THE PSOAS UNCOVERED
Deep in the central hub of our body lies the psoas muscle. Unique in the fact that it is the only muscle that connects upper and lower body. It starts at the lower spine (T12), travels through the pelvic bowl, connects to the thigh bone (femur) and is part of the body of muscle known as the ‘hip flexors’. Both a tight or weak psoas can cause instability in the hips and lead to lower back pain – a tight psoas tilts the pelvis forward and cause an overarch in the lower back, while a weak psoas causes the pelvis to tilt backwards and reduces the natural supportive curve of the lower back. When the psoas is flexed it lifts the thigh towards the spine in standing poses, and the spine towards the thigh in seated poses. The glutes at the back of the hips contract when the psoas is lengthened – causing the back body to strengthen and the front body to stretch. The psoas becomes tight and shortened through prolonged periods of sitting or activities where it is repeatedly flexed like cycling or large amounts of core work. Running can either help maintain or cause problems with the psoas. When running, as you kick the leg forward you are contracting and strengthening the psoas, and when the other leg is extended back it is lengthening and stretching the psoas. For this reason it is important to consciously maintain a nice wide stride when running to catch both actions and avoid a chronically tight hip flexors.
THE PSOAS AND THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
This muscle is not only a functional muscle that connects upper and lower body and facilitates movement, it is also linked to the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system response. When we feel under threat the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, releasing the hormone cortisol which causes a series of responses in the body as it become ready for action. One of the muscles involved in this automated response is the psoas muscle. It contract ready to fight it’s ground or take flight. Chronically tight psoas caused by prolonged sitting continuously triggers the stress hormone cortisol. When there is no action required the cortisol stays in the system leaving you feeling a constant low grade state of anxiety and exhaustion. Lengthening out the psoas through gentle yoga poses will break this cycle and help to relieve this built up physical and mental tension.
EXPLORING THE PSOAS IN YOUR PRACTICE
In our practice we look for strength in the connective tissue of the psoas first by contracting it then lengthen it out through gentle lunges and backbends. Spend a bit of time at the start of the sequence to feel for where this deep set muscle lies and see can you get a sense of it contracting as it draws the leg towards the spine and relaxing as it stretches the leg away from the spine and extends the hip joint.
Approach your lunge with fresh eyes. Instead of dropping the hips as far forward as you can stay more upright with the hips stacked over the grounded knee. Press into the front foot, and lift your pointy hip bones up. Roll the inner thigh back and lift the back of the thigh up. The peak poses for this sequence are Anjaneyasana/Low Lunge and Ashta Chandrasana/Eight Crescent Moon. You will come in variations on these two poses several times. Use the alignments cues below for Ashta Chandrasana/Eight Crescent Moon to get the most out of these poses.
From Adho Mukha Svanasana, inhale, step your right foot between your hands, exhale here.
Inhale, press into your feet to come up, reach your arms up high, shoulder width apart or palms together. Stack your front knee over your front ankle.
Press out through your left heel, lift the thigh and firm your back leg, hug your outer hips to the midline. Pointy hip bones lifted.
Draw your navel towards your spine, broaden through your collarbones, lengthen through your spine to the tip of your crown, gaze forward or to your fingertips.
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Ruth Delahunty Yogaru