The psoas muscle is one of the most important muscles in your body. It lies deep within the centre of your core, connecting your femur to your lower back. While that might sound scary, the scarier thing is how it could potentially affect our mental state if it gets too locked up and tight.
Those seeking psoas muscle pain relief might not only feel more mobile in their hips and lower back, but they also might feel less fearful and anxious.
According to some, like therapist and filmmaker Danielle Prohom Olson, the psoas muscle (pronounced “so-as”) is like the “muscle of the soul,” and by relaxing it, you can reconnect to yourself, your body, and feel more balanced.
What is The Psoas?
The psoas muscle is the deepest muscle of the human body. It affects our structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning. In Greek, psoas literally means “muscle of loin”.
Three muscles are associated with what is commonly referred to as “the psoas”: the psoas major, psoas minor, and iliacus (1). As may already seem obvious, the psoas major is the larger of the two psoas muscles. The psoas minor is the smallest, and is absent in over half of the human population (could this muscle get any more strange?).
The psoas attaches from the 12th vertebrae, all the way down to the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae. It then continues down the sides of the spine (crossing many joints along the way), over the front of the pubic bone, and then attaches at the end, with the fibers of the iliacus, to the lesser trochanter of the femur (aka. the top of the femur, facing toward our inner thigh).
The entire muscle connects the upper half of the body to the lower half of the body – quite a feat for a muscle we barely hear about!
The psoas is also linked to the diaphragm through fascia (connective tissue), which impacts our fear reflex and breathing. This is because the psoas is directly linked to the reptilian brain, the most ancient inner part of the brain stem and spinal cord (2).
The Essential Role of the Psoas Muscle
Being able to stand upright is made possible by the curve in our lower spine, which transfers and bears the weight above it. The psoas muscle helps create this curve, as its attachment to the lower lumbar vertebrae helps pull these vertebrae both forward and down (3).
The psoas muscle also helps us walk. When walking, the brain sends signals down to the nerves that innervate the psoas muscle, telling it to move your back leg forward – initiating the back and forth leg movements that allow us to walk. So every time you take a step forward, you can thank your psoas muscle!
On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, driving, or repeatedly working these muscles in activities like bicycling, weight-training, or doing sit-ups, they can become short and tight (and painful). When the psoas becomes tight, it can pull the lower lumbar vertebrae forward and down toward the femur. This can result in lordosis (overarching of the lumbar spine), leading to low back pain, stiffness and pelvic pain.
The psoas muscle can also take on stress from our emotional body, similar to the way our shoulders can become tight after a traumatic or stressful situation. This is why many have referred to the psoas muscle as the ‘muscle of the soul’.
The ‘Muscle of the Soul’
The concept of the psoas muscle representing the ‘muscle of the soul’ is well described and analyzed by Liz Koch, an international teacher and author with over 40 years of experience working with and specializing in the psoas. Within the Taoist tradition, the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of the body (4).
Koch explains that “Long before the spoken word or the organizing capacity of the cortex developed, the reptilian brain, known for its survival instincts, maintained our essential core functioning.” She also describes that the “psoas literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.”
The connection of the psoas muscle to the diaphragm literally connect the acts of walking and breathing. There are two tendons for the diaphragm called the crura that extend down and connect to the spine right alongside where the psoas is attached (5). The diaphragm and psoas also connect through our fascia (as previously described).
If you think about it, when we’re stressed (aka. the less intense version of our primal fight or flight response), our breathing patterns start to change. Because the diaphragm is the muscle that directly controls our breathing, its connection to the psoas in turn affects the psoas. Depending on how we are feeling or what we’re doing, tightness or relaxation of the diaphragm will either create tension or relaxation in the psoas.
Therefore, feeling stressed will cause the psoas to hold tension, and the more stressed we become, the tighter it will get. When this muscle (or any muscle) remains tightened for too long, it will become shortened, creating a host of painful conditions like lower back pain, sciatica, and even digestive problems.
This can also work the other way around, too. If the psoas is chronically tight from sitting for long periods of time, or other triggering activities, it will affect our diaphragm and our breathing patterns. So we could literally become stressed and anxious due to fluctuating breathing patterns as a result of a tight psoas. Pretty crazy, huh?
According to Koch, “The psoas is so intimately involved in such basic physical and emotional reactions, that a chronically tightened psoas continually signals your body that you’re in danger, eventually exhausting the adrenal glands and depleting the immune system.”
Psoas Muscle Pain Relief: How To Stretch Out Your Psoas
If you want complete psoas muscle pain relief, then look no further. This series of different stretches will help unlock tightness in the psoas, and maybe even help you feel less anxious.
When you’re doing the following stretches, make sure you stay aware of what’s happening in your body and what you’re feeling. If you go into a stretch and it feels like sharp pain, ease back and don’t go as deep into the stretch. It is normal to feel a bit of pain when stretching, but it is the sharp pain you want to steer clear from.
As you spend time in each stretch, sense where your psoas is located, and feel (internally), whether it is tight or loose, rigid or soft, tense or at ease. Remember to breathe deep, too, as it is your breath that can help release deeply engrained tightness that might otherwise not want to let go.
1. Kneeling Lunge
1. Take a kneeling lung position on the ground with your front leg at a 90º angle in front of you.
2. Posteriorly tilt your pelvis (tuck your tailbone under, glutes tight), and shift your weight forward toward the front knee, while maintaining the posterior pelvic tilt.
3. Be sure not to curve the lower back – keep your tailbone tucked.
4. Stay here for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Relax, and then repeat on the other side.
5. Perform 3-5 repetitions on each leg.
2. Frog Pose
1. Beginning on all fours, bring your forearms to the floor. You can put a blanket under each knee for padding if you like.
2. Widen your knees, one at a time, as far apart as possible, and bend them so that your thighs and your shins are at 90-degree angles. Flex your feet.
3. Keep your front ribs in, your waist long, and your tailbone down.
4. Take 5-10 long, deep breaths. It will likely be very sore, but easing into this difficult pose only takes time and patience.
3. Psoas Release with Ball
1. For this exercise you will need a lacrosse ball, which can be purchased online, or at a sports therapy store.
2. Lay on your stomach and find the hip bone. Place the lacrosse ball toward your bellybutton, just a little bit lower than the hip bone (about 2 finger breadths).
3. Holding the ball here, slowly roll onto the floor, putting your weight onto the ball.
4. Hold this position for 20 seconds, or up to 8 breaths. You can also pivot on this muscle, and you will likely immediately find it to be quite tender. This should allow the psoas muscle to release.
5. Repeat on the other side. You can do this up to 3 times per day if you are not too tender.
4. Pigeon Pose
1. Come into a kneeling position, and draw in your left knee. Turn it out to the left so that your left leg is bent and near-perpendicular to your right one. Lower both legs to the ground.
2. Keep your right back leg extended straight behind you, and stabilize yourself with your elbows on the ground, or if you feel comfortable, fold your upper body forward and collapse over the left leg to a fully relaxed position.
3. Stay in this position and hold for 5-10 deep breaths.
4. Switch to the other side and repeat.
5. Happy Baby Pose
1. Lay flat on your back and bend both knees, holding the outside edges of your flexed feet with your hands. Keep your arms on the outsides of your legs.
2. Use your upper body strength to press both knees to the floor below your armpits if you can. Don’t tense up your shoulders while doing this, try to keep everything relaxed and use gravity in your favour.
3. Stay here for 5 deep breaths, rest, and then repeat 2 more times.
6. Knees to Chest Pose
1. Start by lying on your back, with your arms and legs extended.
2. Slowly exhale and bring in both of your knees to your chest. Clasp your hands around them, or if you can, wrap your forearms over your shins and clasp each elbow with the opposite hand.
3. Keep your back flat on the mat and relax the shoulders. Tuck your chin in, and look down the center line of the body.
4. Hold for up to one minute, keeping your breathing deep and even.
5. Exhale, release and extend both legs on the floor. Repeat six times.
7. Garland Pose
1. In standing position, step your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
2. Bend your knees and lower your hips, coming into a squat. Separate your thighs so they are a bit wider than your torso, but keep your feet as close together as possible. If your heels lift, support them with a folded blanket.
3. Drop your torso slightly forward, and bring your upper arms to the inside of your knees. Press your elbows against the inside of your knees to get a deeper stretch.
4. Lift and lengthen your torso, keeping your spine long and shoulders relaxed. Try to shift your weight into your heels to get an even deeper stretch.
5. Hold this position for five breaths, and then release. Repeat 3 times.