Ana Davis suggests some beneficial postures for releasing the psoas muscle during pregnancy and therefore supporting a pregnant woman’s optimal posture and relieving back pain.
In our Bliss Baby Yoga Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training course we teach that there are five important Posture Groups for a pregnant woman to practise for optimal health, vitality and balance during her pregnancy, and to prepare for birth. One of these Posture Groups is what I call the ‘Releasing Postures.’ The intention behind these types of postures is to release any aches and pains in a pregnant student’s lower back and hip area. During pregnancy, particularly the latter stages when her growing uterus has expanded well above the line of her navel, it is very common for a pregnant woman’s spine to be pulled into ‘lordosis’, or a kind of ‘banana back’, and for the top of her sacrum to tip forward. This is due to the weight of her enlarged belly pulling forward on the ligaments that support the uterus and essentially moving her whole centre of gravity forward and out of the natural vertical alignment.
This potential misalignment of a pregnant woman’s spine and pelvis can cause pain in her lower back and possibly also her sacrum. Our aim therefore with intelligent prenatal yoga practice is to help re-align her posture by gently coaxing the weight of her full uterus back towards the spine, so that it is naturally supported by the bones of the pelvis and not pulling on the abdominal or lower back muscles.
An analogy that well known Active Birth proponent and author Janet Balaskas uses is that we want the pregnant belly to be like an egg that is supported by the ‘cone’ of the pelvis. “This means you are holding your baby in position close enough to your spine, allowing your body weight (plus the weight of your uterus) to be transferred easily through your pelvis to your legs and feet, and to discharge to the ground,” writes Balaskas.
This correct alignment not only helps relieve lower back and sacral pain but also positions the foetus optimally in preparation for birth, harnessing the energy of ‘apana’— the downward moving energy that is essential to facilitate birth— supporting the process of the baby moving out of the cervix and down and out of the birth canal.
One way to help a woman find more ease and support in her posture during pregnancy is to stretch those muscles that have been tightened and shortened due to this lordotic tendency—in particular, the psoas muscle. The Psoas muscle is a deep, core muscle that actually consists of a complex of muscles called the iliopsoas, which connects the torso with the legs. It attaches from the twelfth thoracic vertebra on either side of the spine and runs through the very centre of body, passing through the pelvis and attaching to the inside of the thigh bone (lesser trochanter), and it also includes the illiacus that fans out on the inside of the pelvic basin.
According to somatic therapist and ‘psoas expert’ Liz Koch, the health and elasticity of a woman’s psoas is vital for a healthy, ease-ful pregnancy and birth. “If her psoas muscle is short and constricted, it reduces the internal space available for organs and viscera as well as the growing fetus,” writes Koch. She suggests that when a pregnant woman’s body is pulled by the growing uterus into misaligment—with her centre of gravity drifting too far forward—her sense of internal support becomes more dependent upon the muscles than the bones which can be experienced as “increased stress”. Koch argues that not only does releasing the psoas offer increased comfort for the pregnant woman but also supports the process of birth: “Once labor has begun, a functional iliopsoas releases and falls back along the spine, encouraging the downward movement of birth,” claims Koch. “The releasing iliopsoas frees the hip sockets and, thus, the legs move apart. As the iliacus fans open, the pelvic girdle widens and deepens.”
Many women commonly experience fear around birth, and a tight psoas may also be involved in this psycho-emotional obstacle associated with birth. Koch explains that the psoas is associated with our fear-stress response, our ‘fight of flight’ response, elicited by the sympathetic nervous system: the psoas naturally contracts and shortens when we are in a state of fear or nervous tension. Therefore, gently lengthening and relaxing a woman’s psoas will also have the added benefit of working to release any birthing fear and bringing the pregnant and birthing woman into a more relaxed and trusting place – essential for the natural process of birth.
So how can we release the psoas during pregnancy?
We can passively release the psoas in the resting position known as the Constructive Rest Position (CRP). This can be a very beneficial to practice throughout pregnancy as it subtly releases the psoas by using gravity, offering the dual benefits of releasing lower back tension and calming the nervous system. During First Trimester, the woman can practise the classic variation of the Constructive Rest Position (see illustration).
To practise CRP lie on your back with your legs bent up, feet the distance of your hip sockets and parallel. Have the feet a comfortable distance from the buttocks – not too close or far away. The idea is that the pelvis should be parallel to the floor – neither tipped forward or back – and you are honouring the natural curves of the spine. You can have a low support under the head as long as the head and neck are in line with the spine and your head is neither tipped too far forward or back. Rest here for 5 – 20 minutes, breathing deeply into your belly.
From second trimester onwards, as a woman’s belly grows it is no longer advisable to spend prolonged periods lying on her back, so practise the adapted version for pregnancy with the torso supported on an inclined bolster (see illustration).
Other psoas-releasing postures that are beneficial to practice throughout pregnancy are the Pigeon Pose, Modified Camel Pose, Modified Warrior 1 with a brick at the wall, and the Kneeling Lunge Pose.
For the Kneeling Lunge pose, rather than make it a big action where you lunge your front knee deeply forward, modify it by staying more upright, with your hands pressed into your front, right thigh. Tuck your tail-bone under, engaging the gluteal muscles of the back, left leg, to help really target and release into the front of the left groins, lower Psoas area. Only once you’ve switched on the glutes of the rear leg and tucked the pelvis into more of posterior-pelvic tilt, should you lunge your front knee more deeply into the pose.
As you do all of these postures, try working with deep ‘falling-out breaths’ (releasing the exhale through an open, relaxed mouth), consciously breathing out and away any tension in the deep core, psoas and hip flexor muscles.
Practising these passive and more active psoas-releasing postures offers a balanced approach to your prenatal yoga practice and hopefully provides the pregnant woman with a more joyful, ease-ful and relaxed pregnancy and birth experience.
If you are a yoga teacher wishing to expand your teaching repertoire to offer specialised Prenatal Yoga classes, our Bliss Baby Yoga Online Prenatal & Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training course, facilitated by Ana Davis and her team of experts in this field, is designed to equip yoga teachers with the skills and knowledge to safely and confidently teach yoga for all stages of pregnancy, and postpartum phases. We also offer Online Prenatal and Postnatal Anatomy & Physiology and Perinatal Nutrition & Ayurveda Extension Modules for some further professional development in this specialised field of study (available as a special bundle with our Online Prenatal & Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training course).
- Balaskas, Janet, Preparing for Birth with Yoga
- Koch, Liz, The Psoas Book
- Koch, Liz, “Pregnancy and the Psoas Muscle” published in The Doula Magazine, 1988
- Koch, Liz, “Birthing Fear: The Ilipsoas Muscle,” published in Midwifery Today,2005