#28daysofyin Day 24 : Targeting the Psoas
#28daysofyin and today we get brainy! Warning! Anatomy…A couple of poses over the next two days to target the psoas (because we all need it), and as much info as I can fit into a few Instagram posts! This is such a cool muscle, it really fascinates me (and many others) because it’s such a common area of the body to exhibit dysfunction and it’s the only muscle to connect the spine and the legs. When we say we have a sore lower back, or tight hips, we can often mean we have issues with our the psoas (and its friend iliacus - together they’re called the iliopsoas because they share a tendon that inserts at the femur [the iliacus’s muscle fibres are continuous with the psoas tendon]). This muscle group can cause all kinds of havoc when it’s dysfunctional.
How does it get dysfunctional? Everyone says that sitting tightens the hip flexors, but what really does the damage is immobility. It’s like putting your arm in a cast (like when you’re a kid and you break your wrist, say). The muscle and fascia, due to a lack of circulation and chi, get calcified (just like how wood, deprived of oxygen, eventually turns to stone) and deteriorates. Sitting in and of itself is fine, it’s only a problem if we do it 8-12 hours a day. It’s like REALLY advanced Yin. ;) Seriously, we’d never stay in a yoga pose that long, so why a chair? The easiest solution to all aches and pains is to move, regularly, throughout the day, with a focus on maintaining or improving range of motion, rather than ‘exercising.’ And I could end the post right there. But I won’t! Because I am a nerd.>
The psoas muscle attaches to 22 (sometimes 24) different structures in your body, most of them vertebral and vertebral disc connections (i.e. your spine!). The lowest two attachments are on the femur (thigh) bone. Your psoas, the way I see it, is much more a spinal mover (or stabiliser) than it is hip flexor; team it up with the iliacus and the rectus femoris and we have a powerful fascial team to fiex that hip, but the muscle itself, it’s all about the spine. I am talking about the psoas major when I use the term ’psoas' in this little series, there is a psoas minor - only present in about 40-something% of the population, and its size differs by race, side of body and sex - we are going to leave it alone! The iliacus, with which the psoas fuses, attaches at the ilium and the sacral ligaments. The health of these muscles both have a big effect on the health of the SI joint. There is a bit of a hoo-ha about the term iliopsoas and whether we should use it. I think these guys are pretty intimate (the psoas and the iliacus, that is). The fascia of the psoas muscle is continuous- and joins with- the fascia of the iliacus muscles as soon as it descends below the lip of the iliac crest. Psoas major and iliacus are both innervated by the second and third lumbar nerve. I reckon it’s no different to saying ‘quads’ or ‘biceps’, so I am going to use it. We’re reducing what is all connected and continuous down to parts to better understand it anyway.
Quick and very important note: We only really have muscles to learn about when we bust out the scalpels. The word anatomy literally means ‘to cut up.’ We CREATE anatomy with our scalpels. As Gil Hedley says, “[the psoas] doesn’t exist except as a mental construct, but in fact our human function is always a function of the whole.” It’s all connected. OK?? Anyway, back to reductionism! When acting together, the iliopsoas flexes the hip, and may cause some adduction, and some inward or outward rotation of the femur, depending on the angle of the femur at the beginning of the movement. In terms of flexion (the principal action) they lift the femur if the pelvis is fixed, and cause one to sit up if the femur is fixed. It would appear to me the the iliacus (which doesn’t have a lot of leverage on its own) needs the psoas, but the psoas has its own thing going on.
This muscle underwent a HUGE change when we decided it would be a good idea to kick around on two legs. If we think in terms of evolution, when we went from being more of a quadraped to bipedal (i.e. we walk on two legs), we can see that the body underwent major bone and muscle changes - basically we underwent ‘double extension’, i.e. extension of both the hip joint and the lumbar spine - and which muscle crosses these joints? The ILIOPSOAS! Are you all excited yet? In fact, to get ourselves upright and stay there, we needed to adrenalise this muscle. The sympathetic chain of the nervous system passes between the psoas and the aorta on the left and inferior vena cava on the right. This means that stress is not our ilopsoas’ friend! The iliopsoas has a very primitive, primal relationship with our nervous system. I see it as the ‘get me the hell out of here’ muscle - as in our flight reflex. It would also ‘seize’ in response to stress, or we would stand our ground and fight - these are the three responses to stress, as I see it - fight, flight, or roll over! So running away? That’s the iliopsoas. Sticking it out, strong back, ready to throw a punch? Psoas! That foetal position? That’s the psoas.
It surrounds lower dantien - the sexual and digestive organs - so stress is not your belly and your sexy-time friend, and is fascially connected to the diaphragm. There are two tendons for the diaphragm called the crura that extend down and connect to the spine right alongside where the psoas attaches. One of the ligaments of the diaphragm (medial arcuate) wraps around the top of the psoas. Finally the diaphragm and the psoas connect through fascia. There is a particular fascial grouping that connects the diaphragm, psoas and other hip muscles. Breathing properly tones the entire abdominal cavity every time we move our legs. Win! This is one reason we breathe in yoga! A lot of the time (especially in chronic sitters) tight psoas extend (and shear forward) the lowest thoracic vertebrae and the rib cage while simultaneously flexing the lower lumbar spine while tucking the pelvis under via the thigh bone moving forward. This means its harder to breathe and it will affect our spine in our practice. Are you all overwhelmed yet? Me too!>>>
Here’s the pose! Just know, this is good medicine. :) Our pose is King Arthur’s Pose, which is another wall pose that really gets into the hip flexors and the psoas, depending on how you position your torso and pelvis. You’ll want to reverse up to a wall on all fours, and get your left shin and top of foot against the wall. Your right knee is bent, right foot on the floor, and you’ll be supporting yourself with your hands on your right thigh. Make sure your knees are wide enough apart that you feel stable. You can just stay here, or start to take your buttocks back towards your left heel. Notice how when you come forward the stretch moves more into your left thigh. If you stay up, with your torso high, you’ll find it more in the hip crease and some of you might feel that pinching in the low back, from your tight psoas. Say hello! And breathe deep. You will need to relax here. It’s so important. Make sure your knee is supported. See my pillow? 😉 Let the muscle go really soft, see if you can breathe into your whole lower abdomen. Stay for three-five mins, change sides. Tomorrow we’ll look at the more esoteric associations of this muscle. #kingarthurspose #yinyoga #yogaforall #yoga #psoas #iliopsoas #anatomy #nerd #yogalove #stress