Yoga to Awaken Your Core: 3 Steps to Get to Know Your Psoas
You’ve likely heard your yoga teacher talk about the psoas muscles, and how certain yoga asanas affect them. But what are the psoas muscles? They are deep muscles that connect the upper and lower body, and the appendicular skeleton to the axial skeleton. Their main function is to work with other core muscles to flex the hips, but they also participate in lateral bending. Because they live deep inside our torsos, they are not always easy to access.
The psoas awakening series that follows synergistically combines the standing poses to awaken the psoas muscles. We accomplish this by first contracting the psoas in poses that face forward, then in poses that face the side. We complete the series with twisting postures.
Because that this deep core muscle is usually “hidden” in the unconscious part of the brain, we must first isolate the psoas in each pose, bringing it back to consciousness.
I use the technique of isometric contraction to isolate and awaken a dormant muscle. This technique requires an understanding of the action of the various muscles. For example, the psoas acts to flex the hip; contracting the psoas either bends the trunk forward or draws the knee up. If you are contracting your psoas on one side, it laterally flexes your trunk. It is also synergizing external rotation of the hip.
Isolate your psoas (and its synergist muscles) by attempting to flex the trunk or by trying to lift the leg. Accentuate this by resisting the action. Check out figure 1 below for how to do this with Trikonasana. Later in this series, we can transport the technique to other poses.
(Figure 1: Engaging your psoas.)
Place your elbow on your thigh as shown. Then, attempt to press the elbow down against your thigh by flexing your trunk to the side (arrow 1). Relax for a moment and then attempt to lift your leg straight up against your elbow. Finally, press down with your trunk and attempt to lift your leg against your elbow simultaneously. Neither your trunk nor your thigh will move in either of these actions, but you will feel your psoas muscles engage in your pelvis.
Remember, it is not necessary to use the maximum contraction. Work with around 20 percent of your maximum force. Use gradual engagement with these cues, and ease into the contraction. Similarly, ease out of the movement and pose.
This general sequence will be repeated for each pose throughout this series.
(Figure 2: Co-contracting your glutes and psoas.)
Balance and stabilize your pelvis by contracting your back leg’s gluteus maximus. Note that the psoas of your forward leg creates a force that tilts your pelvis forward while the glute of the back leg tilts the pelvis back. These two forces act across the strong ligaments of the pelvis to stabilize the entire unit. This is known as “ligamentotaxis.” Feel how this action stabilizes your pose from your core.
(Figure 3: Balance contraction with stretching)
Remember that Hatha Yoga combines opposites—the sun and moon or yin and yang. With this in mind, balance contracting the psoas by stretching it.
Figure 3 illustrates the genius of Hatha Yoga standing poses. While you contract your psoas in the forward leg, you relax and stretch your psoas of the back leg. Thus, each side of the pose balances the other.
Finally, explore “body clairvoyance.” This refers to the awakened body’s ability to anticipate an action and use the most efficient muscles to accomplish it—without thinking about it. The psoas awakening series sequentially activates different parts of the psoas—incrementally and synergistically. When the brain sees a conscious combination of actions like this, it will then automatically use the psoas in unrelated actions. This is analogous to running up a flight of stairs. The first steps are taken consciously, but once we get going we ascend unconsciously (and rhythmically). The act of typing on a keyboard is another example of this.
Put another way, once we’ve awakened the dormant psoas muscles, we begin to use them unconsciously in new tasks.
I demonstrate this phenomenon in my workshops by finishing the psoas awakening series with an inversion such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Full Arm Balance Pose). Students regularly report a sensation of rock-solid stability in their pose. This comes from the unconscious brain automatically activating the newly awakened psoas and stabilizing the pelvis.
Practice Tips for Engaging the Psoas
Always build contraction of a muscle gently and slowly. This aids to minimize the risk of injury and soreness.
Only contract the psoas to approximately 20% of its maximum force.
Awakening a muscle is accomplished by contracting it. Balance engaging a muscle by stretching it at the end of your practice.
Allow ample time for recovery between practice sessions.
Always practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
Always, in your particular case, consult your healthcare provider before doing yoga or any exercise program.
If you are new to integrating anatomy into your practice, remember that it is not necessary to memorize this technique on your first pass. Begin by enjoying the beautiful images of the body in yoga. This alone will awaken your brain’s awareness of the anatomy during your practice. Return at a later date for a closer look, and then gently go through the motions illustrated above as you do the pose. Then leave it. Your unconscious mind will create new circuitry while you rest. Enjoy this process, and when you return to the mat, you will be surprised at how easily you access this technique.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.
Would you like additional yoga practice tips including a core strengthening asana from Ray Long, MD? Read this: Your Glutes and Lats in Bird Dog Pose.
Learn more about the Psoas – Study with YogaUOnline and Donna Farhi: Anatomy of a Centered Body: Realizing Structural Imbalances in the Body – The Psoas.
Author Ray Long MD FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.
3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.