Legs-up-the-wall pose, known as viparita karani in Sanskrit, is a restorative posture that improves circulation in the upper body and is therapeutic for, especially, low blood pressure. The simple inversion – whose name translates directly as “inverted action” – reverses the normal relationship between the lower half of the body (which is typically below) and the upper half of the body (which is typically above).
While legs-up-the-wall pose is passive, it actively benefits the reproductive organs to relieve menstrual cramping and discomfort. Similar to shoulder stand (sarvangasana), the pose gently lengthens the leg and back muscles. Unlike shoulder stand, however, legs-up-the-wall pose does not put pressure on the neck. Instead, it relaxes the mind, relieving stress, anxiety, and headaches.
Legs-up-the-wall pose stretches the back of the body – from heel to upper back – for supple, injury-free muscles. Inversions can be difficult, mentally, since they involve reversing our normal relationship with gravity. Overcoming fear in legs-up-the-wall pose can lead to self-growth and improved mental, as well as physical, flexibility.
Breathing through legs-up-the-wall pose massages the reproductive organs, relieving the symptoms of menstruation and menopause. The pose stimulates blood flow to the upper body and, especially, the head. This, first, improves circulation and, second, prepares the body for intense inversions like shoulderstand and headstand (sirsasana).
According to the yogi Swami Satyananda Saraswati, legs-up-the-wall pose also balances the nervous system. This calms the body physically and mentally, relieving the symptoms of stress such as muscle tension, anxiety, and headaches.
Do not attempt legs-up-the-wall pose if you:
- have a hernia.
- have a slipped disk.
- have sciatica.
Legs-up-the-wall pose confers the benefits of shoulder stand without putting the same amount of pressure on the neck. It is, therefore, ideal as a preliminary pose to shoulder stand, headstand, or plow pose for beginners. Alternatively, it is an excellent substitute for these inversions for practitioners who are on their periods, have high blood pressure, have weak backs, or have vertigo.
Like corpse pose (savasana), legs-up-the-wall pose is a versatile pose that can be practiced as part of a flow or independently, as a way to relax or meditate at the end of a workout or a long day. You can practice legs-up-the-wall pose virtually anywhere, including in bed.
Legs-up-the-wall pose is a restorative posture, meaning it doesn’t have diminishing returns to scale. Holding the pose for ten to twenty minutes at a time only enhances its benefits. Pairing legs-up-the-wall pose with meditation is an extra powerful combination. If meditation makes you antsy, consider practicing the pose while reading a book or watching television.
If you’re practicing the pose as part of a flow, follow legs-up-the-wall pose with an inversion like fish pose (matsyasana), reclined thunderbolt pose (supta vajrasana), or camel pose (ustrasana). These back bending inversions are excellent counterposes to the gentle forward folding action of legs-up-the-wall pose.
How to do the Virasana Yoga Pose
- Place your mat perpendicular to a wall. Begin sitting sideways against the wall (sitting on the mat, but perpendicular to it so that the left side of your body is against the wall). Extend your legs straight out in front of you in staff pose (dandasana).
- Exhale. Temporarily fold your legs together as you pivot to the left (toward the wall). During the pivot, lower yourself onto your elbows and then onto the mat. Straighten your legs vertically up the wall.
- Adjust the distance between the wall and your buttocks depending on the flexibility of your hamstrings. If your legs are flexible, nudge your buttocks closer to the wall. If your hamstrings feel uncomfortably tight, move your buttocks further from the wall.
- Inhale. Extend your legs up the wall as if you were practicing an inverted staff pose, that is: keep your knees and ankles together and flex your feet. Internally rotate your thighs by drawing the tops of them toward each other.
- Exhale. Lengthen your neck by lifting the base of the skull away from the back of your neck. Relax your throat and head against the mat. Soften your gaze and look toward your stomach or close your eyes completely.
- Relax your arms by your sides, palms up.
- Breath and hold the pose.
- If you nudged your buttocks closer to the wall, move your hips back to where they were at the beginning of step step three. Inhale. Swing your legs down and to the right as you push yourself up. Come back into staff pose sitting parallel to the wall.
Modifications and Props
Cushion your hips with a folded blanket. In step one (above), place a folded blanket under your buttocks. Pivot on the blanket in step two. Elevating the hips in legs-up-the-wall pose will deepen the stretch in the erector spinae muscles of the back. Adjust the height of the cushion based on your flexibility – use a higher cushion for greater flexibility.
Support your neck with a rolled up blanket. If your spine feels flat against the mat, roll up a blanket or towel and place it under your neck for support. Use the new height to open your chest.
“V” your legs to stretch the hip adductors. In step seven (above), open your legs to either side so that they form a “V” shape against the wall. This variation stretches the muscles of the inner thighs and groin.
Bring your feet together to stretch the hip rotators and flexors. In step seven (above), lengthen the hip rotators and flexors by bending the knees and bringing the soles of your feet together. Press your thighs actively against the wall to stretch the muscles of the inner thighs and groin.
Draw your shins together with a strap. If your legs drift apart in the pose (and you aren’t going for one of the two above variations), use a strap or belt to hold your shins together. Tie or buckle your shins together snugly, but comfortably, in step one (above).
Preliminary Plow Pose (Poorva Halasana). Technically a variation of plow pose (halasana), this pose is essentially legs-up-the-wall pose without the wall. Begin lying supine on the mat. Press your palms firmly against the mat on either side of your body. Inhale and lift your legs straight up into the air. Bring your knees and ankles together. Flex your feet. Internally rotate your thighs. Breath and hold the pose. Exhale and lower your legs to the mat.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s Inverted Pose (Viparita Karani). This variation, described by the yogi Swami Satyananda Saraswati, has the same Sanskrit name as legs-up-the wall pose, but (like preliminary plow pose) it is practiced without the support of the wall. Begin lying supine on the mat. Press your palms firmly against the mat on either side of your body. Inhale and push up to lift your hips and legs off the mat. Extend your legs vertically. Place your palms against your lower back, right below your hips. Balance on your shoulders and upper back. Breath and hold the pose. Exhale and lower gently back onto the mat.
Hamstring muscles. The three hamstring muscles – the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris – run along the back of the thigh. They extend the hip, flex the knee, and rotate the lower leg. Legs-up-the-wall pose stretches the hamstrings, particularly when the feet are planted close to the body.
Triceps surae. The triceps surae consist of the gastrocnemius, in the back of the calf, and the soleus, in the front of the calf. These muscles stabilize the ankles and provide the power when walking and jumping. When the feet are flexed actively, legs-up-the-wall pose engages the gastrocnemius muscles.
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a bundle of muscles and tendons in the back that control extension and rotation. Because they are responsible for straightening the back, the strength of the erector spinae muscles are closely linked with posture. Legs-up-the-wall pose gently lengthens the spinal extensors that run up and down the middle back.
Trapezius muscle. The trapezius muscles extend from the back of the head down to the shoulder blade. They are partially responsible for the gross motor movements of the head and neck. Legs-up-the-wall pose gently lengthens the trapezius muscle. The higher the cushion under your buttocks, the more intense the stretch of the trapezius muscles.