Flashback: I'm new to the whole yoga thing and I still cringe a bit when a teacher uses the Sanskrit term for a posture, as my knowledge of Sanskrit is all but nonesistent. I figure it'll all become familiar at some point so I keep taking classes and make a note to self that I must buy a yoga book and study up on some of the "lingo." Somewhere between an opening Om and Savasana the yoga teacher at the head of the class has us doing a sequence of standing poses. She instructs us to come into Triangle Pose. "Keep a slight bend in the front knee and feel the release in the hamstring. This allows the psoas muscle to contract." Uhhhhhh, say what now? The soaz? What the heck is that? Sounds like some desert in Arizona. Or perhaps it's yet another Sanskrit term that makes my head spin...
Present Day: Perhaps it's indelicate to say out loud or it's some sort of woman-must-retain-an-air-of-mystery rule but women seem to have some sort of taboo around revealing their age. I don't have a problem with stating my age -- I'm proud to be 39 years old. I'm happy, healthy, and I think I'm in pretty good shape (and frankly, my 30s have been some of the best years of my life, and I have a feeling that things are only going to get better in my next decade). Unfortunately, I know a lot of folks around my age that aren't as lucky -- they are plagued by illness, exhaustion, body aches and pains, and various aliments, and many are on multiple prescription medications. Yikes! I'm still in the this-is-too-young-to-feel-so-sick-and-old mindset.
Most folks attribute my health and happiness to yoga. "It's the yoga," they say. Maybe.
I do give yoga a lot of credit, yes, but it ain't the whole ball of wax, as they say. There have been times in my life when yoga asana was more hurtful than helpful. Now, I must caveat this by saying that it was my approach to the asana, not the asana itself that was harmful. Limping away from my mat is not exactly what I had had in mind when I first stepped onto a yoga mat. Unfortunately, my gung-ho attitude got the best of me and I often pushed my body beyond its limits (hence the limping).
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The last 5 or so years I'd backed off the gung-honess (yep, I'm making up words again, so please bear with me) and was surprised to find that my lower back was feeling a bit sore and stiff. I certainly wouldn't have called it back pain, as pain was a bit too strong a word. It was, however, uncomfortable, and it bugged me. "That's what happens in your 30s" was the response of many. I didn't buy the whole you're-getting-old story.
I did what I always do when faced with physical discomfort -- I turned to yoga. At the time I was working privately with a yoga teacher (sometimes it's good to get an objective perspective rather than trying to "treat" yourself, so I turned to a yoga teacher that I trusted), so I told here that I wanted to work on my lower back. The yoga helped a little bit but it didn't quite do as much as I had hoped. That's when I started to wonder if maybe everyone was right -- maybe it was just a sign of age. I figured I was lucky that my back was the only thing bothering me, so I stopped thinking about it. After all, it wasn't like I was in a lot of pain or anything.
A few months ago, I decided to revisit the issue. This time, I was going to feel my own way through it rather than rely on someone else. After all, I'm a yoga teacher and I've been helping folks with physical issues for quite some time now -- why shouldn't I try to help myself (yoga teacher/therapist, heal thyself)? I dropped the whole age story and went back to the beginning of my yoga journey -- the psoas.
I think I can safely say that the general population isn't all that familiar with the psoas. Case in point -- a few years ago, a pregnant friend of mine ended up in physical therapy with a psoas tear. She could barely spell the word, let alone tell you what the psoas are. Being that I've been practicing yoga for well over a decade, I chuckled over her confusion and then went on to give here a quick lesson on these all-important muscles. I knew how my friend felt -- prior to yoga, I couldn't spell or identify the psoas either.
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Yet it is these yoga favorites that got me thinking about my back stiffness in a whole new way. This is the one time that I didn't rely on yoga asana -- instead I turned to straight up stretching (sssshhhhh -- don't tell the Yoga Police!). Yes, I could have worked with Tree Pose or Warrior or Triangle or Lunge poses or Pigeon but I didn't. I decided instead to keep things simple and work my psoas muscles outside of my yoga practice with simple stretches. Here are my two favorites:
- Psoas Release -- I placed a yoga block about a foot or so away from the wall. I would stand on the block with my left foot, supporting my right hand on the wall for balance and let my right foot hang. After letting my left foot hang for 30-60 seconds (ahhhhh, feel the release), I would then swing my left foot back and forth for 1-3 minutes. I then did the same with the other leg. I highly suggest trying this and then taking a moment or two to notice the difference between the leg that dangled vs. your standing leg. Feeling is believing, I say.
- Psoas Stretch with a Strap -- I tried lunge poses for my psoas in the past and they just didn't work all that well for me, as I tended to retain too much tension for the stretch to be effective. That's when I started using this AMAZING modification of the pose -- psoas stretch with a strap (and a bed).
Are you wondering how this worked for me? I just have one thing to say -- "In your face, aging!!!!" I certainly can't say that this is a miracle cure for everyone with back pain, but I can say that my daily psoas work totally completely eliminated my lower back stiffness/soreness. Ah, who would have thought that a previously unknown muscle would end up being the key to my lower back issues?
If you're interested in getting to know your psoas a little better, check out these excellent resources:
- The Almighty Psoas Muscle -- a short and simple psoas primer and some tips for paying attention to your psoas during Sun Salutations
- Awakening the Psoas -- the folks over at Bandha Yoga offer an in-depth view of the psoas along with practice tips (and some pretty nifty visuals)
- The Elusive Psoas -- tips for strengthening and stretching the psoas
- The Psoas Muscles, Psoas Stretches, and Abdominal Exercises for Back Pain -- this is an interesting article, complete with video instruction, that champion somatic exercises over stretches for freeing the psoas
If you'd like to read a little more on the topic, I recommend these books (and one CD):
No, the psoas are NOT a desert or a Sanskrit term -- rather, they are interesting muscles that you should get to know better. I'm sure glad that I did.