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Walking with your Iliopsoas Muscle

by Liz Koch(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 74 - March 2002

Important Functions of the Iliopsoas

Everyone knows that walking is good for your health: a natural way to exercise. Walking activates multiple muscle groups, stimulates the cardiovascular system and massages vital organs. Walking increases the intake of oxygen, nourishing healthy cell growth and the release of toxins. Going for a walk is both invigorating and relaxing. But did you know that getting the most from walking is directly dependent upon a well-functioning iliopsoas muscle? A vital core muscle, it is the iliopsoas that ultimately determines the benefits derived when walking.

Walking, initiated in the belly core, begins with the iliopsoas muscle. The only muscle to attach the lumbar spine to the leg, the iliopsoas simultaneously activates the legs while massaging the spinal column. Working like a hydraulic pump its movement through the abdominal core works in combination with the diaphragm to stimulate deep breathing, increase blood circulation and invigorate cell functioning.

The iliopsoas muscle
The iliopsoas muscle

The iliopsoas is made up of two distinct muscles. The psoas (pronounced so-as) originates at the 12th thoracic vertebra (T12) and attaches to each of the five lumbar vertebrae. The iliacus, like an open fan, lines the inside of the pelvic bowl. Both muscles pass directly over the hip socket and join in a common tendon inserting into the lesser trochanter of the femur (upper thigh) bone. Together they influence hip socket mobility and the range of motion possible in the leg and foot.

The psoas is a diagonal muscular shelf supporting the core abdominal organs. With every walking step a supple psoas literally massages the kidneys, liver, pancreas, stomach, small and large intestines, bladder and reproductive organs. The iliacus creates the deep bowl structure of the pelvic girdle. Together a supple psoas and iliacus give the abdominal region its width, breadth and depth. For the pregnant woman, the supple psoas also provides structural support for the growing foetus.

The pendulum motion of the psoas gives the leg its free swing. If the psoas is short and tense the pendulum motion is unavailable and core movement becomes fragmented. Standing becomes a chore and walking becomes a muscular struggle with gravity. Substitute muscles get activated to maintain balance. With increased muscular tension the healthy benefits of walking become minimized or lost.

Muscle tension is used when one is skeletally out of alignment with the earth's magnetic field. The result is physical exhaustion and movements that are controlled and limited. Releasing the iliopsoas muscle helps free the entire muscular system from unnecessary contraction and strain. Muscle groups held tense for structural support can find their rightful place as movers of the bones. Releasing a constricted iliopsoas also frees the skeletal system to do its job of supporting weight, coordinating balance and orienting the body in space.

The Body's Neurological Righting Reflexes

It is the skeletal proprioceptive system that organizes and rights your body in relationship to the earth's magnetic field. The nervous system doesn't really process information so much as it interacts with the environment by continually modulating its structure. Your self-correcting and self-referring nervous system has the capacity for adapting, changing and evolving. When moving through space, it is your proprioceptive system that constantly co-coordinates movement. Receptors adjust, organize and right the kinaesthetic body. Located within the skeletal joints, these righting reflex receptors cue orientation, placement and direction.

There are a multitude of receptors throughout the body with major reflexes located in the bottoms of the feet, sacroiliac ligaments, and the head/neck. Visual control can override the reflexes. For example, when walking up or down stairs it is common for people to walk with their eyes focused down. Using sight rather than sensation to confirm where they are going, walking with the head and eyes locked down, interferes with coordination and ease of movement. When off balance the iliopsoas will be engaged to help maintain skeletal support.

The head/body reflex located in the neck strives to keep the head and body in a constant relationship to each other, the head over the body and the body under the head. If you constantly keep your eyes and head facing down towards the ground while walking, you override this subtle reflex and stress the system. Keeping the head up and the eyes oriented towards the horizon helps the nerves fire accurate information and frees the skeletal system to find its relationship to the earth's surface.

As part of the fear reflex (flee or flight mechanism), the iliopsoas instinctively protects and moves you out of life-threatening situations. Elicited by a survival instinct, the iliopsoas can roll you into a foetal ball or release your legs to kick high and jump fast. Releasing a chronically constricted iliopsoas muscle helps to switch the body from the sympathetic (flee or fight) nervous system to the life-affirming parasympathetic one, whose focus is replenishing, building and strengthening. Part of the immune system and associated with hormonal balance, the adrenal health greatly benefits from a healthy, supple iliopsoas. Because the iliopsoas is part of the body's natural fear reflex system, releasing all unnecessary tension in the iliopsoas muscle awakens a deep instinctual sensitivity.

Walking Patterns

Walking begins with a sense of letting go - a sense of falling. As the iliopsoas muscle releases, the bones shift forwards. Walking is composed of a falling and catching motion that eventually matures into an asymmetrical pendulum rhythm. Compare a little child learning to walk with the older child capable of running. Imagine the movement of the legs and the arms. Most beginners hold their arms up and out to the sides for support as they activate their lower body. One side moves, then the other, as each psoas activates separately. If skeletally aligned and unrestricted, the young child's weight shifts forwards till the rebounding or catching reflex balances the falling motion. Like a ball bounced against a floor, weight moves down through the bones and as it makes contact with the earth's surface reflects back up through the bones. The earth's vital force literally moves through the bones, aligning and coordinating the skeletal system. Only when the bones are supporting weight can the psoas be free of tension and able to serve the spine not as a ligament but as a guy wire.

As the child's walking pattern becomes more sophisticated, movement of the psoas takes on a pendulum motion, propelling the child into asymmetrical (opposite arm and leg) movement patterns. The right leg and the left arm move forwards at the same time. The left leg and right arm move behind the torso. The asymmetry of the arms and legs activates the hydraulic action of the iliopsoas and diaphragm. Somatic maturity continues to refine the child's experience until a definition of separate yet integrated cross-patterning movements lets each iliopsoas muscle function separately yet integrated. This body sophistication allows the child to stand on one foot while lifting the other leg (leaping or kicking). Coordination becomes a shear joy of fluid motion.

How to Activate Your Iliopsoas Muscle for a Free and Easy Walking Stride

Step One

Release tension in your iliopsoas muscle. A tense iliopsoas muscle may be the result of injury, overdeveloped external muscles, a lack of neurological kinaesthetic awareness, emotional trauma or wearing inflexible shoes. Whatever the reason, letting go of tension in the iliopsoas will improve walking.

The constructive rest position (CRP) is a simple way to release your iliopsoas muscle. Choose a quiet, safe and comfortable place to rest. Lie on your back, knees bent at a 45-degree angle, feet flat on a well-padded floor. Separate your feet and your knees the width of your hip sockets (located in the front of your pelvis). If your feet slip, use a sticky mat under the feet. Let your arms rest at your sides, on your pelvis, or over your chest. Your eyes remain open but soft.

Use no muscular control to align your posture. DO NOT tuck your pelvis or flatten your back. If your back is arched, leave it. As you rest in CRP your spine will begin to have weight, as your psoas gradually releases, and lengthen along the floor. The pelvis will open and widen as the iliacus fans open. Use no force. Instead, quiet your thoughts and bring your attention to sensation. Do you feel supported by the floor? As your attention sinks deep within, sense the iliopsoas muscle as it releases over the front of each hip socket. Rest in the CRP for 10 to 20 minutes. If leg tension is excessive, place your feet (legs bent at a right angle) on the seat of a chair.

Step Two

Experience the pendulum motion of your iliopsoas. Stand with one foot on a block (hard foam or wood) or thick book (at least 3 inches thick and as wide and long as your foot). Place the opposite hand on a support (a wall or chair). Be sure your supporting shoulder and arm are level and comfortable. Check for skeletal support. Is your torso balanced? Do you have a sense of your core? Shifting weight through the ankle (front to back) can help to bring you into better alignment. The supporting weight needs to flow from one bone to the other with each joint soft and open and a sensation of energy flowing through the bones into the floor. Be sure not to collapse into the hip socket of the weight-bearing leg. If you have a tendency to lean to the side of the weight-bearing leg, shift your weight forwards and over the hip socket. Keeping your head up and your eyes forwards, let the free leg swing. The leg that is swinging is mimicking the range of motion of the iliopsoas in walking. When the leg is under the pelvis, the psoas is released. As the leg swings forwards the psoas, in an eccentric motion, engages by falling back along the spine. The released psoas returns to neutral. As the leg moves behind the torso the psoas lengthens. Again the released psoas returns to the neutral standing position.

As the leg swings, notice if your pelvic girdle is moving with the leg. If the pelvis is moving, slow the movement down until only the leg is swinging. The pendulum motion of the psoas must move separately from the pelvis. Only when the leg is articulated at the ball and socket is it free to move separately from the pelvis. This somatic distinction is vital to hip socket mobility and freedom of stride. Placing your free hand on your hip or the back of the sacrum can help to determine whether or not the pelvis is moving with the leg. Only if the pelvis remains stable and part of the torso can the psoas freely swing the leg.

Step down and compare legs. It is a common experience for the swinging leg to feel longer and more aligned than the opposite leg. This is a result of releasing your psoas and articulating the leg from the pelvic girdle. Repeat on the opposite side.

Step Three

Wear flexible shoes. Muscular tension in the feet disturbs the neurological righting reflexes essential for good balance and coordination. Inflexible shoes can distort the feet, disrupt the distribution of weight and limit kinaesthetic awareness. A shoe should simply protect your foot from weather and hard surfaces. It should not control or define the movement of the foot. Choose a simple shoe by turning it over and drawing an imaginary line through its centre. Doing so can help determine whether or not the shoe will impose a specific movement pattern on your foot. The more even and neutral the bottom, the less likely the shoe will modify your posture. Try bending the shoe in half. A flexible shoe allows the whole foot to roll when walking. Your foot has 28 bones and each joint has a proprioceptive righting reflex. Limiting the range of motion in the foot disturbs the nervous system from coordinating posture. If the joints in the foot are not functioning, the iliopsoas muscle will be called upon to help support and stabilize the bones.
To release tension in your feet, sit on a chair and use a soft but firm ball (racket ball) to massage the bottom of each foot. Place the ball under your foot, pushing down as you roll your foot over the ball. Use a smaller ball (smash ball) to massage between the toes. Releasing tension in the feet will help keep the iliopsoas muscle supple.

Step Four

Walk with awareness. Choose a place to practise where you can walk freely without obstruction (a street or path with nothing to stop you). Focus on your belly core and orient your head towards the horizon. Explore the sensations of moving through space with your head up. Let your eyes be open but soft. Letting the light and images filter in, do not actively look out. Now change your focus. Actively look to the furthest point visible while maintaining your internal awareness. Switch back and forth as you walk and notice if you can stay rooted within your core, maintaining a released psoas muscle while walking. Be sure to let your belly core lead rather than your eyes or head.

Working with the force of gravity can help you gain acceleration. By exerting more force against the ground, the centre of force shifts between your feet and the earth and increases your speed. Leaning slightly forwards with your whole torso shifts the weight forwards, also centring the force. Swinging the arms with the legs helps gain speed. Whether you choose a slow or rapid pace, walking with a released supple iliopsoas will feel absolutely exhilarating.

Comments:

  1. Ruth said..

    Article interesting. I live near Toronto, Ontario, Canada... Seek contact with therapist.
    Chronic grion pain, muscles tense. Can't walk 2 blocks. Or stand 15 minutes.cant
    Exercise, depressed. Pain at rest left leg, knee, calf, foot... Muscles left leg weak,
    Gait awkward... Cramps in toes... Started after event gyrating spititual dance exercise.
    Help please.. Ruth


  2. Subhash Chand said..

    Your psoas muscle may be imbalanced or there may be some other type of stiffness in the spine.Show me your feet while legs extended .In the meantime place a four folded towel under the left buttok while sitting or lying.You will get relief from all above mentioned problems.


  3. Joan Agosta said..

    I found Liz's site while researching function and release of iliopsoas muscle. My understanding is that an immobile sacrum due to hypertonic iliopsoas can lead to tendency toward allergies and general toxicity. Liz's discussion confirms my thinking. I am a neurokinesiologist working with primary reflexes to improve structural, biochemical and electrical imbalances. I live in Guelph ON and can probably offer help to Ruth if this is still pertinent. Liz has my permission to share contact info with Ruth. Thanks.


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About Liz Koch

Liz Koch is an international somatic educator, and creator of Core Awareness ( focusing on awareness for developing human potential. With 30 years experience working with and specializing in the iliopsoas, she is recognized in the somatic, bodywork and fitness professions as an authority on the core muscle. Liz is a nationally and internationally published writer and the author of The Psoas Book, Unraveling Scoliosis CD, Core Awareness; Enhancing Yoga, Pilates, Exercise & Dance, and her new release Psoas & Back Pain CD. Approved by the USA National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB), as a continuing education provider, Liz Koch is a member of the International Movement Educators Assoc. (IMA).  She may be contacted via liz@coreawareness.com    www.coreawareness.com

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