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Yoga Anatomy: Releasing Your Tight Psoas with Clinical Somatics
The psoas muscle, formally called the psoas major, is a very important core muscle. The psoas attaches the lumbar vertebrae to the lesser trochanter, near the head of the femur. The psoas muscle is often grouped together with the iliacus muscle, and together they are referred to as the iliopsoas. Due to its location deep within the core of the body, the psoas is difficult to feel with your hands and to sense internally.
What Do the Psoas Muscles Do?
The psoas muscle performs several important actions:
The psoas flexes the hip, meaning that when it contracts, it brings the knee in toward the abdomen. If you spend a lot of time sitting, your psoas is likely tight as a result of spending so much time in a shortened state.
The psoas laterally rotates the hip, allowing you to stand like a ballet dancer with your feet pointed outward. Dancers often have a great deal of tightness in their psoas muscle.
The psoas adducts the hip, bringing the leg in toward the center of the body. If you squeeze your knees together, you are engaging your adductors.
Because of its attachments to the lumbar vertebrae, the psoas muscle contributes to lateral tilting of the pelvis (hiking the hips up one at a time) and lateral flexion of the spine (bending the spine to one side).
What are the Symptoms of a Tight Psoas Muscle?
You may have heard of “iliopsoas syndrome.” That’s just a convenient way to refer to the symptoms that often result from chronic tightness in the psoas:
• Tension and pain in the lower back, hips, buttocks, pelvis, or groin
• Lower back spasms
• Popping or snapping of the hip joint
• Radiating pain down the leg
• Lumbar disc problems
• Functional leg length discrepancy
• Idiopathic Scoliosis
• Instability in the core of the body
• Limited flexibility in the lower back
What Happens When the Psoas Muscles Are Tight?
The most common condition resulting from a tight psoas muscle is back pain. When your psoas is tight, and you are standing up, the contraction of the muscle brings the lower back into hyperlordosis, or a greater-than-normal degree of arching. This arching of the lower back compresses the vertebrae and brings all of the lower back muscles into a shortened state. The result is muscular tension and pain, disc problems, sciatica, and a tendency to throw the lower back into spasm.
A tight psoas muscle also causes or contributes to a number of other conditions, including hip pain, groin pain, uneven leg length, scoliosis, instability in the core of the body, and limited flexibility in the lower back.
Using Clinical Somatics Exercises to Release Your Tight Psoas Muscles
It’s safe to say that most people, from office workers to professional athletes, have some chronic tightness in their psoas muscle. It is widely believed that you can release a tight psoas by stretching, but in my experience, stretching does very little to release involuntary muscle contraction. You can read more about why stretching doesn’t work here.
As a former ballet dancer, I used to have extremely tight psoas muscles, which caused me to have back pain, back spasms, and uneven leg length. In the course of my training to become a Clinical Somatic Educator, I learned the technique of pandiculation, which allowed me to finally release years of built-up tightness in my psoas.
Pandiculation resets the alpha-gamma loop, a feedback loop in the nervous system that regulates the resting level of muscle tension. As I practiced Clinical Somatics exercises daily, my psoas muscle gradually lengthened, my back pain and spasms disappeared, and my hips evened out.
It’s important to understand that tightness in a single muscle is never the sole cause of a painful condition or limitation. Every movement that we make involves many muscles working together, so every pattern of tension that we habituate involves chronic tightness in a number of muscles. You must work with the entire pattern of tension in order to relieve your problem.
Another article from Sarah St. Pierre - More Than Just Stretching: What is Pandiculation?
Strengthen your knowledge and experience of this topic; study with James Knight and YogaUOnline - Developing Interoception: Creating Embodiment Through Somatic Awakening.
Reprinted with permission from Somatics Movement Center.
Sarah Warren St. Pierre is a Certified Clinical Somatic Educator and the author of the book Why We’re In Pain. She was trained and certified at Somatic Systems Institute in Northampton, MA. Sarah has helped people with chronic muscle, and joint pain, sciatica, scoliosis, and other musculoskeletal conditions become pain-free by practicing Thomas Hanna’s groundbreaking method of Clinical Somatic Education. Sarah is passionate about empowering people to relieve their pain, improve their posture and movement, and prevent recurring injuries and physical degeneration.
Why We’re in Pain: Why chronic musculoskeletal pain occurs–and how it can be prevented, alleviated and eliminated with Clinical Somatic Education by Sarah St. Pierre, CSE
Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna