In our Western addiction to busyness we often feel we have to justify taking time out, even if it’s to practice a restorative yoga pose. If we’re not jumping around from one pose to the next, burning calories and raising our heart rates, we’re not accomplishing anything, right?
While it might not look it from the outside, Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose) is a powerful pose. Viparita Karani is a curious mix: It’s an inversion, a backbend and a restorative pose. Inverted poses nourish the endocrine glands, promote circulation, balance metabolic function and increase blood flow to the brain. The inverted orientation, combined with neck flexion (chin moving toward chest) stimulates the baro reflex, a chain of chemical reactions that suppress the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and let us rest in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) side.
Backbends are exhilarating, and can brighten the heaviness of fatigue. Backbending expands the ribcage, freeing the lungs for deeper breathing, and opening the heart area. The combination of backbending and inverting rejuvenates our energy by promoting free respiration and bringing about profound rest. The effect is a deep, internal cooling of the physical, mental and emotional bodies.
How to Practice Viparita Karani
- To get started, you’ll need up to three firm blankets (wool or cotton are best) or a yoga bolster and one firm blanket. The Standard Yoga Bolster works best for this pose. It’s possible to practice with just one firm blanket if that’s what you have on hand. You may also want to use a strap and an eyebag.
- If you’re using blankets instead of a yoga bolster, fold two of your blankets into a bolster size (eight to ten inches wide), and stack one on top of the other. Place them parallel to and four to eight inches from the wall. Fold your third blanket to the same size and place it perpendicular to the other two, forming a “T” shape. If you have only one firm blanket, use it to replace the blanket stack. Improvise with what you have.
- If you’re using a yoga bolster, place your bolster parallel to and four to eight inches from the wall. Fold your blanket so that it’s about eight to ten inches wide and long enough to support your torso. Place it perpendicular to your bolster so that the blankets and bolster form a “T” shape, with the blankets forming the stem of the T.
- Sit on the right end of your stacked blankets or yoga bolster so that your left side is touching the wall. Tuck your knees in toward your torso and carefully roll toward the center of your stack so that you end up on your back with your legs extending up the wall and the tops of your shoulders and back of your head resting on the third blanket. Your buttocks will hang slightly off the edge of the bolster or blanket stack. Adjust your position so that the perpendicular blanket is centered under your shoulders and head.
- Viparita Karani means “clear lake.” The name refers to the oval area from the bottom of your breastbone to the top of your pubic bones. In order for your lake to be clear, it must be horizontal. If the lake is tilted toward your head, its waters will spill out toward your chest and head, creating agitation. You will feel as if your weight is collapsing down into your shoulders. If this is the case, move your entire body closer to the wall so that your buttocks are hanging slightly off the edge of the bolster. So make sure that your entire abdomen is horizontal. Move your blankets or bolster away from the wall if necessary.
- You can stay in Legs Up the Wall for a couple minutes or as long as 20 minutes. You might enjoy placing a strap around your thighs to prevent your legs from splaying apart. Use an eyebag if you have one. If your legs tire of being upright, or if they start to tingle, bend your knees and lower them into a cross-legged position while the rest of your body stays in Viparita Karani.
- Let go of resistance to gravity. Breathe naturally and let your consciousness expand throughout the entire body. Let thoughts come and go. Relax and let go of control.
- Comfort is paramount. Pain or discomfort can agitate the body/mind, and will diminish the effects of the pose. If your back is uncomfortable, try lying flat on the floor with no blankets to elevate your hips, and extend your legs up the wall.
- When you are ready to leave the pose, bend your knees and slide your feet down the wall. Roll onto either side and pause there before gently pushing up to a sitting position. It’s important to leave Viparita Karani with care and mindfulness, to preserve the calm energy you’ve generated by practicing the pose.
Modifications and Contraindications
Legs Up the Wall Pose is contraindicated in some cases. People with eye conditions such as glaucoma and detached retina should not invert. Nor should those with hiatal hernias or heart conditions. In general, women should not practice inversions during menses; however, I happen to know several experienced yoga teachers who love to practice Viparita Karani when they are on their periods. Backbends are contraindicated for people with spinal issues such as spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis, and for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters.
People with controlled high blood pressure can modify by lying flat on the floor with their legs up the wall, increasing the height under their hips gradually over months of practice. It’s a good idea to check the effect of the pose with a blood pressure monitor after you’re finished. Over time, regular practice of Viparita Karani may help to lower blood pressure.
Placing a yoga sandbag on your feet, as in the photo, can soothe sacroiliac joint pain. Have a friend help you with this, as it’s pretty awkward to get the sandbag onto your feet without help.
Resting your legs up the wall reenergizes your legs after a vigorous hike or run, or after a long period of standing. Viparita Karani is the best pose I know to settle an agitated, insomniac mind. It simultaneously calms and rejuvenates. Viparita Karani is a cool, luxurious oasis you can visit any time.
Updated article from February 7, 2013.