The ‘Álmighty’ Psoas Muscle: Your Body’s Center of Movement

By David Keil

The foundation of our bodies and our yoga practice lies at our feet. In order to incorporate both physical and energetic foundations, we must examine our body’s center of energy, movement and balance which begins near the psoas muscle– the pair of deep muscles extending from the sides of the spine to the femur that are activated in postures like forward bending (paschimottanasana), Boat pose; and lengthened in poses like Warrior I and Bow.

To understand the psoas muscles, we first need to describe some of the surrounding structures. Imagine looking at a body from the front (anterior) then stripping the skin away (yes, a bit gruesome). Peel away the layer of muscles over the abdomen and then remove the organs.

You’ll now be looking at the front of the spine with its large vertebral bodies sandwiching those sometimes not-so- happy, but very important discs. You’re now looking at your back/spine from the front.

Looking down a bit you see the inside of your bowl-shaped pelvis with your sacrum towards the back and the pelvic floor muscles in place connecting from it to your pubic bone. Lying over the front, and to the sides of your pubic bone, is a thick muscle that heads up to the sides of your vertebral bodies and drops down to connect to a spot on the inside and back of your thigh bone (femur). This is the almighty psoas.

location of psoas and iliacus

location of psoas and iliacus

The psoas gets a lot of attention, and for good reason. Roughly triangular in shape, the top of the psoas attaches along five vertebral bodies starting at the last thoracic vertebrae (T12) and continues to attach to each vertebral body, usuallyterminating at the next to last Lumbar vertebrae (L4). This completes one side of the triangle. From the ends of this side, we create two more sides that slowly come together and attach at that spot on the femur.

Because the psoas is triangular, the different portions of the triangle can have a different effects on the spine, and therefore the body. Usually when we describe a muscle and the action that it does we talk about the bone that it makes move, in this case, the femur.The psoas insertion is on the femur. Movements happen at joints, so whichever joint is crossed by the psoas has the potential to be moved by this muscle. With the spine stabilized,as it mostly is, the psoas makes us perform flexion at the hip joint as in a forward bend. What happens if we stabilize the femur? Can the psoas then move the spine? You bet, and at this point we’ve reversed the origin and insertion.

If we stabilize the femur, the upper half of the triangle has the potential to pull the spine down and forward as it attaches to the last thoracic vertebrae. The lower half of the psoas pulls mostly on the lumbars and therefore pulls them down and forward which would makes the pelvis tip forward and down. This sometimes shows up as a sway back. If you stand up and tilt your pelvis down and forward you’ll probably feel how short your low back gets. Back pain anyone?

How does the psoas show up in our yoga practice? Probably the most powerful place is in back bending in all variations such as Cobra, Bow, and Camel where we lengthen and open the front of our bodies, and important action that reverses most of what we do all day: sitting, driving, working on the computing etc… A tight psoas, along with other muscles make back bends very difficult. When back bending, it’s often a good idea to tuck your tailbone (the opposite of the action described above). This will give length to your lower back. Yoga is about creating length in your body; find it wherever you can in your poses.

Aside from back bending, the psoas muscles are commonlyused in forward bends to pull you down and forward. All too often people rely on their arms to pull them forward. Because the psoas also helps regulate balance, it is used in every standing posture to stabilize the upper and lower half of the body. Our center of gravity is roughly at the top of our sacrum, and psoas just happens to pass on both sides of this sacred bone so it helps regulate balance around our center of gravity which is where movement comes from.

Chakras, Bhandas and Fred Astaire

If you look at the space between the top and the bottom of the psoas, you will find some interesting pieces of yogic anatomy. Within its’ span are the lowest three chakras which control our instincts for survival, sexual energy and power. If you incorporate bandhas (internal energetic valves) into your practice you’ll find the mula and udhiyana bandhas within the realm of the psoas.

If you come from this place, both physically and energetically, you will have an amazing practice. An example of someone who moved from this space is Fred Astaire who gingerly floated a few inches above the ground as he danced. His movement originated from his psoas. I doubt that he was consciously aware of it, but his movements emanated from his psoas to his toes and fingertips. I’m sure he didn’t know it but he also utilized the bandhas and the energy to move his body. Just like any of the great yogis teaching out there now, Astaire mastered this area of his body and called on it regularly for strength and energy.

Using the psoas in Sun Salutes

Let’s do a sun salutation paying special attention to our psoas. With your weight evenly balanced on both feet, become aware of the space near the level of your navel. Imagine finding length from your psoas as your spine lifts from your center. Every time you inhale, feel yourself getting longer from your psoas and spine. Do your first sun salutation very slowly and imagine every movement growing and blossoming from this area of your body. After you’ve done a few Sun Salutations, find your way into Warrior I.Sink into your legs and feel how grounded you are. From that very grounded and strong foundation lift your torso out and up through your psoas; your arms are reaching from your psoas, your spine and head growing longer from– yes you got it– your psoas.

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Author: David Keil

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Take a look at the Interview I did with David recently when he was at Purple Valley in Goa, India.
Here are some of the articles posted here by David Keil:
  • Turning Your Feet Out When Doing a Yoga Drop-Back? September 9, 2013 By David Keil The inspiration for this month’s article comes from a question posed in an email. The question, from Catherine, asks specifically about keeping the feet straight in drop-backs. For those of you not sure what a drop-back is… it’s when you stand at the front of your mat and drop into a backbend. It’s ...
  • Supta Kurmasana Goes Pop! May 30, 2013 By David Keil Some time ago I threatened to write an article about pain showing up in the joint that connects the collarbone to the breastbone. I have had a couple of more recent requests to talk about this potential problem in Supta Kurmasana. As always I try to look at the anatomy, its function, observations ...
  • Is Your Hip “Pinching” in a Twist? March 30, 2013 By David Keil This situation can show up in parvrita parsvakonasana, ardha matsayendrasana, marichyasana C, or other twists. The sensation is anything from mild discomfort to an ice pick sensation in the front and inside of the pelvis. The most common description however is that it seems as though something is getting “pinched.” This is a situation ...
  • Gluteal and Psoas Relationship for Yogis March 24, 2013 By David Keil There is a pattern that has shown itself to me over the last few months. I don’t think that this pattern is a result of practice but probably an underlying pattern that already existed. As often happens, regular practice can uncover any number of problems or imbalances in our body. Hopefully the practice ...
  • David Keil Interview April 17, 2014 If you are interested in Yoga Anatomy or Ashtanaga you will know about David Keil. With his great and informative website http://www.yoganatomy.com/ and worldwide workshops. I was like a kid in a toy shop when I got the chance to interview David. Loads of topics were covered with plenty of geeky anatomy talk. At this ...
  • Sun Salutations Part 2 October 20, 2014 The last article in this series was the introduction to the sun salutations series with an anatomical spin. In this article we will be exploring: How to lift the arms over your head. Raising the Arms It seems as though I have seen hundreds of variations on how students raise their arms over their head to begin ...
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