Get to Know Your Psoas

The most important muscle in your body is one you probably have never thought about.

When I began a piece on the psoas, I hoped to write a catchy, simplistic article about a body part with some related stretches that anyone could do. Unfortunately, the human body isn’t an assemblage of parts, as much as it is a series of complex relationships with tremendous variations on the theme from person to person.

For all intents and purposes, the separation between parts exists only in language and colorful anatomy books, not in reality. When we attempt to talk about a certain area, we find other areas intruding and getting in the way. But that’s okay, because these perceived intruders are ultimately helping us connect the dots and discover that body parts cannot be defined in isolation, but rather in their relationship to the whole.

As someone with an undergrad in philosophy who loves mind-tripping on quantum physics, this viewpoint sits well with me. But for those who gravitate more toward hard, fact-based logic, you’ll be happy to know this perspective is confirmed by others like you.

Anatomy Is Only the Beginning

Leslie Kaminoff is an internationally recognized specialist in the fields of yoga and anatomy, as well as co-author of Yoga Anatomy. Kaminoff is unique in that his background is equal parts traditional yoga and western anatomy. He is also an atheist, so you can be assured his conclusions are not coming from some ungrounded spiritual or new-agey perspective. Yet he comes to similar conclusions as some of the great spiritual texts, and has been very influential to me as a yoga teacher.

So as we dive into sizing up our psoas with all its rich, complex intricacies, let’s consider that anatomy is only the starting point, and an understanding of functionality reigns supreme. In light of this, the key points are holistic in nature, and will include anatomy within the context of one’s entire body and life circumstances.

Simply put, the psoas attaches to the T12 and five lumbar vertebrae on the left and right sides of the spine. From there, it moves down and forward across the pelvic basin on each side and back again to attach to the inner, top area of the thighbone, known as the lesser trochanter. It is the only muscle connecting the legs to the spine. T12 is also a key juncture for the trapezius muscles and the diaphragm.

Mindfulness Matters

We live in a world of ever-increasing distraction, with a multitude of things that constantly pull our attention outward, numbing our awareness and reinforcing a disconnection from our bodies. The importance of stepping up our level of presence on a daily basis cannot be overestimated in its relation to posture and physical, mental, emotional wellbeing.

Ultimately, change is an inside job. Pain in the body is usually a symptom telling us there’s an imbalance somewhere. Imbalance stems from lack of awareness. Stepping up our level of mindfulness even a little goes a long way. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Notice how you stand in the Starbucks line, at the post office, while you’re talking to a friend, your boss, your wife, or while watching your kids play soccer, etc. How is your weight distributed over your feet? How does your spine feel? How are you breathing? Are your knee joints locked out or hyper extended? Does your lower back or neck feel stiff or compressed?
  • Notice how you walk from your house to the car, from your car to the office door, with your dog, on the hiking trail, through the grocery store or museum, etc. Do your toes turn out or in? Do feel the impact more in your heels, or the balls of your feet? What differences do you feel in your sneakers, vs. your four-inch heels, vs. your work boots, vs. your flip-flops?
  • Notice how you sit at your desk, the dining room table, in your car, at the movie, while you’re reading, on your bicycle, in the waiting room, at the baseball game, etc. Does your lower back curl under or arch up? Do your thighs turn out? Do you feel compression in your lower back? Do your shoulders round forward? Do you feel any connection with the muscles in your pelvic floor?

All of these questions are points of mindfulness. The practice is very simple. The hard part is being present enough to remember take notice and ask the questions. When you do it, however, the questions themselves will cultivate awareness and invite you into a more conscious habitation of your own body. Greater than any massage session, yoga class, or surgery, the consistent daily practice of being more present in your body moment to moment and making adjustments accordingly brings the most stark and lasting benefits over time.

Your Feet Matter

Get to know your amazing feet! Did you know they have one of the highest concentrations of nerve endings in the entire body? About 200,000 per foot, to be exact. As much as I love shoes (and I have the closet to prove it), too much shoe wearing dulls the connection between our feet and our brain, making us more susceptible to bad walking and standing habits, and to falling. Don’t worry though, you can still wear your cool shoes, just be sure to balance this with as much barefoot time as possible. 

Give your bare feet the opportunity to make contact with as much varied terrain as possible—beach sand, gravel driveways, carpet, concrete, wood floors, grass, your yoga mat, etc. This will keep the nerve centers rich and your connection with them alive. Because the way you use your feet affects everything above them, it will also help you identify what’s working and not working in how you tend to use your feet when standing and walking, and to make any adjustments needed to bring more balance.

What’s helped me is to divide the feet into four corners: big toe mound, pinky toe mound, inner heel, and outer heel. Feel for even weight distribution among those points, and then feel an energetic lift in the inner and outer arches of both feet.

Learning to keep the outer edges of the feet parallel and feel each toe mound distinctly can also impact our overall postural alignment. In addition to this, a simple, potent stretch for the psoas, which we learned earlier runs across the lower back before attaching to the femur bone, is to press down and out through the heels without physically moving your feet. This initiates a stretch and relieves compression in the lower back, creating more space and ease.

Your Breath Matters

Remember the T12 vertebrae, where the psoas meets the diaphragm, our primary breathing muscle? This creates a symbiotic relationship. One affects the other so closely that we can say if the psoas is constricted, so is the breath, and vice versa.

Breathing not only affects our muscles, but also our mental and emotional state, as well as our nervous system. The way we breathe can regulate or deregulate the body’s natural rhythmic functioning on a global scale. This is why breath can be the shortest distance between two points; the most efficient way to effect a needed change in the shortest amount of time.

A good way to experience this in relation to your psoas is to lie down on a flat, firm surface with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Visualize your psoas and take some deep belly breaths, where you allow your lower abdominal area to expand in all directions on the inhale, and soften back down on the exhale. Take note of how you feel after engaging in this practice for 1-5 minutes. This alone can be very healing to any pain or constriction in the pelvic girdle and or lower back.

The Psoas Is More Than a Muscle

As noted earlier, the psoas is the only connection between our legs and our spine. This is significant because our legs enable us to run from danger, an instinctual drive wired into the human psyche via the reptilian part of our brain. When mobility is limited, this can keep our fight or flight mechanism in a chronic state of over-activity. Conversely, chronic stress can also contribute to constricted, tight, painful psoas muscles. Like the chicken and the egg, it’s often impossible to tell which came first. Fortunately, addressing one also addresses the other.

This is why lifestyle—the body of our circumstances—can play such a vital role in finding freedom in our physical body overall, and especially in the psoas muscles. It’s key to regularly ask questions like this:

  • Are my levels of input and output balanced?
  • Am I getting enough rest?
  • Do I spend too much time sitting?
  • Is my lifestyle creating stress?
  • What small adjustment can I make today to bring more balance to my life?

This matrix of connection is one thing that makes the psoas so powerful, and why it has been referred to as “the most important muscle of the body,” and “the muscle of the soul.” Our life gives us clues about our psoas, and our psoas gives us clues about our life.

In this way, we can be thankful for discomfort if it turns out to be a catalyst for change in the right direction, and equally grateful for freedom as a sign that we’re on the right track. When something goes awry in our body, we’re educated to believe that the goal is to get the problem taken care of as quickly as possible, so we can get on with our normal life.

I understand that the information I’ve shared here doesn’t fit into the quick fix model that dominates modern society. Nonetheless, I hope you’ve had the patience to explore this with me, and if you do apply these principles in your life, I think you will find them effective, empowering, and supportive of your overall health and wellbeing.