What do you do when you’re dead beat, the legs feel like lead and you can barely take a step forward?
Slump into a chair or collapse in bed probably.
An easy method to kill fatigue and rejuvenate the body and mind is put your legs up on the wall.
Yep, it’s that simple. No massage, magical rubs or isotonic drinks necessary.
All you need is a solid wall to hold the weight of your legs.
In yoga, this pose is called viparita karani. In Sanskrit, viparita means “inverted” or “reversed”, and karani means “doing” or “making.”
But you don’t need to be a yoga practitioner or use fancy props to practise this.
A beginner can painlessly get into viparita karani as it is a passive pose that doesn’t require much flexibility or strength.
The touted benefits are plentiful: alleviates pain and tightness of the leg muscles, calms the nervous system, reduces anxiety and headaches, aids digestion, minimises varicose veins and restless leg syndrome, and enhances sleep (a good remedy for insomniacs).
Some yogic texts claim it has anti-ageing properties, eliminates wrinkles and reduces the effects of old age as well.
When you put your legs up against the wall with your pelvis elevated on a pillow or folded blanket, lymph and other fluids that can cause swollen ankles, water retention, tired knees and congested pelvic organs, flow into the lower belly.
This “refreshes” the legs and reproductive area.
We are all subject to many stressors in life and this pose is especially refreshing as it gives your blood circulation a boost.
If you are jet-lagged, it works wonders. I often put my legs up on the hotel bed’s headboard after a long flight and feel the relieving effects the next day.
I also introduce it to anyone who complains of tiredness from being upright or seated for long periods, or after a marathon or intense workout.
And so far, no one has reported any ill effects, except those who fell asleep in the pose and woke up to numb legs!
You’ll often find track and field athletes helping each other hold their legs up after a race.
Getting into position
This is the most difficult part!
You can do it two ways.
The first way is to lie sideways in foetal position with the soles of the feet facing the wall, move onto your back and swing your legs up.
Then walk your feet up to inch your body closer to the wall.
The second way is to lie down, place your feet on the wall and shimmy your buttocks as close as possible to the wall.
If you have flexible hamstrings, try not to bring the body to a full 90° angle to the wall as this can impede circulation at the hips.
Instead, slide your hips a few inches away from the wall and/or elevate your hips by placing a cushion under your sacrum (also known as the tailbone).
Your hamstrings should feel comfortable and not overly stretched, while your groin should feel soft and hollow.
If you find it hard to balance your straight legs on the wall, then keep the knees a bit bent and place the entire foot on the wall with the soles of the feet touching the wall.
Adjust your position so that you’re completely relaxed. You should not feel any distress in any part of the body.
You can place your hands on the belly, have them (palms facing up) next to your body or bend the arms at the elbows and take them over the head, which helps stretch the shoulder muscles out.
There are no hard and fast rules of whether the feet should be flexed or the toes pointed, so just keep them relaxed.
Close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths. Surrender to relaxation.
Stay here for 15 to 20 minutes, not more.
When you’re done, bend your knees and bring them to your chest, roll sideways and slowly find your way up.
If your feet begins to tingle, bend your knees or come out of the pose.
If you’re elevating your legs in bed before retiring for the night, come out of the position and go right to sleep.
With a quietened mind and “lighter” legs, you’ll be dozing off within seconds.
Variations of the pose
Once you’ve conquered the first position, you might want to try other variations.
One option is to spread the legs out in V-position so that the inner thighs get a deeper stretch.
Ensure that the knees are not rotated outwards as this places a strain on the inner side of the knee (medial collateral ligament). The kneecaps should be kept parallel to the floor.
If the knees start to hurt, bend them for a few minutes to allow the groin area to stretch more. Then attempt to straighten the knees again.
Dancers love this position as it helps improve flexibility to obtain a wider side split.
Another viparita karani variation is to keep your legs in the “butterfly” position.
Turn the knees outward and bring the soles of the feet together, with the legs pressed against the wall.
This is quite an intense stretch, allowing you to experience the deepest groin stretch from this pose.
If you’re game to work some more muscles, take it up a notch by avoiding the wall and using no support.
This will force the abdominal muscles to engage and help with toning.
A word of caution
Viparita karani is suitable for most people in any age group, but is contraindicated for those with eye conditions such as glaucoma and detached retina.
Generally, any exercise that requires the body to be in an inverted position, i.e. placing the legs higher than the heart or having the heart higher than the head, should be avoided by people with cardiovascular problems.
This position is also a no-no for those with high blood pressure.
Beginners and those with back discomfort or spinal issues may use a bolster or a pillow to support the lower back.
Many yoga teachers advise women against practising this mild inversion during their menstruation to prevent “back flow” of blood.
My take: As long as the pelvis is not elevated with a bolster or other props, and is not higher than the heart (i.e. you’re lying flat on the floor), it is perfectly safe to do viparita karani.
In fact, many of my female students find the pose helps relieve cramps and stretches out sore back muscles.
Traditionally, yogis believe that inversions during menstruation lead to endometriosis, a painful condition that occurs when bits of the tissue that lines the uterus (endometrium) grow on other pelvic organs, such as the ovaries or fallopian tubes.
This is highly unlikely unless you’re staying in inversions for an extended duration during your period, or are experiencing a heavy flow, which then makes staying in the pose uncomfortable.
Putting your legs up on the wall is such a simple exercise with a range of benefits that it’s almost a crime not to do it daily. You don’t even need to warm up!
Some of my fidgety friends do a two-in-one by getting into the pose and fiddling with their electronic gadgets.
Please don’t do this. Be kind to yourself and switch off for 20 minutes. Your body will thank you and serve you well in the long run.
So, wait no more and toss ‘em legs up!