When my eldest son was around 6 I asked him to write a poem. He didn't like that idea. This is what he came up with:
Oh, sunflower, sunflower
Yeah. He's always been a smart alec.
I think this is what some of my clients hear in a session:
Think the adults in the Peanuts cartoons with their wah, wah, wahs..
The psoas is a big player in the human body, and it is still often overlooked. If it is not overlooked it is misunderstood or grouped with the iliacus.
Let me introduce you to the psoas. Where it is, what it does and does not do, why it can cause problems, how to address it, and how not to address it.
First things first. The psoas minor is only present in about 50% of the population, so we are talking about the psoas major here.
The psoas major has 22-24 attachments depending. It has finger-like attachments from T12 all the way to L5. That is the lowest of the thoracic vertebrae throughout the lumbar spine. From there it goes in front of the iliacus through the pelvis and attaches to the femur.
Because of all of these attachments, its length, and it playing around with so many joints it can act on everthing from the ribs to the knees, and beyond.
The psoas is usually described as a hip flexor. While it does shorten when you are in hip flexion, as in sitting, it doesn't necessarily act upon that flexion. What is does do is act to stablize the spine, specifically when walking.
What is the big problem with the psoas and why do I go on and on and on about it with clients?
Well.. The biggest problem with the psoas is..... Are you ready?.....
Are you surprised I'm picking on sitting yet again?
Let's look back at the psoas muscle up there. What does it do when we sit? I already said that it shortens when we are in hip flexion, or sitting. It shortens by about 3 inches. That is a lot of shortening. We sit a lot. The psoas adapts to that position when we sit hours a day every day.
What happens when it shortens? You may have noticed that when you get up from sitting for a long period you have a hard time getting upright. That is your psoas taking time to get out of that position.
See all of those attachments on the lumbar spine? When the psoas has adaped to being shortened it can pull on the lumbar spine. The lumbar spine naturally has what is called a lordotic curve. The pull from the psoas can increase that curve and that is called excessive lumbar lorodosis. This excessive lorodosis creats a lot of compression and sheer on the intervertebral discs. Also, your pelvis is pulled out of alignment, which causes compression and sheer in the spine.
Besides the alignment issues it creates the psoas is also going to be objecting. Loudly.
Your psoas may have so much tension that it is painful.
You have a lot of nerves in this area. With all of this tension pain may be traveling along those nerves to other areas of the body.
I gave you a taste of the science and some information on what it may do to your body. What you probably want is what to do about it. How do you fix it?
The first thing I'll say seems pretty obvious, but is the thing most people have a hard time doing. Stop sitting so much! I know I keep going on about it, and there really is nothing wrong with the position of sitting. The problem is how much we do it as a culture. If I can get you sitting less I'm excited. Seems small, but it is really huge. I will say it again. If you are sitting 10 hours a day and addressing the effects of sitting 1 hour a day you are not going to do as much good as if you just stopped doing what is causing the problem in the first place.
Now that is settled, lets talk about helping it along with psoas release. Notice I say "release" rather than "stretch." The release is sort of like when you are holding your shoulders up. You don't really need to stretch them down, you can just stop holding them up.
Basically I will have you stop holding tension in the psoas.
What you will need is either a bolster or a rolled up sleeping bag.
I want you to lay back with the bolster only under your head, neck, and shoulder blades length-wise. If the bolster is at brastrap level you are too low. If your head is tilted up, where you are looking up and almost behind you, place something under your head. Check your thighs. They should be touching the floor. If they aren't that is your psoas pulling on your pelvis. Tilt your pelvis until your thighs are touching the floor. Like this:
Now check your ribs. Are they up like this:
If so that is also your psoas! Let go and allow the ribs access to the floor, as in the first picture. They may not reach the floor depending on the height of your bolster, but relax them into the body.
You can stay here for 2-5 minutes being sure to check back in with your ribs and your pelvis to be sure they didn't pop back up.
Ok. We have talked about releasing. Lets discuss stretching.
You will see a lot online showing a lunge to stretch the psoas. It may look something like this:
Only this isn't really stretching the psoas. I've tilted my pelvis. If the pelvic bowl were actually a bowl of soup the soup would be pouring out of the front of my bowl. Because of my sweatshirt you may not clearly see, but I'm also thrusting my ribs forward and my lumbar curve is excessive. All of this is how you cheat the psoas out of a stretch, and compress the spine.
To stretch the psoas you will go into a kneeling position. Be sure your knees are hip distance apart. Make sure your pelvic bowl is not spilling any soup. When you push slightly forward it will be like you are leading with your pubic bone. Make sure your ribs are down, meaning they are lined up with your hip bones. So your pubic bone, hip bones, and ribs are all in the same plane.
You will look like you are getting less of a stretch, but really it is more of a stretch for your psoas. More like this:
You may be more at a 90 degree angle with your back leg in order to keep your pubic bone lined up with your hip bones, but you will feel this in front of your hip without compressing the spine. Notice I have my hand on my pelvis checking alignment.
Hold this about 30 - 60 seconds each side. You may want to put a cushon under that back knee if it is uncomprotable. Just know that it is uncomfortable because of tension in the quads.... But that is a stretch for another day.
If you are having back pain I would suggest seeing a health care professional first. If they tell you you're all clear and need to exercise come see me! I'd love to work with you. If they tell you physical therapy is your best bet I know some great Physical Therapists. When PT is done and you get the all clear come see me then. I'll help you SOAR!
I'm going to go move now. Tonight that means I'm going to do laundry and clean. I may play around in my yoga sling that is tied up and out of the way in the photos above too. ;-)
See ya later!