The skinny on your psoas
Our hips, more specifically our hip flexors, are an area of the body that is often misused and misunderstood. Hip flexors are a skeletal muscle group that allows us to move our thighs up and down. Of this group, the largest is the psoas (so-az). The psoas is a muscle that runs from the inside of the upper femur through the inner hip, passes through the abdomen, and attaches to the last rib and to the lower vertebrae. Spanning 16 inches in length, this guy is the longest and thickest muscle in the body.
So what’s the deal?
Well for starters, many confuse this “mover” muscle for a core stabilizer. Basically, they use the hip flexors (including the psoas) to help them participate in core exercises that involve holding the body in place. This kind of exercise, however, is a job better suited to the transversus abdominus and pelvic floor, our deep core muscles. What the psoas should be used for are things like lifting the leg, walking and such. What exercise enthusiasts often forget is that they need muscles to keep them stable — a foundation, so to speak. That foundation must first be found in order to be successful in other areas. As a yoga teacher, I often tell my students that if one cannot be stable, then one is not ready to be mobile. Flailing body parts in core work is a sure red flag for me that there is hip flexor misuse. Too much sitting or over-activity of the hips are possible causes of issues. And if there aren’t issues now, there most likely will be later.
Our psoas is a muscle that many times is responsible for issues like back, neck and jaw pain, teeth grinding and leg-length discrepancies. It can cause sciatica, difficulties breathing (it pulls on the lungs and diaphragm) and even PMS symptoms (it pins the uterus when too tight). And, of course, it’s often responsible for plain ol’ hip pain.
So what can I do to take care of my psoas?
- For starters, try to limit the amount of sitting time you have. Sitting too long will deplete your vital energy supply.
- Work on good posture. Poor posture can cause this pesky muscle to pull down on the upper body, and lead to a collapsed upper spine and rib cage. This can cause digestive issues.
- Stop tucking your tail bone or splaying your rib cage these two postures feed an unhappy psoas and often times only on one side.
- Stop doing things like back core work and push-ups (unless you have been taught proper deep-core mechanics). Movements like these will only wreak havoc on this poor muscle, which is not designed to do jobs like that. Most people are caught superficially in the core, relying on whatever is most easily accessible and at the surface. Or they rely on muscles that are already tight and depend on them to “get the exercise done.” Really, this does more harm than good.
- Practice deep-release exercises (don’t confuse these with trying to force a stretch deeply). Many of these are very simple, and help restore the tone and function in the psoas. You can, for example, get in the fetal position and rock gently to help release deep-seated emotion. You can rest with your legs on the seat of a chair. Or, you can get in the “constructive rest pose,” lying on your back with the knees raised together comfortably. Surprisingly, these poses are best and most viable when practiced calmly for 10 to 15 minutes. This allows the proper tone and function to come back to this muscle. In addition, gentle walking is also a great avenue to try. Do not confuse power walking or running with a gentle stroll!
Think you might have a psoas issue? You’re probably right. However, pain does not have to be a life sentence, especially if it revolves around the psoas. Still, you must be committed to the slow de-layering process that the psoas requires, and to possibly changing habits and digging into long-repressed, deep-seated emotion in order to find balance here again.