When I was in college, I’d throw my legs up the wall while lying on my dorm bed and read my textbook with a highlighter in hand. I’d learned, at some point, that this position soothed me, especially when I was super-stressed with finals. Later, when I attended my first yoga class, I was surprised to find out that this was an actual asana.
Since being introduced to yoga, I’ve practiced Viparita Karani, also known as Legs Up the Wall Pose, countless times. I’ve also come into Legs Up the Bookcase, Legs Up the Chair, even Legs Up the Tree. I’ve practiced it in studios, gyms, my living room, and parks. Give me a surface perpendicular to the floor and I’ll find a way to get my legs up there.
Viparita translates to “inverted” and karani means “action.” I think this is why I love this shape. There’s something quietly rebellious in flipping the normal effects of gravity. We reverse the normal action of our legs and feet powering us through life or receiving the brunt of gravity. From there, we rest. This is a position of receiving support, restoration, energy. And it is accessible in a way that other inversions, including Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) and Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand), are not.
Unlike during my college days, I now understand that asana are not just shapes in space but containers for consciousness. I no longer read or study in this shape, but breathe and allow my body, mind, and spirit to receive a profound un-doing that’s also productive at the same time. It’s been an especially helpful—actually, essential—pose for me during the stress of the pandemic. And I’m clearly not alone in feeling this way. Legs Up the Wall has recently gone viral on Tik-Tok.
So what’s happening in the shape? Why are we so drawn to it? Physiologically speaking, circulation to the upper body increases. We experience a passive stretch along the backs of the legs. There’s a “turning on” of the parasympathetic rest-and-digest nervous system response. Other effects include: Relief from lower back pain or headaches. An unwinding of menstrual cramps. An energy boost. I’ve even heard some say this practice keeps them feeling young by balancing circulation throughout the body.
I still practice Legs Up the Wall on my bed. But now I allow myself to simply unwind and do nothing else. In this position, I feel my body as a sandbag, sinking. I imagine a switch has flipped in my mind from overwhelmed to calm.
If you haven’t had much experience with Legs Up the Wall, sometimes all it takes is a single cue to help you or your students release even more and settle into the true magic of this shape. And who couldn’t use some extra rest and restoration lately?
Yoga teacher Claudia Cummins offered the imaginative and directional cue to let your sit bones be magnetically drawn toward the wall in a 2007 Yoga Journal article. Lengthening through the low back neutralizes the pelvis and releases the lumbar spine.
Keep in mind, this pose feels differently in different bodies. And, of course, our own bodies feel different every day. Shifting the distance between your seat and wall will change the tilt of the pelvis and its effects on the low back. Sometimes it feels best to scooch (technical term) yourself as close to the meeting point between floor and wall as possible, even to touch it. Other times it’s nice to keep some distance between your seat and the wall. It’s worth experimenting and finding the position that feels the most supported and relaxing in your body.
Hello, grounding! With your head, back, and organs situated closer to the floor, imagine your body plugging into the Earth and receiving restorative energy.
By keeping your legs separated hip-width apart, the thigh bones can literally drop deeper into the hip sockets. Since you are supported by your skeletal system, your leg muscles can more easily relax. This one is for the anatomically-minded or those who need some visualization along the way. As Manhattan yoga teacher Neeti Narula explains, you want to “get the feeling that your bones are getting heavier, like your thigh bones are sinking into their sockets.”
It can be challenging to relax in this pose and not be focused on keeping your legs engaged. Yoga teacher Leta LaVigne, founder of yogaROCKS studio in Finland, likes to suggest students wrap a strap around their legs several times and securely tuck or tie the ends for added support and ease. “With the scaffolding of the strap, the wall, and the floor holding you, you can open to the Earth’s gravity,” says LaVigne. “Like the Earth could breathe you in.”
If it feels good to sink into the floor, imagine how good it would feel to add a light weight to facilitate feeling grounded. The addition of the slight weight of a folded blanket or pillow on your low belly and pelvis can help you melt into the Earth (or yoga mat).
Similar to the above, imagine weighting your palms and lower arms with pillows, folded blankets, or a sandbag to encourage a feeling of deeper rest.
In her book Deep Listening, Jillian Pransky talks about setting up for rest. She instructs us to “mindfully scan your face and soften any obvious squinting and clinching in the eyes, ears, and mouth.” It’s important to remember your face is part of any restorative pose, too. Allow it to release.
Breathing techniques can encourage release and relaxation in the pose. Try your preferred breathwork or rely on a simple three-part breath in which you breathe first into the low belly, then the ribcage, followed by the upper chest, and then exhale in reverse sequence.
Feel the sinking and releasing of your inner body. It can take some time for relaxation to set in and this visualization can help you get there. Let go of sight and let your mind take a rest.
Sometimes we tend to think we’re not holding tension when, in fact, we still are. Narula likes to provide students with an implied comparison for just how relaxed and buoyant the legs can feel in this pose. Keep drifting back to an awareness of your body. Perhaps you can release a little more.
Elevating your arms alongside your head while bringing your body into an L shape elongates the stretch along the back body. By extending your arms, you can also give into a larger sense of surrender. Reimagine Legs Up The Wall as what is known in kids’ yoga as“Bat Pose,” as you’re allowing yourself to hang upside down. Or you can interlace your fingers and rest the back of your head in your palms.
Since we’re reversing many things in this pose, why not also turn away from dependence on sight? Many of us instinctively close our eyes here. An eye pillow or towel adds a light pressure to the closed eyes, helping to soothe the nervous system and drawing your awareness even more inward.
Tamika Caston-Miller, owner and director of Ashé Yoga, a trauma-informed yoga studio in support of traditionally marginalized communities in Texas, guides a visualization in this pose. “Be supported by ease, peace and calm,” is the mantra to go along with the imagining. She suggests students imagine a gooey, viscous ball at the soles of their feet that slowly glides down the body, part by part, until it rests under the back, neck and head as a kind of soft support. She repeats, “Be supported by ease, peace, and calm” as her final cue after guiding this rotation of consciousness practice.
Caston-Miller reminds us that stepping into the world of yoga is entering a legacy. “I invite students to sense the connection with the ancestors of the practice of this centuries-old asana that has traveled across oceans and continents.” Take some deep breaths and contemplate the interconnection that has brought us knowledge of this practice. Use this time for ancestor reflection and gratitude.
Your hands are believed to be energetically connected to your heart. Be curious about what your heart as well as your hands are doing while in this shape. Palms alongside your body, facing upward, encourages a sense of receiving. Palms down, whether resting on the ribcage or one hand on the belly and another on the heart, can be grounding and help you connect to your breath. Explore different hand positions to find the one that feels most right for you in the moment.(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)
Sit on a chair in a different way —lie on the floor with a chair in front of you, with the seat turned toward you, and let your calves rest on the seat. This variation offers similar effects as the wall variety, but is gentler on the hamstrings and low back.
In kids yoga, Legs Up the Wall pose is sometimes called “candle pose.” We can borrow from this idea, thinking of the legs as a candlestick and the feet as a flame. Allow some movement in the “flame” by playing with pointing and flexing your feet, which activates and releases different leg muscles and moves energy through your lower body before you come into stillness. First flicker…then let the flame of your feet burn still and bright. Another way to say this, from Narula, is to “let the natural frill of your toes unfurl.”
Stillness can be lovely. But while you’re hanging out, it can be great to add in self-massage of the forearms, palms and fingers. Even taking one hand and simply giving a squeeze to the other hand and moving all the way along the arm before switching sides can encourage the nervous system to calm. Or try placing your hands behind your head as if you’re relaxing on the beach. Then use your thumbs to massage your neck and base of the skull, which can help release tension.
Sarah Robinson, author of Yoga for Witches, likes to refer to Legs Up the Wall as “waterfall pose,” bringing to mind what we can learn from the flow of water. As she explains in her book, “Perhaps we may connect to the element of water to calm the fires of stress and burnout. To surrender into the waterfall pose is to soothe and settle.”
San Francisco-based yoga teacher Martin Scott shares that by letting the legs externally rotate and slide along the wall away from one another into a “V” in this position, the heads of the femur bones align in the hip sockets, allowing for more of a sinking, grounding and complete release. A slight external rotation of the thigh bones helps stabilize and ground the sacro-iliac joints.
For some, having legs extended upward in stillness for a long time can begin to feel intense. Experiment with different shapes in your legs to experience different energetic effects or to allow you to stay in the shape longer. How does it feel to bend your knees and bring the bottoms of your feet to touch, knees pointing away from each other, in a sort of upside-down butterfly? Or what about bending one leg at a time and trying a reclining tree pose, as if the air is the Earth and your roots are growing upward? It can be playful to move the legs into these different shapes for a few minutes at a time, but it also directs the energy differently in the low body.
Similarly, because this posture can lead to the occasional strong or even strange sensation (think pins-and-needles), it can be helpful to come in and out of the shape. In her YouTube videos, Adriene Mishler of Yoga With Adriene recommends bending your knees and bringing your feet to the wall to take breaks within the shape. Moving in and out of the pose this way can keep you in the posture—and the entire experience—for longer.
While being precise with language is essential for yoga teachers, it’s also imperative that we keep our words welcoming. Yoga teacher Margaret Burton, founder of Heartlines Yoga for teens, prefers using the word “seat” or the more anatomically directive term “sit bones” in place of “butt” or “bottom,” which can carry narratives or associations for some students. The more impersonal language can keep students feeling safe and relaxed.
“There’s just such a natural inclination to go inwards in this shape,” explains LaVigne, who relies on Legs Up the Wall as a substitute for Savasana. It can provide you with a slightly different rest.
Yes, this is a relaxing pose for most bodies on most days, but sometimes it can feel intense to reverse the effects of gravity. If the posture becomes painful in any way or any discomfort is felt, you do not need anyone’s permission to exit the pose early. Part of the lessoning, after all, is that you learn to listen to your own inner cues and recognize this inner knowing as your primary teacher.
About our contributor
Sarah Herrington is a writer, poet, and teacher. She is the founder of OM Schooled kids yoga teacher trainings and Mindful Writing Workshops.