on the floor. Arms rest below shoulder height to the sides, across the chest or on the pelvis. Place feet as wide apart as the width of the hip sockets, which are on the front of the pelvis to both sides of the pubis bone. In this position, the psoas will begin to release. No force is used to flatten the back. Just simply be in the position and focus your attention on the weight. Where is weight felt in the pelvis? Is one side heavier than the other? Do nothing but notice. As the psoas begins to release, after 5-10 minutes, the weight will begin to even out.
To tone the psoas, begin on all fours (cat pose) and explore the ability to shift weight from four points to three points. The position demands accurate placement of each bone in its socket perpendicular to the floor. Begin by releasing the psoas in the front of the right hip socket. Without shifting the pelvis, begin extending the right leg behind you, only releasing the leg to extend out. The movement begins at the hip socket-in the front of the socket-not in the dropping of the spine or the tipping of the pelvis. You can only extend the leg as far back as you can maintain a stable pelvis.
This is very exacting work. You cannot tone unless you can voluntarily release the psoas. Toning is the act of engaging the psoas properly. It is an eccentric muscle which means it never shortens. Engaging or toning the psoas means it never contracts, but falls back along the spine, always lengthening both the front and the back of the body.
For lengthening the psoas, the modified or full pigeon, when properly performed, is a psoas and iliacus stretch. Once again, positioning is crucial. Most people twist the pelvis in this pose. Rather, keep the pelvis balanced and stable, and release and stretch out from the core. Keeping the pelvis forward and stable may change the range of movement, but the stretch is deeper and you can isolate the stretch the psoas and iliacus muscle rather than pull on the pelvis. Lunges are psoas stretches.
Liz Koch is the author of The Psoas Book, a comprehensive guide to the iliopsoas muscle and its profound affect on the body/mind/ emotions. Liz was recently featured in Yoga Journal (May/June 99) and Yoga & Health (London England Oct 98).
Liz comes to Chicago Friday, October 22, 7-10pm, to Transitions Learning Center, “A Beginner’s Guide to the Psoas” (lecture and demonstration; October 23, NorthRiver Chicago, “A Full Day Psoas Intensive,” and October 24, Lakeside Yoga in Evanston, a 3-hour yoga class for teachers and advanced students. To register for Friday night’s introductory class, call Transitions, 312.932.9076; for Saturday or Sunday workshops, call Lakeside Yoga Center, 847.866.2818. Liz Koch’s website is www.guineapigpub.com.