The Psoas Muscle Resource
What is the psoas muscle?
The psoas muscle is extremely popular, and for good reason. It can get itself involved in many problems and issues that the general population deals with. Anything from lack of core stability, back pain, leg pain, SI joint pain, breathing problems, and the list goes on.
I discuss the psoas in detail in my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga p. 119 – Get a copy if you don’t have it already.
There is still another muscle that contains the word psoas and is worth mentioning briefly. It’s called the Psoas Minor muscle. You can see it on one side of the image above. As you look at the image above it will be on the right side as you are looking at the image but technically, this would be the left side anatomically speaking. Right click and you can open the image in a new window and zoom in once to see it.
As it turns out, the Psoas Minor is absent in approximately half of the population. Not to worry, its function is minimal. Back to the main players.
As I was saying this is the combination of both the Iliacus and the Psoas Major muscles. They link together toward the bottom (distal) end where they attach to what is called the lesser trochanter of the femur. This means that the muscles cross the hip (acetabulofemoral) joint. Because of their positioning, they are very powerful hip flexors. The strongest in the body in fact. Additionally, this muscles externally rotates the femur from anatomical position.
This muscle is probably the singlemost important postural and structural muscle in the body. There is a long list of reasons why it is so important.
- It connects the upper half of the body to the lower half of the body.
- It lies on either side of the sacrum and therefore our center of gravity, which means…
- It is Therefore key in controlling big movements of the body.
- Related to the strength of the spine.
- Can create a strong lordosis (accentuated lumbar curve).
- Often gets related to back pain.
- The epitome of “core” muscles.
- Lies in the pelvic bowl which is cross culturally the origin of energetic circulation.
- Related to Udhiyana Bandha (Read my article on this subject).
- The area that it lies in is also related to emotion – gut instincts – butterflies in our stomach.
- Also related to the fight or flight mechanism – takes us into a fetal postion.
Muscular Attachment of the Psoas Major
The Psoas Major attaches (originates) proximally (above) on the bodies of the vertebrae. The bodies of the vertebrae are the large round boney part that the disc sits between on the spine. The attachment is on the sides of this structure.
Attaches proximally to T12 – L4 body of the vertebrae.
As the Psoas Major heads down on either side of the spine it crosses a total of 8 joints including the sacroiliac joint before heading forward slightly to drop over the front of the pubic bone Before reaching its distal attachment on the lesser trochanter of the femur.
Attaches distally to the lesser trochanter of the femur.
One could easily argue that if a muscle crosses over a joint it can affect that joint. This seems to be true of the Psoas Major.
The eight joints that it crosses over are:
T12 – L1, L1 – L2, L2 – L3, L3 – L4, L4 – L5, L5 – Sacrum, Sacroiliac Joint and last the hip joint.
The psoas can have an effect on all of these vertebral joints mentioned above. It can either pull the lower ones into a stronger lordotic curve, or if pulling at the top, closer to T12 it can actually reduce the amount of lordotic curve. This seems to depend on other postural issues that might be at play.
Its relationship to the sacro-iliac joint is also extremely important. Without taking us to a completely new topic, it is the relationship between the psoas and the pirformis muscle that creates a muscular balance most directly at the sacro-iliac joint. The ligaments and other postural issues are always part of an SI issue, but muscularly the balance of tension between these two muscels is critical.
Muscular Attachments of the Iliacus Muscle
The Iliacus is sort of the lesser known part of the word Psoas. This muscle is dedicated to moving the femur at the hip joint. Short thick and powerful it’s the unsung hero of the psoas story and creating the powerful hip flexion that we need for so many activities.
It attaches inside the pelvic bowl onto the inside of the ilium. The ilium is the large flat bone that sticks up on either side of the pelvis. The attachment of this muscle defies ones normal idea of how a muscle attaches to a bone.
In the case of Iliacus the tendonous attachment is actually under the “muscle” itself. It’s not a long round tube of tissue in the way we would normally think a tendon is.
Attaches proximally to the iliac fossa (depression).
Attaches distally to the lesser trochanter of the femur.
Back Pain and the Psoas Muscle
People commonly associate back pain with the psoas. The thought is often that the psoas is either too weak and not supporting the back which leads to pain or that the psoas is too tight creating a strong lordosis which is causing back pain. Both are possibilities.
What it shows more than anything is the need for good solid evaluation of all the potential contributing factors to back pain. Some of those may be: lack of exercise, stress (particularly related to money), sitting for too many hours without stretching, big belly – every 10 pounds of weight in the abdomen translates into approx. 30 pounds of pressure on the low back.
The list could go on. One element that can be overlooked is quite simple, the muscle sof the back are tired, fatigued and are pissed off. Everyone seems to be after the more complicated possiblity and have heard of the psoas and therefore gravitate to it as if it holds the key to every problem in the body. This is a mistake. Even if it is tight, it’s probably still only one component of many that are actually causing problems for someone. Again, good evaluation is the key.
I especially like this site because they use images from the medical textbook written by Dr. Janet Travell (who was John F. Kennedy’s phsysician) and Dr. David Simon. Although it’s expensive, this is an exhaustive resource that I have poured through numerous times and have learned lots from. If it seems too daunting, you may consider getting a flip chart that is all images.
Trigger Points from these two muscles as you can see below can refer pain into your lower back. So, You should keep it in mind as a potential culprit in back pain. Did I mention that good evaluation is the key? I think I did.
Psoas Awareness Video Clip
Before too long I’ll try to add a video on how find your own psoas and how to stretch it.
(Below) David Keil Leading simple sun salutations at a yoga anatomy workshop (Stillpoint Yoga London). Use the image above as a mental image. Try to move with intention from where you would imagine this in your body. You can also download the psoas video clip from the DVD here.
Release Your Psoas
These 10 poses can help you create the internal awareness needed to access the muscle that is the key to your structural ability.
It can be difficult at first to access the subtle sensations of the psoas. Buried in the body, engaged in habitual patterns of holding (especially when you’re sitting or standing), and deeply linked to your emotions, the psoas is best approached with quiet attention, patience, and perseverance. Awareness is the first key. Like a flashlight that illuminates the contents of a dark closet, you can use your attention to clarify and define each sensation in your core.
Constructive Rest Position
Rather than trying to instantly correct all the imbalances and habitual compensations you’ve developed throughout your life, we’ll begin by simply releasing the psoas in a posture called constructive rest position. In this pose, you don’t need to perform any muscular action to release the psoas. Gravity will do the work.
To take constructive rest position, lie on your back, bend your knees to about 90 degrees, and place your feet on the floor in line with your hip sockets, 12 to 16 inches from your buttocks. Be careful not to flatten or exaggerate the curves in either your lumbar (lower back) or cervical (neck) spine. Rest your hands and forearms on your rib cage, on your pelvis, or by bringing them to the floor as in Savasana.
Now that you’re in position, shift your awareness to the support of your bones. Begin by sensing the weight of your bones sinking down toward the floor. Take note of any part of your skeleton that feels as though it is suspended, any place where the muscular contraction prevents the bones from surrendering to the pull of gravity. As your psoas continues to release, the distribution of weight will start to feel increasingly even throughout your body. Active Supine Stretch
Once you’ve begun to understand the skeletal position and internal sensations that accompany releasing the psoas, you can move on to more actively lengthening the muscle. Starting from constructive rest position and keeping both knees bent, bring your right upper thigh toward your chest. Gently hug your right leg toward your trunk.
Be very careful not to curl your pelvis up off the floor as you move your right leg; the pelvis should remain aligned with the trunk. Sensing into your flexed right hip and softening in the hip socket will help free the right thighbone.
You’re now ready to stretch your left psoas. Very slowly walk the left foot farther away from the hips. As the leg extends, keep your awareness on the front of the left hip socket, releasing any psoas tension you notice there. Once you begin to sense the psoas lengthening, follow the sensation all the way up the muscle to its attachment at the 12th thoracic vertebra, located behind the center of your solar plexus.
To amplify the stretch, push your right leg against your right arm as though you were gently kicking up toward the sky. At the same time, resist the push of the leg with your clasped arms. After a few moments, change sides. Don’t continue this pose if you experience pain or tension in your lower back. Instead, immediately go back to constructive rest position and relax, allowing gravity to release your psoas again.
The Ultimate Stretch
All variations of the lunge (sometimes called “runner’s stretch”) and Pigeon Pose are excellent for stretching the psoas, but for many students the best is a modified Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). When you stretch one leg out in front of you and one behind you while keeping your pelvis stable, you isolate the stretch in the psoas and iliacus muscles attached to the back leg.
To come into this pose, start by kneeling on all fours. Swing your right knee forward onto the floor between your hands, releasing and rotating the right femur within the right hip socket, and bring your right buttock toward the floor. At the same time, extend your left leg straight back behind you. Make sure you keep your hips level and squared to the front. If necessary, place a firm bolster or pile of blankets under your right sitting bone to keep your pelvis level and supported. Don’t bring your right buttock to the floor by torquing your right hip farther forward or farther toward the floor than your left.
This posture stretches your left psoas. As you continue to extend back through your left leg, check again that you are keeping your pelvis facing squarely forward. If the pelvis torques, you’ll lose the psoas stretch, and you may also compress or overtwist the lower back. If you’re stretching properly, you shouldn’t feel tension in your lower back. The release and stretch should begin where your psoas crosses your hip at the front of the joint, and you should feel an upward extension through both the front and back of your trunk. The line of your body should form a continuous arc, with no abrupt angles.
Now that you’ve discovered how it feels to release and lengthen your psoas, we’ll use a simple cross-legged posture to illuminate the proper use of the psoas in seated asanas.
Sit on a firm, folded blanket, with your feet and lower legs off the blanket. Bend your right leg and draw the heel toward your left inner groin. Similarly, bend your left leg and draw the heel toward your right shin. If either of your knees feels strained or if one knee is higher than the other, support that knee by placing a rolled towel or blanket or bolster under the knee or thigh.
Begin to notice where the weight of your torso grounds through your pelvis into the floor. Does most of your weight fall behind your sitting bones, or in front of them? If you sense your weight grounding directly through the bones, refine your questioning. Is your weight more on the front of the bones or the back? Lift your sitting bones off the blanket and pull back on the muscles of the buttocks, so that when you lower down again you shift more firmly onto the front of your sitting bones. See if this action provides a more effortless base of support for your spine, rib cage, and head.
To align your pelvis properly, you may have to raise your sitting bones by placing flat, firmly folded towels or blankets under your buttocks. When you get all your props placed correctly, you’ll be on the front of your sitting bones, with your knees lower than your hip socket. This relationship between knees and hips is critical in all seated postures because it allows your psoas to open at the front of the hip; in turn, this opening allows a release of tension throughout your legs and lower back. As the weight of the body releases down through the bones, it grounds into the earth, and a subtle sensation of support rebounds upward.
When your pelvis is stable and your skeletal structure is free to align properly, sitting feels effortless. You shouldn’t have to use muscular tension to hold yourself up—thrusting your chest forward or pulling your shoulders back to lengthen your trunk. If you feel as though your spine collapses without these actions, if your weight is still placed behind your sitting bones, or if your knees are still higher than your hip sockets, continue to add towels or blankets until you find the sensation of support that accompanies proper alignment.
If you still don’t feel this support even though you’re aligned properly, try shifting your weight slightly forward through your hip sockets until you feel a release at the core of your body. At first, this release may feel a little unsettling. You may even experience a subtle fear of falling. As the psoas lets go, you are shifting from a familiar feeling of controlling your posture with muscles to an unfamiliar feeling of relying on your skeleton for support. Since it’s new, the sensation may feel a bit scary—or you may feel relief as you let go of unnecessary muscular contraction.
Maintaining a released psoas can be challenging in standing postures. Biomechanically, standing on two legs is a very complex task, and many of us have developed habitual—but less than optimal—patterns of muscular contraction to help keep us upright. Fortunately, there’s an excellent exercise that allows you to discover what it feels like to relax your psoas while standing. Take a block or thick book and place it 12 to 16 inches away from a wall. Stand on the block or book with your left foot, supporting and balancing yourself with your right hand on the wall. Let your right leg and foot hang completely released. Gently swing this leg back and forth like a pendulum, taking care not to let the trunk bend or twist as your leg swings. (If your pelvis is torquing, you’re going beyond the released range of motion of your psoas.) See if you can sense the pendulum movement deep within your torso; it should begin at the very top of your psoas at your 12th thoracic vertebra, behind your solar plexus.
After you swing the leg for a few minutes, step down from the block and see if your two legs feel different. You’ve released the psoas attached to the swinging leg, and most likely this leg will feel longer, freer, and more relaxed.
Now reverse your position and swing the other leg. This time focus not only on the leg you’re swinging, but also on the standing leg. Check to make sure you’re not leaning into the standing leg hip. Try to sense your weight passing directly down through your leg and foot and into the block. Even though this leg is now bearing weight, you can release the psoas by bringing your awareness to the front of the hip socket and softening any tension you notice there.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Now let’s investigate Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Stand with your feet directly underneath your hip sockets, and conduct an inquiry of your sensations. Does your pelvis feel like a stable foundation? Is the rim of your pelvis parallel to the floor? You can check by looking in a mirror, or by placing your hands on top of your hips and following the pelvic rim around to the front of your body, checking to see if both hands are level. Do both your legs transfer weight equally? Are you grounding equally through both feet? If your answer to these questions is “Yes,” your psoas should feel released, and you should be able to sense gravity drawing your weight down through your bones. If your bones are aligned, you’ll feel a slight sensation of rebounding from the earth, just as a ball dropped to the floor bounces up again. This rebounding force creates a current of energy that aligns the body, flowing up through your spine and out the top of your skull. If your pelvis doesn’t feel stable and even, try returning to constructive rest position and the supine psoas stretch. After a few minutes of releasing the psoas and stabilizing the pelvis, return to Tadasana and see if you feel more balanced.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Once your weight feels equal on both feet in Tadasana, focus on sensing your ankles. Shift your weight ever so slightly forward and back over your ankle joints until you find the place where they feel most released. At that point, your psoas is also most free to release and to assume its proper function as a guy wire for the spine. Moving with proper alignment from Tadasana into Tree Pose requires that you continue to sense this connection between your standing leg and your spine, even as you shift all your weight onto one leg and lift the other into the air.
When you’re ready, gradually shift from grounding your weight through both legs to bringing it all onto your right leg. A common mistake in this asana is leaning into the right hip, which can strain the hip ligaments on that side. Instead, balance your weight directly over the bones of your leg, allowing the hip socket to remain released and the right-side psoas to relax.
When you can ground your weight straight down through your right leg, without leaning into your right hip or locking your right knee, you can start to turn and lift your left leg. Begin by softening any tension at the front of the left hip socket, releasing the left psoas. Then rotate the thigh bone in the left hip socket, contracting the external rotator muscles located behind the hip. Once you’ve rotated the femur, lift your left leg, placing the sole of the foot as high as possible on the inner right leg. Again, make sure you didn’t lean into your right hip as you lifted the left leg. If necessary, place your hand on a wall or chair to help you maintain balance.
Psoas and the Arms
If you feel stable and aligned standing in Vrksasana, you can add your arms to the pose. Just as your legs should be able to move independently of your pelvis, your arms should be able to move independently of your shoulders. And, as with your legs, this independent motion can only occur if your psoas is released. To avoid contracting your psoas as you raise your arms, bring your attention to your solar plexus and the back of your rib cage. Melt any rigidity you feel in these areas. Aim to soften and widen equally across the front of your chest and across your back, especially in the area between your shoulder blades. If these regions already feel open, straighten your arms, rotate them outward, and sweep your palms up above your head. If you detect any stiffening in the area of your upper psoas, pause and take your arms a little lower until you can soften the tension you sense in this area. Bringing your arms over your head can challenge the release of the upper psoas where it attaches to the 12th thoracic vertebra, and it can also challenge your stability through your standing leg. To maintain ease at the core of your body, focus on sensing a downward release from the very top of your psoas. Feel your weight dropping down through your bones, even as your arms float up over your head.
If you have difficulty sensing this release, return again to constructive rest position, with your arms at your sides. After a few moments, fold your arms across your rib cage. With this extra weight, the middle of your torso will rest a little more into the floor; you will feel an increased release deep in your trunk as the top portion of your psoas lets go. Once you’ve identified this release, you can again investigate it in Vrksasana.
by Liz Koch