Editor's note: The below are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional.
People often come to yoga—and to physical therapy—with the hope of releasing the iliopsoas (a composite muscle consisting of the psoas and the iliacus). A sedentary lifestyle can lead to iliopsoas tightness: This muscle, like the hamstrings, is especially vulnerable to the consequences of prolonged sitting. Sports that require the muscle’s repeated contraction can lead to tightness too, as the iliopsoas tightens in response to activities (and yoga poses) that work the legs or core by requiring repeated hip or spinal flexion.
To understand how sitting and movement affects the iliopsoas, and how the eight poses we suggest below can begin to release it, it may be helpful to first take a look at the location and the role of this muscle.
Where the Iliopsoas Is, and What It Does
The iliopsoas is the only muscle that tethers the legs to the back. Starting at the lower back, the psoas major runs through the bowl of the pelvis, where it picks up the iliacus, just inside the ilium. (The psoas minor, which originates at the lumbar spine, runs along the front of the psoas major, and inserts at the top of the pubic arch, generally garners less attention—not only because it is small and weak compared to the psoas major, but also because it is present in only about a quarter of all people.)
The merged psoas major and iliacus then connect to the inner top part of the femur (thighbone), at a rounded protuberance called the lesser trochanter.
The iliopsoas plays a role in posture, supporting the lower back, but its main job is to flex the hip—it contracts to move the thighs toward the spine—which it does more powerfully than any of the other hip flexors (which include the rectus femoris, sartorius, and tensor fasciae latae). It also helps to flex the spine, contracting to move the spine toward the thighs.
In yoga, when we lift up into boat pose (navasana), or come into chair pose (utkatasana), or lift a leg up while standing or supine, the iliopsoas contracts to bring the thighs and trunk closer together. The iliopsoas lengthens when its antagonists, the gluteals, contract to move our hips into extension—for example, in bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) and locust pose (shalabhasana). In dancer pose (natarajasana) and low lunges, the hip connected to the back leg is in extension and the iliopsoas is lengthening.
The iliopsoas is also important in both walking and running: It contracts to bring the front leg forward and lengthens to extend the back leg.
How the Iliopsoas Tightens
When we sit, the iliopsoas is both short and inactive. It may become so used to this position that when we stand, it “forgets” how to lengthen. Additionally, crunches, dancing, and pretty much any sports involving the legs can also cause the iliopsoas to become tight from overuse. A yoga practice that emphasizes movements or poses that contract the iliopsoas (like boat, sit-ups, leg lifts, and seated postures) without countering them with poses that stretch the iliopsoas (like backbends and lunges), may also contribute to iliopsoas tightness. In addition, some medical professionals have remarked on a connection between fear or stress and iliopsoas tightness.
An iliopsoas that is tight from any combination of these factors may then “pull” the lower back forward into hyperlordosis, an exaggerated lumbar curve created by an anterior tilt of the pelvis. We may feel the consequences of that tightness as soreness at the sides of the waist or in the lower back, pain at the front of the hips (where it may be accompanied by a snapping sound), or (if that pull is stronger on one side) as a discrepancy in leg length. Iliopsoas tightness may also reduce the length of your stride by limiting hip extension, which can affect your performance in activities that require walking and running. A tight iliopsoas is also sometimes implicated in sacroiliac joint dysfunction (a problem this sequence and the tips in this ebook may help to alleviate).
Iliopsoas tightness may even affect the breath: An exaggerated tilt of the pelvis seems to negatively impact respiratory function, and a tight iliopsoas is one of the factors that can cause a pelvis to tilt anteriorly (forward) from its neutral position. If, by releasing the iliopsoas, we can decrease the anterior tilt of the pelvis and any excessive lordosis (inward curve) of the lower back, we may be able to take fuller, deeper breaths.
The following sequence seeks to release iliopsoas tightness using a technique called PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or pre-contraction stretching), which involves contracting and then relaxing the target muscle before stretching. For some people, PNF has been found to lead to greater increases in range of motion immediately after stretching.
An added bonus: When practicing poses in which your hip is in extension and your knee is bent (think low lunge), you will be stretching the quadriceps as well; if your iliopsoas is tight, these muscles may be too.
Please note that if your iliopsoas is overstretched and weak, as it may be if your pelvis tends to tilt posteriorly (backward), flattening the lumbar curve, you will benefit more from work that strengthens the iliopsoas (like pelvic tilts) than you will by the stretches shown here.
Iliopsoas Release Sequence
You will need a block, a blanket, and perhaps a strap for the following practice. To massage the iliopsoas (#7), a kettlebell (10 pounds or less) and a tennis ball or massage ball may be helpful.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing in Savasana
Beginning with breath awareness primes us to maintain a diaphragmatic breath throughout practice.
Lie on your back. Bring one hand to your belly and, if comfortable, one hand to your lower back, palm on the mat. (If that’s not comfortable for your shoulders, simply place a blanket—folded into a long rectangle—horizontally under your lower back to help bring awareness there.)
As you breathe, imagine the whole circumference of your waist (not just your belly) expanding and contracting. Encourage your belly and your lower back and the sides of your waist to expand with each inhale. As you exhale, allow your belly, lower back, and waist to draw in.
Picture the structures intertwined inside: The diaphragm, the main muscle of inspiration, is closely connected to the iliopsoas. Tendinous structures attach the lower part of the diaphragm to the fascia covering the top of the psoas major. Furthermore, the psoas major originates at the lower spine, (T12, L1, L2, L3, L4); just alongside it are tendons attaching the diaphragm to the lumbar spine (L1–L3). Imagine your diaphragm massaging tension from your iliopsoas on your inhale and releasing pressure on your exhale.
After a minute or two here, begin your active practice, continuing this expansive, diaphragmatic breathing.
2. Supine Knee to Chest Pose
In the following movements, the iliopsoas is deliberately contracted. Contracting and then relaxing a muscle may help to bring our awareness to it. And according to PNF philosophy, contracting a muscle before releasing it facilitates a deeper release.
Lie on your back with your legs outstretched and relatively neutral (toes pointing up). Keeping your left leg lengthened, bend and lift your right leg slowly, bringing your right knee close to your chest. Place your right hand atop your right thigh.
Try to move your thigh toward you while using your right hand to press your thigh away from you to create the resistance that will engage the iliopsoas. Ideally, your leg will not move much despite the pressure you are applying. Hold here for three breaths, pressing your thigh and hand vigorously against each other, noticing any sensations you feel deep inside the right side of your waist as the iliopsoas contracts.
Return your right leg to the floor, outstretched in front of you, relaxing it, and relaxing your right arm alongside you, for three breaths. Notice if you feel any sensation of lengthening along the right side of your waist.
Switch sides, noticing any differences between right and left sides. Are you able to contract the iliopsoas and press your left thigh into your left hand (and your left hand into your left thigh) as forcefully as on the right? Then lengthen your left leg and release your left arm alongside you, relaxing for three diaphragmatic breaths.
Now, bend both knees toward your chest, and press both thighs away from you with your hands for three breaths, encouraging both the right and left iliopsoai to contract. Then lengthen both legs out in front of you for three (or more) breaths, placing your hands on top of your thighs and pressing down gently. Allow your thighs to drop toward the mat.
3. Supported Bridge Variations
Have a block nearby. These poses, and the majority of those that follow, seek to release the iliopsoas by bringing one or both hips into extension. However, if your iliopsoas is quite tight, and the following suggestions only serve to increase the inward curve of your lower back, repeat the PNF stretch described in #2 instead. Proceed to these bridge pose variations only when #2 no longer feels like a deep stretch.
1. Lie on your back with both knees bent, feet on the floor a few inches away from your sitting bones.
2. Lift your hips into a low bridge and slide the block horizontally, on its medium setting, under your sacrum.
3. Keeping your left foot on the floor, draw your right knee into your chest. Without allowing your right leg to move, press your right knee away from you with one or both of your hands on top of the right thigh for three breaths.
4. Slowly lengthen your right leg out in front of you, bringing your heel down to the mat. Press your thigh down with your right hand, and do not resist that pressure now: Allow your right thigh to drop toward the ground while your right leg relaxes.
Hold here for several deep breaths, noticing any sensations of lengthening along the right side of your waist.
Then bend your right knee, place your right foot back on the mat, and switch sides, noting any differences between sides.
After completing the second side, bring your left foot back to the mat and then lengthen both legs out in front of you, keeping them together (or slightly apart but still parallel) and reaching out through the heels. Place your hands at the top of your thighs and press down gently. Be careful not to let the lower back overarch; encourage it to expand with every inhale. Hold here for a few breaths, or even a few minutes, if the pose feels good. (If lengthening both legs out at once feels like too much of a stretch, or your lower back feels uncomfortable, skip this step.)
To come out of the pose, bend both knees and bring your feet to the floor. Lift your hips and remove the block. Rest on your back for two or three breaths, allowing your spine to return to neutral—or, if you feel any tension in your lower back, swishing the legs from side to side.
Note that once the bridge pose variations above become easy, you can also practice a similar (but possibly more intense) stretch by lying on your back with your hips near the edge of a bed or therapy table. As you draw one knee in, lengthen the other leg toward the floor, allowing the thigh of the outstretched leg to gradually drop.
4. Side-Lying Iliopsoas Stretch
Have a strap nearby if grabbing your ankle from behind is challenging.
1. Lie on your right side, with your knees comfortably bent at hip height, keeping your spine neutral, with the back of your head in line with the back of your pelvis. Use your right arm as a pillow for the right side of your head. (Alternatively, you could place a block, a bolster, or an actual pillow under your head.)
2. Keeping your left leg bent, move it behind you, going only as far as you can go without increasing the arch in your lower back. Grab your left ankle with your left hand, or encircle it with a strap.
3. For three breaths, while keeping hold of your left ankle, try to move your left knee toward your chest, but resist with your left hand, pulling back gently, but firmly enough to keep your leg from moving.
4. Now, keeping your hand or strap around your left ankle, relax your left leg. For three breaths, continue to pull back with your left hand, slowly and gently. Perhaps you find that you can draw your left leg a little farther back behind you (with no exaggeration of your lumbar curve) than at the beginning of this stretch.
Release your ankle, bring your knees together, and then roll over to switch sides.
5. Low Lunge with Optional Side Bend
If you have knee pain or sensitivity, you will want to pad your back knee with a blanket. (Even if the lunge itself causes no pain, many with persistent knee pain benefit from taking pressure off the patella whenever possible.)
1. Press yourself up with your hands to come to all fours. Step your right foot forward between your hands so that your heel is under your knee.
2. Bring your right hand to your waist and your left hand to the top of your left thigh. (If your hand doesn’t easily reach your thigh, try holding a block and pressing the block against your thigh.) Press your left thigh back with your left hand as you try to move your thigh forward into your hand while also trying to scoot the mat forward with your left knee. Do this for three full breaths.
3. Now release that effort, relaxing into the lunge. If you can go deeper, rather than allowing the front knee to move farther forward, past your heel, move your back knee farther back. Hold here for three breaths, or…
4. …lift your left arm up alongside your ear and lean to the right to increase the stretch to your left iliopsoas for three breaths.
Bring your hands to either side of your right foot, step back to hands and knees, and switch sides.
6. Warrior I with Optional Side Bend
1. From hands and knees, step your right foot between your hands. Lift and straighten your left knee, placing your left foot on the floor and turning your left toes to point toward the left front corner of your mat. Bring your hands to your hips and lift your torso to vertical. Elongate your spine and turn your chest to face forward, toward the front of your yoga mat.
2. Bring your left hand to your left thigh, and your right hand to your right hip.
As you did in the low lunge, use your left hand (or a block) to try to press your left thigh back, while resisting that action with your left thigh, pressing your thigh into your hand (without bending your leg) and trying to scoot the mat forward with your left foot. Do this for three breaths.
3. Release both the effort of your left leg and your left hand. Reach your left arm overhead for three breaths, to lengthen the iliopsoas, or…
4. …increase the iliopsoas stretch by side-bending to the right for a few breaths.
Return to upright, and then bring your hands to either side of your right foot. Step back to hands and knees; then switch sides.
7. Massage the Iliopsoas
You may want a light kettlebell (around ten pounds) and a tennis or massage ball.
A caveat: We do not recommend that yoga teachers employ this massage technique on their students. Iliopsoas massages on others are best done by trained manual therapists (massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, etc.), because this muscle is near sensitive structures that you would not want to disrupt (the iliolumbar artery, femoral nerve, intestines, kidneys, ovaries).
However, it is likely that many yoga teachers and experienced students with a high degree of internal awareness can safely perform a self-massage of the iliopsoas. It is important to proceed cautiously, following the directions below while paying attention to anatomical landmarks and sensations. Stop if you feel a pulse under your hand or a tingling down the front of your thigh, which would signal that you are applying pressure to an artery or nerve.
If massaging your iliopsoas causes any increase in your pain immediately or afterward, lay off this particular practice. And if you simply experience no improvement in pain or mobility, do not continue; instead, check in with a physician or physical therapist.
For those for whom this massage is productive, spend anywhere from one to five minutes on each side. You could perform it once a day, after prolonged sitting or athletic activities, or integrate it into your daily yoga practice.
1. Lie down on your back. Keeping your left leg outstretched in front of you, bend your right knee and, to relax the iliopsoas, place your right foot on the floor a few inches away from your right sitting bone.
2. Bring your hands just inside your right frontal hip bone (slightly to the left of your right ASIS). On an exhale, press down gently with your fingers; identify the iliopsoas. You are looking for a somewhat cylindrical muscle no more than a couple of inches wide. Make sure you do not feel any pain, pulse, or tingling. (If your iliopsoas is tight, it may be tender to the touch; many people experience a tolerable degree of discomfort during this massage.)
3. To make sure you have found your iliopsoas, lift your right leg toward your chest: You should feel a strong muscular contraction under your fingers.
4. Lower your right foot and maintain pressure with your hand, or…
5. …you can increase the pressure slightly by placing a tennis or massage ball on top of your iliopsoas, and a light kettlebell on top of the ball. (If you feel plenty of sensation without the added weight, forego it.)
6. Rather than moving your hand, slowly rock your right leg side to side for several breaths. (Do not lift your leg, which would contract the iliopsoas.)
7. Release the pressure on your iliopsoas, straighten your right leg out in front of you, and reach your right arm up overhead to lengthen the iliopsoas.
Relax for a couple of breaths with your right arm overhead and right leg outstretched, and then switch sides.
8. Pelvic Tilts and Prone Savasana with Blanket Under Thighs
Placing a rolled-up blanket under your thighs may initially move the pelvis into a greater anterior tilt (shortening the iliopsoas), but the contract-relax stretches recommended here will lengthen the iliopsoas and help to ease the pelvis into a more neutral position both during and after this exercise.
Place a rolled-up blanket (or narrow cylindrical bolster) horizontally across the middle of your mat. (If a fully rolled-up blanket increases your lumbar curve to an uncomfortable degree, roll the blanket only partly up.) Lie down on your belly, positioning the blanket roll an inch or two beneath your frontal hip bones and resting your forehead on stacked hands.
Push your thighs down toward the mat and move toward a posterior (backward) pelvic tilt, contracting the iliopsoas for three breaths. Then relax for three breaths, allowing your pelvis to move toward an anterior tilt. To keep from exaggerating the curve in your lower back, be sure to allow its expansion on each inhale and to lightly draw your belly in and up on your exhale.
Repeat these pelvic tilts five to ten times. Then relax completely for five minutes (or longer), with the blanket still under your thighs.
Helping the Iliopsoas in Daily Life
If your iliopsoas is tight, practice the above poses to release it after running and walking or other workouts that repeatedly contract the muscle, and include them in your yoga practice to counter yoga poses that require hip flexion.
Perhaps most importantly, take breaks when sitting for prolonged periods, and use lumbar support to prevent fatigue to all lower back muscles, including the iliopsoas. Through persistent mindfulness, you may gradually discover an ease in the discomfort you were feeling in your waist or lower back and a less exaggerated curve in your lower back as your stride becomes longer and lighter.
Photography: Andrea Killam
Bill Reif, the author of The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women’s Back Pain, is a Masters of Physical Therapy graduate of SUNY Buffalo & Emory University Physical Therapy programs, the... Read more>>