Are you burned out from trying to be well? It’s hard work these days, what with all the yoga and meditation and elixirs and focusing on your breath without thinking about the mountain of life admin you have piling up.
Of course, there is no doubt that regular wellness and self care practices—as obnoxious as those terms have come to sound—can help us face the hard work of being human. But here’s the thing: Sometimes what you feel like doing is lying down and doing nothing. And in those moments, the idea of engaging in a high-minded spiritual practice or dragging yourself out the door for an endorphin-boosting workout can cause more stress than it will alleviate.
In times like these, it can be helpful to have a practice that doesn’t contribute to the problem it’s trying to solve, but still feels restorative. For me, that’s viparita karani, or legs up the wall.
I first discovered this pose several years ago, when a running injury meant I had, for months, what felt like a permanently tight hamstring (it was actually a connective tissue injury). An osteopath suggested I make time to spend five to 10 minutes a day with my legs up the wall, my body forming an L shape, with my back on the floor. Sure, I’d done this in yoga class once or twice, but once I started treating it as a daily practice, the nature of the pose changed for me.
Far beyond the point when my injury healed, I found myself craving a few minutes in viparita karani at the end of my day. In addition to unwinding my tight hamstrings without over-stretching them—which is why my osteopath recommended it—it calms my nerves, releases my lower back, drains blood from my legs, and somehow makes it much, much easier to quiet my ever-churning brain, even if for just a few minutes.
When I add a bit of weight—in the form of yoga bolsters (a heavier pillow will also do)—across my belly and on my feet, it creates the altogether delightful feeling of melting me into the floor. These days I find myself doing the pose after a day on my feet, a long flight, and especially when I haven’t been sleeping well.
But are these benefits real, or just the effect of wellness wishful thinking? Studies have proven yoga’s effect on the vagus nerve, the longest of our cranial nerves, which runs from our brains through our lungs to our gut. It’s responsible for both our sympathetic nervous system—the one that puts us in “fight or flight” mode at the first sign of danger—as well as the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that tells us to “rest and digest” so to speak.
High “vagal tone” means your body is good at switching between these states; in other words, you’re able to come down from your constant state of alert once in while. And studies have shown that regular yoga practice increases vagal tone. Though the mechanism is not well understood, yoga practice can lead to “parasympathetic dominance and enhanced cardiac function, mood, and energy states.”
Within the practice of yoga, inversions—any pose where your heart is higher than your head—are believed to stimulate the vagal nerve. While legs up the wall isn’t quite as ambitious as a headstand, is still counts as an inversion. Sometimes if your brain can’t relax, you can get your body can do it for you.
You can do viparita karani anywhere, from a hotel room or a gym to your bedroom or at the base of a tree. It’s the literal opposite of sitting, which can’t be bad, and offers the grounding effect maybe urbanites crave. Personally, I also find that inverting my literal point of view for a few minutes can have the curious effect of changing my perspective about something else I’m thinking about.
To do it, lay a blanket or yoga mat out, or lie on a carpet, and sit sideways against the wall. Swing your legs up against the wall while rotating your hips, and lie back. At this point you may have to wiggle to get your sit bones flush with the wall. Your hamstrings shouldn’t feel strained, so if they do, put a little distance between your behind and the wall. If your lower back needs support, you can put a pillow underneath your lower pelvis, as a variation. If it’s comfortable for your head, the blanket you’re lying on should end at your shoulders, so your head lies directly on the floor; the slight elevation of your heart will enhance the inversion’s effects.
Put your hands over your head and do nothing. Repeat.