A Beginners Guide to the Psoas Muscle and Yoga

In the next of our ‘Beginner’s Guide’ series, we explain how doing Yoga regularly can benefit your hip flexors, improving athletic performance and relieving pain in the lower back, groin, and knees.

Located deep inside the pelvis is a group of muscles that enable you to walk and run. You can’t see these muscles by flexing them like you can when you flex your bicep. 

But, the hip flexor muscles, properly known as the psoas muscle, work in the background to stabilise your spine. So, it’s vital to ensure it’s in good health.

Yoga is a surefire way to condition this hidden muscle, even if you can’t feel it or know about it. If you spend a lot of time sitting or you’re an athlete, then you may benefit from understanding more about this secretive yet crucial muscle.

What Are The Psoas Muscles?

Image courtesy of https://www.injurymap.com/free-human-anatomy-illustrations

The psoas muscle group consists of three muscles: the psoas major, psoas minor, and iliacus muscle. All three muscles fit together to form one muscle group called the iliopsoas group.

The Psoas Major

Source: Youtube, Biodynamics Vienna 

Imagine the human body without skin and organs. Take away the abdominal muscles. When you look at it head on you see the spine connected to the pelvis by a muscle, the psoas major. This is a bilateral muscle (meaning there is one on each side of the spine), and forms a triangular shape. 

The top of the psoas major attaches to the five consecutive vertebrae from the last thoracic bone to the vertebrae attached to the pelvis. The muscle extends down on each side, becoming a tendon that attaches to the femur.

It can be hard to visualise this muscle if you’re not au fait with anatomy. So we highly recommend watching the 3D anatomy animations created by Biodynamik Vienna at www.biodynamik-wien.at.

The Psoas Minor

Source: Biodynamics Vienna

Interestingly, only 40% to 60% of people have a psoas minor muscle. This is a small, minor muscle that attaches to the lumbar spine and runs behind the psoas major. It’s understood that this muscle is not so important, which is why not everyone has them.

Iliacus

Source: Biodynamics Vienna www.biodynamik-wien.at

The iliacus muscle is named after the ililus or ilia, which refers to the top of your pelvis. This gives you a clue to where this muscle is located. Where the psoas muscle extends from the vertebrae to the legs, the iliacus muscle stretches from the top of the pelvis to the legs. If you imagine the pelvic bowl, the iliacus sits inside it.

What Do The Iliopsoas Muscles Do?

The psoas muscles perform two essential roles: 

  • To stabilise your spine and maintain posture 
  • Help you to walk and run

Stabilises The Spine

As your spine supports your weight and helps you to stand straight, the psoas work behind the scenes to keep you upright and balanced. The slight curve at the base of your spine is due to the psoas muscles pulling your lumbar vertebrae down and forward.

Moves The Hip Joint

As the psoas is the main muscle that connects the trunk to the lower limbs it is responsible for: 

  • Flexing the hip joint
  • Rotating the hip joint
  • Abducting –  when raising your knee to take a step.
  • Adducting – when you lower your leg back to the midline of your body.

Each time you lift your knee for a stride, the psoas contracts. And, when your leg swings backwards it extends. A strong psoas muscle should be both contracting and extending regularly to work at its best.

Psoas Problems

Modern life has many of us sitting in cars, at desks, and on sofas for the most part. A 2021 study confirmed that prolonged sitting shortens the psoas muscle causing it to become tight. This tightness can manifest various problems such as ‘snapping band syndrome,’ where the hip makes a snapping sound as you walk. This syndrome is caused by tight psoas tendons rubbing on the bony corners of your hip joint.

Psoas weakness also relates to postural issues such as lordosis (where the spine overarches so the pelvis tilts backwards), resulting in a stiff and painful lower back. It pays to be mindful that this stiffness could engender arthritis. This chronic condition is due to cartilage wearing away so that the bones rub together. Strengthening and lengthening the psoas with Yoga helps to maintain the cartilage.

Tight iliopsoas muscles also leads to a weak core, which can cause other problems such as:

  • Muscular imbalance
  • Weakness
  • Poor posture
  • Tightness
  • Lower back pain
  • Pain radiating down the legs
  • Pelvic pain
  • Groin pain

Sports such as running and cycling can also contribute to shortening of the psoas. Tight hip flexors can negatively impact an athlete’s performance. For instance, a runner needs to swing their leg fully back to create momentum when they take their next stride. If their hip flexor is weak, their stride is compromised and they won’t run as fast. They will also be more injury-prone.

Although serious psoas conditions are rare, they are more common in runners and athletes where jumping is involved such as dancers. Some athletes can develop a rare psoas abscess, which is a pocket of pus that develops within the hip joint. 

Why Yoga Is Good For The Psoas Muscles

Physios often recommend psoas massage and psoas stretches for hip and groin pain. This may suffice for many, but these treatments can miss the deep spinal release needed to resolve the issue.

When you hear Yoga teachers talking about a pose ‘opening the hips’ they’re referring to a pose that gives the psoas a great stretch.

‘Hip openers’ are Yoga poses that strengthen and lengthen tight psoas muscles. Runners, climbers, cyclists, and horse riders tend to contract their hip flexors more than they extend. So hip opening poses can help to improve their performance.

Poses For The Psoas Muscles

Backbend poses are the most effective type of poses to target this muscle group as they a) strengthen the rectus abdominis muscles (which you use to do sit ups) and b) counteract contraction. Regular practice of the following Yoga poses can help all people, and especially athletes, to increase the suppleness of their psoas muscle.

King Dancer (Natarajasana) is a challenging pose for more advanced Yogis as it needs some intense backbending and balancing. This is a fantastic hip opener and also challenges the core which includes the psoas muscles.

Reclined Hero Pose (Supta Virasana) is ideal for beginners. This pose creates a deep stretch throughout the abdomen, thighs and hip flexors. It’s also incredibly relaxing. Releasing this pose can provide great relief from a tight psoas.

Wheel Pose is a strong and challenging pose that stretches the whole of your front torso. This pose is pretty much the complete opposite of sitting at a desk all day. If this pose is too much for you, you can achieve the same stretch with a gentler version, Bridge Pose.

Finally, Pigeon Pose (kapotasana) is a kneeling backbending pose which is relatively easy to do and can provide great relief for tight hip flexors.

Open Those Hips

All Yoga asanas incorporate psoas stretches, so you don’t need to do just the poses we mentioned. Our online Yoga classes will get you stretching, strengthening, and lengthening those hip flexors anytime, anywhere. We’re currently offering a 10 day free trial so sign up today and get stretching.

If you'd like to learn more about Yogafurie and what we do, then get in touch

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