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Yoga for Anxiety

Upside Down

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The Oxford English Dictionary committee recently revealed that the most commonly used noun in English is “time.” Probably when we use this word in daily conversation, it is to express our belief that we do not have enough time in our lives. We fill our calendars with tasks and appointments. The consequence of living this way is that we are stressed and seemingly have no time to de-stress. Even in yoga classes, the final relaxation pose may be only five minutes long, sadly not long enough in physiological terms to provide our bodies with appropriate rest.

Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) is an elegant solution. Ten to 15 minutes in the pose quiets the mind, lowers blood pressure, enlivens the legs, and generally relaxes the body. It can be done at the end of an active practice to rejuvenate, as part of a restorative series, or by itself during a busy day. Although the pose requires a few props, its soothing effects are well worth the preparation time.

To set up this pose, place the shorter end of your yoga mat against a wall. Now place a bolster—or two firm blankets rolled to form a bolster—approximately 10 inches away from the wall, with the length of the bolster parallel to the wall. Fold another blanket so that it is approximately 28 inches long and 5 inches high and put it at a 90-degree angle to your bolster so your setup looks like the letter T. This blanket will support your back, neck, and head.

To get into Viparita Karani, sit on your heels next to your bolster and face the center of the room with your right outer hip in line with the middle of one end of the bolster. Lean forward as in Child’s Pose, place your right arm underneath your chest and parallel to the wall, and simply roll over onto your back. With a little practice you will find the right relationship to the bolster to use this technique, and the process of getting into Viparita Karani will become much simpler.

Once you are there, you should be a sufficient distance from the wall so that your hamstring length allows your tailbone to drop slightly. When this happens, your navel and pubic bone will be on the same plane. Make sure that your pubic bone is not higher than your navel. If that occurs, your pelvis is tilting forward; instead, you want your belly to remain open. If you are in a forward tilt, your hamstrings may be tight. Roll out of the pose and move the setup a bit farther from the wall. Remember, this pose is about opening and relaxing, not about creating a stretch in the hamstrings, so the backs of your legs do not need to be against the wall.

Make sure the bolster supports your lower back ribs and that your legs are straight and leaning comfortably against the wall. You may fasten a yoga strap around your legs to facilitate your relaxation in the pose. Place your arms out to your sides or overhead, palms up, so your arms are opened away from your body but resting comfortably. Stay in the pose for up to 15 minutes, remove the strap, and roll to the side, resting for a few breaths before slowly sitting up. (Avoid this pose if you are menstruating or pregnant or if you have gastric reflux or heart disease.)

Hamstring Quartet

For you to fully enjoy this pose and reap its benefits, two areas of the body need your attention. The four hamstring muscles are the first. Three originate at the back of the femur (thigh), and one originates at the ischial tuberosity (sitting bone) of
the pelvis. Both heads of the biceps femoris (lateral hamstrings) attach to the outside of the knee region, while the semitendinosus and semimembranosus attach just below the inner knee. The four hamstrings work together to flex or bend the knee and to extend the hip joint, as they do when you’re preparing to kick a ball.

To do Viparita Karani with the backs of your legs against the wall, your hamstrings must be somewhat loose. If you feel your hamstrings stretching in the pose, it will be more difficult to relax and to drop your tailbone down toward the ground. One way to overcome tight hamstrings in the pose is to do what was suggested earlier: Set up your bolster or blankets a bit farther from the wall. The other solution is to do a hamstring stretch or two before practicing Viparita Karani. If you are very tight, it may be sufficient to lie on the floor and draw one knee to the chest. But if you are like most students, you’ll need to extend or straighten the knee while flexing the hip. The most effective hamstring stretches are those that both flex the hip and extend the knee: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), or Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). If you want, you can place a second bolster or two firmly rolled blankets between your legs and the wall to support them in the pose.

The Perfect Arch

The second area of the body to focus on in Viparita Karani is the spine. Some students complain of discomfort during backbending. This may come not from the backbend itself but from the unevenness of the backbend along the lumbar spine (lower back). If you are uncomfortable in backbending, you may not be relying on all five segments of your lumbar spine to move. Instead, you may be forcing the movement primarily at the lowest vertebral segments, the L4 and L5 joints.

For many students, Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) creates even backbends (see Posture Perfecter). To feel this sensation, lie on your belly on a comfortable surface. With an exhalation, bend your knees and hold your ankles while pressing your thighs into the floor. With the next exhalation, lift your shoulders and knees up to form the basket-shaped Dhanurasana. Keep breathing and note the sensation of your lower back bending evenly—this is the same sensation you’re seeking for the lumbar spine in Viparita Karani.

If there is not enough arch in your spine when you do Viparita Karani, your pubic bone will be higher than your navel. With the body in this shape, the last one or two lower back ribs will not be on the bolster; they’ll be hanging off so that the spine appears and feels flat. Make sure that when you position yourself on the bolster, your last rib or two are well supported by it. When you do this, your thoracic spine (upper spine) will arch, your breastbone will be lifted, and your breathing will be free. By supporting the thoracic spine’s arch, you will create a moderate arch in the lumbar spine as well. To experience this sympathetic action of the thoracic and lumbar arches, sit comfortably on the edge of a chair with your knees bent and your feet about 14 inches apart; as you sit with a long spine, lift your breastbone as though you were going to drop back into Camel Pose. Notice how both your thoracic spine and lumbar spine arch evenly together. Now try to arch your thoracic spine without arching your lumbar spine. It will probably feel uncomfortable and unnatural. Apply this knowledge of spinal curvature to Viparita Karani.

When the lumbar spine is in an even arch in Viparita Karani, you will also feel that your ribs part to the sides a bit, creating more space for the organs of the belly and for your inhalations. Remember that this arch is positional. It is not achieved by actively tightening the erector muscles of the posterior spine, but rather by how you position yourself over the bolster. With the right arch, your tailbone will drop down, counterbalancing the weight of the thoracic spine moving in the opposite direction. When you are lying evenly, the sensation will be one of ease and openness without effort.

Finally, make sure that your face is parallel to the floor. Tuck your chin slightly, so that the extension of the thoracic and lumbar spines does not continue in the cervical spine (neck); this will enable you to enter an introspective state. Keeping the cervical spine in flexion will help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and heal” nervous system, and thus create the feelings of calm that we all crave. Ending your practice or your day with this pose will not only mitigate the effects of stress but will also create a stronger immune system, a quieter mind, and a peaceful sense of self.

Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., is a physical therapist. She recently completed writing Yoga Moves, a book about the anatomy and kinesiology of asana, which will be available in 2007. Her latest book, A Year of Living Your Yoga, has just been released.