the mysterious psoas

Inhale on 1, on 2 on 3. Exhale on 1, on 2 on 3. Leg raises can seem a little boring and I sometimes feel a pang coming to that point in the class. I try to encourage students not to throw them away by inviting them to count the breath, close the eyes and lift as far as there is a straight leg. But this warm up is not just about lengthening the hamstrings for greater flexibility.

There’s a muscle hidden deep in body that snakes from each side of the bottom ribs to the top of the thigh. 40 cm long or so, it goes close to the inside of the spine, scoops under the abdominal organs, passes either side through the pelvis and attaches about 10cm down the inside of the femur (thigh bone). It’s skeletal muscle but unlike the muscles of the legs or arms, for instance, unless we have some training we have little awareness of using it. By getting to know the psoas you go deeper with yoga.

Sitting at a desk or in a car, cycling, power gym crunches, stress and general ‘holding on’ are some elements that contribute to a tight psoas. Sedentary life style and too much being in the mind can mean an underactive psoas. Muscle type, ‘tight’ or ‘loose’, is  due to genetics too. Whichever your lifestyle or genes, yoga helps.

In the class we contract the psoas in the leg raises, a perfect gentle toning. The boat, navasana, (see gentle and more experienced versions, right), makes a strong contraction. Lunges, as in anjanayasana and triangle variations, as well as warming up in sun salutation, lengthen the muscle. Setu bandhasana or bridge is also good. Stretching the arms up while pulling the shoulder blades down will lengthen the upper part of the psoas. It is part of the muscle group called hip flexors that bring the thigh to the body. After sitting forward bend (bringing torso to the thighs) we practise the counter pose, inclined plane, or the less onerous table, to stretch out.

There’s a way of practising yoga which is about outer alignment and ‘getting it right’, a beginners approach, and rightly so, as a certain level of technique, gross flexibility and strength is needed to progress. As students get more experienced and listen in we are able to develop and hold postures in a process of observation, experiment, testing, reflecting. In my observation, the psoas muscle really works on this intuitive level. As the psoas links to the lowest throrcaic vertebra, also the attachment for the diaphragm, focus with the yogic breath serves to deepen this connection.

The psoas is deep inside, literally and metaphorically. As Chris Croft*, ashtanga teacher, says, there can be an outer shell of asana shape or everyday posture which is an armour to protect what’s inside, and is about control. Think of the fluid movement of a dancer or yogi where there is psoas connection: a feeling of relaxation and joy arises. Compare this with the image of a person moving stiffly or with little range, ‘uptight’; maybe you feel a little sad and compassionate for what life might have thrown them. The psoas, in it’s role as hip flexor, brings us into the foetal postion, pulled up into a ball which is the fear position. The psoas holds on to past trauma and working with it allows release.

Yoga is a long letting go. If you’ve been to a yoga class you know you feel more relaxed afterwards. With regular practice you will clear yourself of past ‘stuff’ and then move on to a maintenance programme of regular emotion release, well-being, and develop greater equanimity and courage in the face of all life throws you. It starts with those fascinating leg raises!

Thanks to Chris for the inspiration for this article. He is the co-founder and director of The Ashtanga Yoga Workshop in Exeter.

To explore the theme of letting go and transformation there are events and workshops around the time of Sivaratri. This is the festival of Lord Siva, the Destroyer; destroyer of the old so the new can come in.

Saturday 18th February Yoga Nidra Workshop at Light Yoga Space, Dalston, London N1

Saturday 11th March Yoga Nidra Workshop at the Barefoot Barn, Chagford, Devon TQ13

The following weekend events at Viveka Gardens, West Leigh, Devon EX17 can be taken separately or combined as a 2-night retreat (£160, places limited, please contact if you are interested)

Friday 24th February 7pm Satsang and Puja for Siva including group meditation and an opportunity to tune in. Free, donations of flowers and fruit for the altar welcome

Saturday 25th February Day retreat: 10 – 12 the transformative power of asanas (yoga workshop with Siva-themed yoga nidra), wholesome vegan lunch, introduction to meditation workshop (2 – 5pm). £40 for the single day

Sunday 26th February: 10 – 2 cooking workshop, easy veganyogi recipes to make at home, lunch that we cooked together, meditation walk and pranayama workshop with special Siva Yoga Nidra (3 – 5). £40 for the single day