By Liz Koch
The pelvis is the keystone of our physical structure and the foundation of a centered yoga practice. To feel centered and supported from within, our pelvis needs to be balanced and functioning as part of our torso without torques or twists. A balanced pelvis becomes a base of support for the spine, rib cage and head. It becomes a bowl containing and supporting the organs, nerves and viscera. A balanced pelvis frees the illiopsoas, the core muscle and increases range of motion in the hip sockets, preventing lower back and knee injuries.
The stable pelvis and the psoas muscle work in harmony-they form a partnership. The psoas muscle, a large, massive muscle, bridges the trunk to the leg. When used properly, it is a guide wire and as such, sensitively responds to the movement of the spine and the legs. When misused, the psoas muscle becomes rigid, limiting movement. Over time, misuse shortens the psoas muscle. A shortened psoas flexes and pulls on the pelvis, compressing the hip sockets and destabilizing the lower back.
As in any relationship, a dance occurs between pelvis and psoas. What often shortens the psoas is a destabilized pelvis, one that can no longer properly transfer weight from the trunk to the two legs. The psoas is then called upon to hold the trunk and leg together. Becoming a weight-supporting element, the psoas no longer can function freely as a muscle. It begins to function as a ligament and over time loses its suppleness as a muscle (i.e. begins to shorten).
In yoga asana, overextending, forcing a stretch and poor positioning can all stretch or tear pelvic ligaments, destabilizing the pelvis and shortening the psoas. Ligament damage or the overstretching of ligaments happens when they are under inappropriate tension. The pulling away of the bones one from another pulls, stretches, or tears the ligaments. Like the chicken and the egg koan, looseness in the sacrum and SI-joints calls upon the psoas to help hold the bones together. The body then further compensates by overdeveloping external muscles such as the hamstrings, gluts and adductors. This in turn pulls the bones further out of alignment and engages the psoas in holding the person together.
Proper positioning of the pelvis and releasing, toning and lengthening the psoas muscle is an integral part of stabilizing the pelvis. It is also an essential step in using the proper hip, pelvic and leg muscles, protecting the lumbar spine from compression and thus assuring the accuracy of each yoga posture. Focusing on the pelvis centers the work squarely inside the very core of your being.
To release the psoas, place yourself in the constructive rest position before you begin to practice asanas. Lie down on your back with the knees up and your feet on the floor. Arms rest below shoulder height to the sides, across the chest or on the pelvis. Place feet as wide apart as the width of the hip sockets, which are on the front of the pelvis to both sides of the pubis bone. In this position, the psoas will begin to release. No force is used to flatten the back. Just simply be in the position and focus your attention on the weight. Where is weight felt in the pelvis? Is one side heavier than the other? Do nothing but notice. As the psoas begins to release, after 5-10 minutes, the weight will begin to even out.
To tone the psoas, begin on all fours (cat pose) and explore the ability to shift weight from four points to three points. The position demands accurate placement of each bone in its socket perpendicular to the floor. Begin by releasing the psoas in the front of the right hip socket. Without shifting the pelvis, begin extending the right leg behind you, only releasing the leg to extend out. The movement begins at the hip socket-in the front of the socket-not in the dropping of the spine or the tipping of the pelvis. You can only extend the leg as far back as you can maintain a stable pelvis.
This is very exacting work. You cannot tone unless you can voluntarily release the psoas. Toning is the act of engaging the psoas properly. It is an eccentric muscle which means it never shortens. Engaging or toning the psoas means it never contracts, but falls back along the spine, always lengthening both the front and the back of the body.
For lengthening the psoas, the modified or full pigeon, when properly performed, is a psoas and iliacus stretch. Once again, positioning is crucial. Most people twist the pelvis in this pose. Rather, keep the pelvis balanced and stable, and release and stretch out from the core. Keeping the pelvis forward and stable may change the range of movement, but the stretch is deeper and you can isolate the stretch the psoas and iliacus muscle rather than pull on the pelvis. Lunges are psoas stretches.
Liz Koch is the author of The Psoas Book, a comprehensive guide to the iliopsoas muscle and its profound affect on the body/mind/ emotions. Liz was recently featured in Yoga Journal (May/June 99) and Yoga & Health (