Hey hey readers! Welcome if you are new and thank you so much for returning if you're a current reader. One of my absolute favorite yoga poses is known as legs up the wall (or viparita karani as it's referred to in Sanskrit, the so-called language of yoga). I love this pose for so many reasons, and I practice it regularly, in many different variations. So, in this month's blog post, I'll go over why I love this pose so much and what some benefits of are from practicing it. And you don't have to be a dedicated yogi to practice this pose. This pose is essentially beneficial for any body type, and it is really so accessible based on how it can be modified.
In viparita karani, your torso is basically resting on the ground, while your legs are extended up against a wall (for a more passive version of this pose) or just lifted up into space (for a more active version of this pose, sometimes referred to as "waterfall pose"). Your pelvis could rest on the ground itself, or your could prop it up onto a yoga prop (more about this later in this post). Arms can basically be in any configuration in this pose, including resting on the belly area, alongside the body, or even out to a letter "T" shape (palms up or down). The pelvis could be directly touching the wall or you could rest it further away from the wall. And there are a TON of variations to this pose (more on this later in the post).
Biomechanics and Muscular Engagement
From a biomechanics point of view, the hips are flexed and adducted; the knees are extended, and the ankles dorsiflexed. From a muscular point of view, the spinal extensors extend the lumbar spine (meaning that the front of the lumbar vertebrae move closer to the front of the body). The psoas major and minor (i.e. hip flexor muscles located at the front of the hips) and abdominal muscles engage to resist the lumbar spine from extending too much. The quadricep muscles engage to straighten the knees. The adductors activate to keep the thighs together at midline. And while the hamstrings primarily stretch in this shape, there is some activation there in order to resist the legs falling toward the face.
Viparita karani is technically considered an inversion pose in yoga. Inversions are a category of poses in yoga where the head is below the heart and hips, thus inverting your body from its usual upright position. Inversions place your body in an opposite and unfamiliar relationship to gravity. Some yoga inversions, such as headstands, are pretty demanding from a muscular and strength perspective, but legs up the wall pose doesn't really require a ton of muscular coordination or strength to execute.
Benefits of Practicing This Pose
Legs up the wall, as well as other inversions, provide several benefits to the body and mind. First, because viparita karani places the body in a different orientation to gravity, it can help to shift the perspective and neuromuscular awareness of the body. This can help the body to develop more nuanced muscular coordination, which can add stability and ease into other movements you do during the day, including other yoga postures (or asanas).
Second, legs up the wall can help to reverse the effects of gravity in the body. In fact, one of my favorite times to practice this pose is after a long day of sitting in a car on a road trip. I also love to do this pose after being upright on my feet for a long time, such as after hiking or a long, busy day at work. Our bodies seem to perform best when stimulated to move or rest in different shapes, so placing your body in a different orientation to gravity is a great way to help your body move the most efficiently.
Third, inversions are reported to have positive cardiovascular effects, including increasing the return of blood to the heart. This also helps to reduce the potential increased blood flow to your feet and lower legs as a result of being upright all day. This helps your circulatory system to run optimally.
And fourth, legs up the wall is known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the branch of your nervous system that is responsible for resting, digesting, and tissue maintenance/repair (click here to read more about the parasympathetic nervous system). Spending time with your parasympathetic nervous system activated is amazing for helping the body to heal and repair, while also resting the mind and spirit.
Make the Pose Feel "Yummy" for YOU - Variations and Modifications
There are so many different ways to vary or modify legs up the wall pose. You could try to explore these different options to find that "just right" position for your body, in that given moment. Here are some different ways to approach this pose:
As stated above, you could do this pose without a wall, making it more of an active pose (sometimes called "waterfall pose")
Instead of using a wall, you could prop your legs up on a stability ball or chair
You could place a yoga prop under your pelvis, such as a yoga block, bolster, coregeous ball, or blanket.
You could place a blanket or similar object under your low back
You could vary the foundation a bed or couch if the ground didn't work for any reason
You could change the position of your legs to baddha konasana (i.e. butterfly pose), upavista konasana (wide leg shape), or even a figure 4 stretch
You could also add props to your legs, such as using a yoga strap to keep the legs from sliding apart or a sandbag on the bottoms of the feet and/or front of the hips to create a more grounded, stable experience
Legs up the wall is also a legit alternative to more physically challenging inversions, such as handstand or shoulder stand.
Viparita karani is a fabulous, inversion yoga pose that can be practiced by nearly any body type. It is a great pose for improving cardiovascular functioning, nervous system downregulation, and overall neuromuscular operations in the body. Legs up the wall pose can be practiced with a wall for a more gentler version of the pose or without a wall for a more active version of the pose. In viparita karani, the hips are flexed via the hip flexors, knees extended via the quads, ankles flexed via the muscles on the front of the shins, and low back is arched somewhat via the spinal extensors. The abdominal muscles also engage to resist the low back from arching too much, and in the more active version of this pose (i.e. waterfall pose), the abdominals engage a good deal more. There are so many ways to modify this pose to fit your body, including changing your foundation, leg shape, or use of props. This pose always leaves me feeling recharged, open, rested, and clear-minded. I incorporate this pose into my regular yoga practice, and I use every single one of the modifications I discussed in this post. I choose the variety that works best for my body on a given day, as I do with any yoga pose. Even if you don't practice yoga regularly, I highly recommend including this posture into your regular movement routine. Thanks so much for reading this post!
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of human movement, anatomy, and yoga. If you have questions about yoga for your body, please follow up with your physician, physical therapist, or private yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga and/or personal training sessions with me, Jackie, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my monthly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NASM-CNC
Long, R. (2008). The Key Poses of Yoga. Bandha Publications LLC.
Kaminoff, L., & Matthews, A. (2022). Yoga Anatomy: Your illustrated guide to postures, movements, and breathing techniques. 3rd Edition. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL.
Stephens, Mark (2010). Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, CA.