Viparita Karani is my favorite pose. I know, I know; there is something wonderful to discover in every pose. But, honestly, sometimes I just don't feel like bending forward or back, or I am simply too tired to balance on one leg, even for a moment. But have I ever turned down an opportunity to practice Viparita Karani? Never! I've done this pose on hotel beds around the world, against trees on yoga retreats, and in the steam room at my gym.
Viparita Karani is often called Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose, but viparita actually means "inverted," and karani means "in action." We can interpret that to mean that the pose inverts the typical actions that happen in our bodies when we sit and stand. There are many benefits to inverting the actions in your body. Here are a few. When you put your legs up the wall with your pelvis elevated on a folded blanket, lymph and other fluids that can lead to swollen ankles, tired knees, and congested pelvic organs flow into the lower belly; this refreshes the legs and the reproductive area. This is healthy at any point in your reproductive life cycle.
This pose also gives blood circulation a gentle boost toward the upper body and head, which creates a pleasant rebalancing after you have been standing or sitting for a long time. If you are stressed, fatigued, or jet-lagged, this pose is especially refreshing. But its true greatness is that it teaches us experientially that positive results can come from doing less, not more. Many of us have been trained to believe we must work hard in order to reap the benefits of any particular effort, whether it is practicing yoga, being married, or running a business. And, of course, that is useful and appropriate advice at times. But Viparita Karani offers a paradigm shift in how to approach the notion of "work," in both yoga and life. And this is the No. 1 reason I love Viparita Karani so much. The benefits of Viparita Karani derive not just from inverting an action but also from inverting the whole notion of action. When you relax with your legs up the wall, you are practicing the polar opposite of activity, which is receptivity.
The Organizing Principle
Every yoga pose has an organizing principle and a container principle. When you apply the organizing principle, you arrange your alignment so that the energetic circuitry you set up is balanced and unobstructed. Organized alignment creates the conditions for the benefits of each particular asana to arise.
Let's look at the organizing principle in Viparita Karani. To get the full benefits of the pose, you'll need to get the placement of your blanket under your hips just right. To begin, you'll also need a wall space that is clean and clear. If you are doing this at home, try to find a space that is not cluttered. Gather two blankets, a belt, and two eye pillows. If you have a bolster, bring that along.
Fold one blanket into a large square. Then fold that in thirds, creating a firm, supportive cushion. Place your blanket cushion about 12 inches away from the wall. Fold the other blanket in half and place it three feet from the wall. You'll use this blanket to support your head and to fill in the space between your neck and the floor. Then sit sidesaddle on the cushion so that your right side is near the wall. Loop your yoga belt around the middle of your shins. Draw it snug but not tight.
Place your left elbow on the floor and swing your legs—like a mermaid tail—up the wall. The rest of your body will naturally go down so that you end up lying on the floor with your legs up the wall.
Now it's time to organize your body in relationship to your props and the wall.The folded blanket closest to the wall should be underneath your sacrum and low back, with enough room between the wall and your seat for your sitting bones to slightly drop over the edge of the blanket toward the floor; your hamstrings should feel comfortable, not stretched.
If your setup doesn't match these guidelines, adjust the placement of the blanket that's closest to the wall. To do so, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the wall. Press your elbows down and lift your hips up. Now reach down and move the blanket with your hands. If you need to be farther from or closer to the wall, press your feet into the wall and shimmy your shoulders forward or back. When you've finished adjusting, come down and see how you feel.
If your pelvis feels tucked under, you are too close to the wall. Move an inch or so out from the wall or pull your blanket farther up your back. Your sitting bones should slightly roll off the blanket edge, creating a tiny curve in your back. Your groins should feel soft and hollow. You can completely relax your legs because the belt is holding them together. If you feel a big stretch in the back of your legs, your hips may be too close to the wall, and so move farther away from it. If you still feel strain, place your bolster vertically against the wall. The top of the bolster will probably come near the back of your knees, allowing them to softly bend. This will release any stress in the back of the legs and also help you untuck your pelvis.
Once you are comfortably situated, with your arms resting by your sides, place an eye pillow in each of your open palms. All this organizing might take a couple of tries before you get it just right, but it is worth the effort to find the sweet spot, because you'll be staying here for a while.
If you have more time, you can create a delicious variation with a few extra props. Have a heavy block or sandbag and some blankets nearby. Once you're in the pose, bend your knees, keeping your feet flexed. Place the block or sandbag on the soles of your feet, and then carefully straighten your legs. If it's hard to reach your feet, ask a friend for help. Next, place a folded blanket under each arm and rest your hands on your belly. This will let you feel as though you are floating, yet supported. Finally, place an eye pillow over your eyes.
The Container Principle
Have you noticed that asanas don't really exist? When we come out of a pose, that pose is no more. Asanas are impermanent forms or containers that help us focus our awareness. In a faster-moving practice, that experience is fleeting. In restorative poses, such as Viparita Karani, we invert the habit of action, and abide in the container of the pose. The only "work" we are meant to do is to let go and be receptive.
You gotta love Viparita Karani: There is no warm-up for this pose. You really can do it anywhere, anytime. But just because you get into the physical position doesn't mean that you will instantly drop into a relaxing experience. A calming breath exercise may help. Inhale deeply for four counts, then exhale for eight counts. Longer exhalations slow your heart rate and calm your nervous system. Repeat five times, and then breathe naturally.
Then do nothing. Really. Let your mind float like a kite riding on a soft breeze. If you fall asleep, that's fine. If you don't, that's also fine. I do this pose when I'm stuck on a writing assignment. It acts like brain sorbet, cleansing my mental palate and leaving me with fresh creativity. Can you be open to what happens when you let yourself rest? Maybe this container will show you something interesting. And if the most interesting thing is that you feel the energy of a fresh start when you sit up, well, that's worth a million bucks!
Stay in Viparita Karani for 5 to 20 minutes. If you are not used to restorative yoga, you may want to get up after 5 minutes, and that's fine. Over time, you will be able to stay longer. Eventually you'll trust the container of the pose to support your process of undoing, leading to more profound rejuvenation.
When you are ready to come out of the pose, bend your knees toward your chest. Roll onto your right side and rest there for several breaths. Then, press your hands into the floor and walk yourself up to sitting, letting your head come up last. Slide the belt off your legs and sit on your blanket, with your back at or near the wall. Sit quietly for a few minutes and feel the effects of your practice.
Viparita Karani shows us that the feminine, receptive aspect of our practice can be as important as the active, or masculine, element. The hidden message of Viparita Karani is something many women already know, but don't always heed. Back in my college days, whenever I complained about obstacles, my dad would encourage me to keep up my good work, but I can still hear my mom's voice saying sympathetically, "Oh, don't worry so much. Go put your legs up the wall."
Asana practice can be challenging. But when we apply ourselves to learning the poses, finally managing to hold a balance and be precise in our alignment, we usually feel a healthy sense of accomplishment.
But that feeling meets with a Catch 22, as one of the guiding principles of yoga is santosha, or contentment. My students often get stuck trying to understand this, confusing contentment with complacency. They ask me, "If I become content with things as they are, what is my motivation to ever do anything? Isn't trying to improve a good thing?"
Good questions! Practicing contentment doesn't mean that you stop striving, but that you live with more acceptance of what is, celebrating the good in each moment. My suggestions for practicing contentment are to reduce, simplify, and appreciate—in that order.
Reduce: Can you shrink the number of activities you need to do to feel fulfilled? "First I'll go to yoga class and stand on my head, and then I'll have a smoothie, and then I'll meet my friend for a movie, and then..." The first step toward contentment is to notice how little you really need to be happy. When you schedule fewer things, you create space in your day for noticing the natural contentment that's always present.
Simplify: Can you simply do the one thing you're doing right now and nothing else? I often see yoga students fidgeting away on their yoga mats, reorganizing their alignment. Instead, I invite you to be satisfied with your pose as it is. Try organizing the setup of a pose with no more than two or three adjustments, and then simply abide there. Can you allow the pose to unfold for you? You might be surprised at the mental spaciousness that arises from simplifying your actions.
Appreciate: Appreciation is the cherry on the top of contentment. The first two steps are semi-renunciations leading you to an open place where you can recognize the goodness that was there all the time. This is how yoga invites us to relate to a healthy sense of accomplishment. Not a notch on our yoga belt begging for more achievement, but an appreciation for all the goodness that we are so fortunate to experience in our practice.
Cyndi Lee is an author, artist, and yoga teacher as well as the founder of OM Yoga Center.