Most yoga students take the core muscles as the abdominal muscles. Actually they are a collection of many muscles around the belly and lower back, including the most mysterious one – psoas. Deep inside the core of your body, psoas affects almost activities of your life, your character and your physical well-being. In yoga practice, psoas is the key muscle to almost every asanas. Healthy psoas gives you the sense of freedom when you move from pose to pose. And when you hold the pose, psoas stabilizes you in stillness. If psoas is out of balance, it can be a significant cause of lower back and hip pain.
Finding Your Psoas
To see the psoas muscles, take your shirt off. Next, peel your skin off, and then remove all abdominal muscles. Now come the intestines and other digestive organs, remove them all. Continue to peel each layer until you can see the muscle in the very back of the abdomen, before you reach the skeletal core, there in the center lies your psoas, one on each side of the spine. Now you can get the idea of how deep and mysterious they are.
The psoas originates from the 12th thoracic vertebra and all lumbar veretebrae, forms a piece of long muscle and proceeds down the front of pelvis. On the way down, psoas joins the iliacus whose origin is the inner edge of the pelvic bowl on each side. Two muscles together, usually referred to as the iliopsoas or the hip flexors, run down and across the pelvis and finally attach to the bony knob of the inner upper thigh bone called lesser trochanter.
The major function of the psoas is, when they contract, to pull the torso and thighs toward each other at the hip joints, hence the name hip flexors. In addition, psoas supports the trunk through the way it transfers the weight of the torso into the legs, in other words psoas stabilizes the spine and contributes to the sense of feeling centered and grounded. In walking, healthy psoas promotes your balance gait, helps you walk freely and gracefully.
Psoas becomes tight and weak if you spend many hours a day in a slump position; sitting at desk, for example. Tight and weak psoas leads to many serious problem including lower back pain, arthritis in lumbar facet joints and intervetebral disc injury. To keep psoas healthy, you can learn how to engage and release it for maximum benefit using many asanas; for instance, Boat Pose – Navasana and Bridge Pose – Setu Bandha Sarvangasana.
There are many asanas that can strengthen psoas. Navasana is a good choice. Make sure that you are sitting upright on your sitting bones, not rolled back on your sacrum. Keep your feet flat on the floor and knee bent first. You can hold the knees lightly to help lifting your spine straight, then slowly lean back until you have your arms straight. Release your hands from the knees, reach arms forward but shoulders relaxed and chest lifted. Though this is a gentle variation of Navasana, you are strengthening the psoas as well as your abdominal and back muscles.
To challenge your psoas more than this, lean back a little more and lift your feet from the ground. Now your psoas is working harder to hold your torso and legs against the gravity. If you would like to challenge it more, move to the full pose by straighten the legs. Full Navasana requires the strong psoas to hold the torso and thighs in this beautiful V shape position. If you are a beginner, you better try the easier one first to cultivate more strength, also more awareness.
Releasing the Psoas
It is recommended to do some more psoas stretching pose for each side before doing Bridge Pose or Wheel Pose; Lunge Pose – Anjaneyasana or Warrior 1 Pose – Virabhadrasana 1, for example. Then you are ready for backbend poses which require you to do full extension of both hips. Bridge Pose, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, is a good backbend pose for both beginner and experienced students.
Put one block between your thighs to ensure that they remain parallel. This also provides you something to squeeze, in other word you rotate your thighs internally toward the block while you extend them. This prevents you from unintentionally externally rotating the thighs at the hip joints which can compress your lower back. Keep both feet grounded especially the inner heels and big toe mounds.
It is important to avoid tilting pelvis forward when you lift up as it causes compression in the lower spine. This is challenging especially if you have tight psoas. So be mindful at the moment you lift pelvis off the floor, make sure you lift your tailbone first, not the hips nor the back. This can simply guarantee that the pelvis will tilt posteriorly and provides more room for the lower spine to lengthen. Then your hips come up, and then the back rolls up into Bridge Pose. Hold for at least 5 breathes.
Healthy muscle is neither too tight nor too loose. You need muscles which are strong enough to do their jobs; at the same time you want them to be flexible enough to allow full range of motion around the related joints. The practice of psoas asana should be able to strengthen and stretch them; resulting in improvement of pelvis and lower back alignment, and giving you a freedom to do any activity in your everyday life.
Model: Apple in Navasana and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana