the diaphragm, the psoas and pranayama
During pranayama we elicit the parasympathetic nervous system which induces relaxation, both emotionally and physically, in our bodies. As a result, our anxiety and stress levels decrease, and our bodies relax as a whole.
But, can we use pranayama to target the release of tension in specific muscles, such as the psoas? What connection, if any, is there between the diaphragm and the psoas, and what impact could this connection have on our practice of pranayama?
As a student in Pranalife Yoga YTT 2017 and a Registered Massage Therapist of 18 years, I began to become curious about pranayama and its use in relieving muscle tension. I began by doing a little research on the connection that exists between the diaphragm and the psoas muscles.The iliopsoas muscle originates at the transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae 1 to 5, and at the inter vertebral discs of lumbar vertebrae L1 to L4. The diaphragm attaches posterior to the lumbar vertebrae L1 through L3. There are right and left crura ligaments that are two fibroelastic bands that run from the lumbar vertebrae and insert into the central tendon of the diaphragm.
“The psoas originates along the upper lumbar spine; for part of its length it runs along the front surface of the lumbar vertebrae. Its origin is in close proximity to the two tabs of the diaphragm called the crura; through these neighbors, the psoas can involve the respiratory pattern.”(1)
Wow! My mind was blown! The connection was not only that the psoas and the diaphragm were both attached in close proximity to one another on the lumbar spine, but because of this close anatomical connection, one could say that pranayama could indeed affect the psoas and relax it. Now to test this theory. But how?
As the owner of probably the world’s most energetic dog, I find myself on long, vigorous hikes to wear down his energy. These hikes last 5 to 7 km, and we travel through bush and forest, walking deer trails, ducking tree branches, climbing up steep hills, or hurdling over things obstructing our path. These walks do us both good. He spends the rest of the day sleeping it off… and I end up with tight hip flexors!
So tight, that when I am lying in savasana at the end of my asana practice, I feel tension in my low back, and in the front of my hips. Not only that, but I find that when I am this tight, my breathing becomes shallow, and it’s tough to take deep, slow breaths when beginning a pranayama practice. That made me curious too.
Credit Yoga Journal
It turns out, as I discovered through some reading online, that this in turn was just something else indicating that there was a definite connection between the psoas and the diaphragm, and that this connection could impact pranayama.
This is when I found:
Tight diaphragm = tight hips
Tight hips = poor breathing
This happens because the diaphragm attachments overlap with the psoas attachments in the same area of the lower back.” (2)
Further evidence that the connection between the psoas and the diaphragm can impact the breath or pranayama(note:unnecessary sentence)
Now to find out if pranayama could specifically relax the psoas.
The first test had an obvious outcome. I stood in warrior 1 to stretch the psoas of the back leg. Holding my position, I tuned into my breath. As I relaxed into my breathing, naturally with each exhale I could feel myself being able to deepen the stretch, relaxing my psoas further.
The second test took place after one of my hikes with my dog. I wanted to lie down in savasana and test my pranayama practice to note if any changes took place in areas of notable tension. Before lying down, my observations were: I felt tension in the front of my hips, and upon palpation, I could feel that the psoas was hypertonic. I tried to take some deeper breaths. I could feel shuddering, the movement of my breath wasn’t smooth, nor was it filling my lungs to their fullest capacity. The diaphragm seemed tense too.
I lay down on my mat, directing my attention to the tension in the front of my hips, the pulling in my low back, the anterior tilt of my pelvis caused by the tight hip flexors, and my lower ribs coming off the floor. I began to shift my focus to my breath, and began the practice of dirga pranayama(3 part breath). I took slow, deep, rhythmic breaths feeling the abdomen rise and fall with the movements of the diaphragm through inhalation and exhalation. I repeated the breath focused on the rib cage and then the chest.
As I continued to breath and relax, I began to feel my shoulders sink into the floor. I also felt my low back relax, my pelvis shift to a more neutral position, and the tension in the anterior hip decrease(and it continued to). These affects deepened as I continued practicing pranayama!
Afterwards, standing up, the tension that I had felt prior to lying down was considerably less. I had put pranayama to the test and discovered that it did have an impact on the psoas-diaphragm connection, and that it could be used to target and relax the psoas.
Breath helped to relax the diaphragm, which in turn helped to relax the psoas. Cool!!!
The yogi inside of me has discovered the connection between breath and muscle tension. The massage therapist inside of me chimes in by suggesting that adding asana would be even more beneficial than relying on breath alone to have a completely lengthened psoas and reset the muscle’s memory of what its original length was. Asanas useful for lengthening the psoas are bridge, warrior 1, and low lunge.
I learned to appreciate the connection between muscles in the body, that connection to breath, and how they work in harmony with one another.
Resources: (1). Schultz, R.Louis, The Endless Web, (pg.43)
(2). Don White@Corexcellence, Breathe Better For Your Tight Hips rel=”no-follow” http://www.corexcellence.com/breathe-better-for-your-tight-hips/