Yoga for a Healthy Psoas: Possibly the Second Most Important Muscle of AllApr 01, 2021 08:30AM ● By Sheila Ewers
The psoas muscle grows out of both sides of the spine laterally from the 12th thoracic vertebrae (T12) to each of the five lumbar vertebrae. From there, it flows down through the abdominal core and the pelvis and attaches to the top of the thigh bone, or femur. The psoas is the only muscle in the body that connects the spine to the legs. As the major hip flexor, it helps to keep us upright and to lift our legs to move forward. Located behind the abdominal muscles and the digestive and reproductive organs and alongside the spine, it is set deep in the body, supporting the core. It also works in harmony with the respiratory diaphragm through a web of connective tissue that binds the two together.
Neurologically, the psoas muscle is connected to the amygdala, the primitive brain associated with the flight or fight response. When one feels threatened or afraid, the amygdala sends signals to release stress hormones, preparing the body to contract the psoas muscle in preparation to fight or flee. That messaging runs primarily through the vagus nerve, which is embedded deeply within the psoas muscle. The amygdala’s response can be activated in two ways: The top-down response happens when the brain interprets a stimulus as threatening. The bottom-up response is triggered when an instinctive reaction by the sensors deep within the core sends a stress signal upwards to the amygdala. For example, when we are exposed to a startling noise or when we lose our balance, the perceived danger turns on the stress response, bringing the psoas into contraction, and that tension sends signals back to the brain that the danger is still present. In cases of trauma, this loop can become embedded, creating a chronic imbalance in the psoas that can lead to back pain, postural misalignment, knee and hip injury and more.
Liz Koch asserts that “the psoas is so intimately involved in such basic physical and emotional reactions, that a chronically tightened psoas continually signals your body that you’re in danger, eventually exhausting the adrenal glands and depleting the immune system.” Furthermore, according to Koch, this situation is exacerbated by many things in our modern lifestyle, from constrictive clothing to chairs that distort our posture, curtail our natural movements and further constrict our psoas.
A healthy psoas is able to both contract and fully release, allowing us to spring into action when necessary, but also to let go of tension easily in order to dance, move, play and feel connected to the earth and its rhythms. Yoga teacher and filmmaker Danielle Prohom-Olson notes that the Taoist tradition considers the psoas integral to the lower dantian, a storehouse of Qi, or vital energy, located just below the navel. For this reason, she names the psoas the “muscle of the soul.” When the psoas is strong and supple, it allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints, balancing our lifeforce.
The key to letting go of unnecessary tension in the psoas is to create a safe space for surrender and conscious release. This can happen spontaneously when you are relaxed and the muscle is activated or stretching. It might be accompanied by trembling or a shaking sensation, a perfectly healthy somatic response to deep release. When the physical release is processed by the brain, it can sometimes be accompanied by emotional release or processing of long-held feelings, including trauma. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of the psoas, it is advisable to explore slowly and gently rather than push to the edge of sensation or awareness.
The following yoga poses help to down-regulate the nervous system and encourage gentle release in the psoas muscle.
Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing
(Photos: Sheila Ewers)
Lie on your back in constructive rest position—with knees bent and feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart. Let your knees fall together at the midline for support and rest your hands gently on your abdomen. As you breathe in, focus on the rise of the abdomen into the palms of the hands, expanding as fully as you comfortably can, and as you breathe out, feel the abdomen descend and draw back towards the spine. Continue like this for eight to 10 breaths, increasing your capacity without strain.
Supine Psoas Contraction and Release
From a supine position, draw your knees above your hips. Place your palms on your upper thighs. Try to move your thighs towards you while pushing away with your hands. Ideally, you will experience very little movement but a great deal of sensation deep in the abdominal core and psoas. Hold for five breaths, then lengthen both legs onto the floor and fully relax the muscles. Repeat this process, again noting any differences in sensation.
From a standing position, step your left leg far behind you and gently lower your knee to the mat. Use a blanket to support the knee if you experience discomfort. Ensure that your right knee is stacked directly above the right ankle. Bring your hands to your right knee, keeping the torso upright and engaging the abdominal muscles to prevent tension in the lumbar spine. Lengthen your exhalations and soften the front of the left hip. For a deeper stretch, you can reach your arms overhead. Hold for five breaths, then repeat on the opposite side.
Supported Bridge Modification
From a supine position, with knees bent, press into the soles of your feet to lift your hips. Slide a bolster or stacked blankets beneath your lumbar spine, then lower the hips onto the support. Straighten your legs forward. Remain in the pose for three to five minutes.