Yoga for Low Back Care (Part 1, The Psoas Connection)

The PsoasMost of us, at some point, will experience some form of lower back pain. Whether it is from sitting on a plane for too long, from gardening or from something more serious, like a disc injury, it is one of the most common complaints I hear from my students.

For years, I have had my own struggles with low back pain. Over a year ago, I was told that I would need back surgery, a diagnosis I took very seriously. As a dancer and yoga instructor, I rely on my body every single day. But who doesn’t? What injuries often teach us is that we take our bodies for granted and it’s time to change our ways.

Instead of running to the surgeon’s office, I decided to take my health into my own hands. I am fortunate enough to have a wealth of health-care professionals as my friends and mentors. I worked with everyone from massage therapists and physiotherapists to pilates instructors, chiropractors and acupuncturists.

It took a lot of research, time, energy and healing, but I can finally say I am almost 100% pain free. My greatest source for success? Yoga.

90% of low back pain is caused by muscular imbalance. Most of us don’t even realize we are imbalanced. If we achieve balance and stabilization, the joints can be spacious and we can move through our days with ease.

Although every low back injury is unique, there are a few key areas that we can all stretch and strengthen in order to achieve balance and relieve pain.

Through the research of my own body and working with students who also suffer from low back pain, I developed a series of routines designed to stretch the areas that are typically tight and strengthen the areas that are typically weak, creating tensegrity and balance for the structure of the spine.

Over the next few weeks, I will be introducing some simple exercises that may make all the difference in the world when it comes to the pain you may be experiencing.

The first is a tight psoas. The psoas (pronounced so-az), is the muscle that literally attaches your trunk to your legs. It is in the deepest layers of the body, past the organs, and sits alongside the spine. Its attachment is in the lowest part of the thoracic spine (or mid back) and runs all the way down the lumbar spine (low back) on either side of the spine, and it inserts at the top of each of the femur bones (thigh bone).

A tight or shortened psoas muscle can pull on the lumbar spine, creating a sway back, weakening and compressing the low back. Although there are many reasons why our psoas can become shortened, the main reason is because as a culture, we spend too much time sitting. We sit in our cars, at the computer, at the movies, etc. Luckily, there are some very simple stretches that can help release a shortened psoas. This low lunge pose (anjaneyasana) is one of my favourites:

Lunge - Psoas Stretch

Make sure to line your front knee up with the front heel. As you square the hips, think of gently drawing the belly in and taking the tail bone long towards the ground. You can keep your hands on your hips or lift them above your head shoulder distance (without scrunching the shoulders). Practice this stretch up to three times daily for 90 seconds on each side.

The psoas muscle is also intimately connected to our fight or flight response. As these are the muscles that lift our legs, it makes sense the they would be ready to run when we need them. They can also pull us into a fetal position if necessary to protect vital organs.

The message here is that a tight psoas can also be caused by stress.  As constriction in this area signals to your body it is in danger, the adrenal glands eventually get exhausted and the immune system weakens. Once again, stress is the culprit! Yet another reason to incorporate meditation into your daily routine.

Stay tuned for next week’s topic: tight hamstrings.

- Jacci Collins is a yoga instructor, dancer and blogger living in Vancouver, BC.  A lifelong student of yoga, she strives to find balance in the body and mind with humor and grace.  Join her at, facebook, and twitter.

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