The other day I was sitting at Starbucks and staring at my screen through squinty eyes that wanted to shut into a comfy slumber. I was shivering (why is Starbucks always cold to me?) and felt like I was sitting on a rock. I woke up super early that day, after a night of tossing and turning, so I could get my husband to the train and myself to the doctor to get some routine bloodwork done. I missed my morning breathing session, and really was longing for that battery recharge that my breathing practice offers. I was committed to dedicating a good chunk of time to writing that day, though, and knew that my time at Starbucks was it, given that I had meetings and yoga practice in the afternoon.
So, I did what any yoga girl would do.
Order coffee? Nope. Drink a matcha latte? Nah. Put my head on the table and take a nap? Nyet.
I went home, and instead of crawling into bed or curling up on the couch, I got out my bolster for my favorite fatigue-fighting pose.
Inverted Lake pose (Viparita Karani), also known as Legs Up the Wall, is kind of like taking a shower, only for your mind.
You know that feeling of washing off that layer of grime that accumulates on your skin and you can wipe off with one of those facial cleansing cloths? It feels like that.
Maybe it’s just me, but even if you’re just going to bed after a shower, the sheets feel better when your skin is clean. If you’re starting your day, then watch out world. You smell like that fresh mixture of soap, lotion, and maybe a dash of shaving gel and cologne, perfume, or essential oils. You look good, and you feel lighter.
Imagine if your mind could feel that refreshed in just five to 10 minutes, without taking a nap. You can get a similar, squeaky clean feeling by lying in Inverted Lake pose. I use it all the time—during that afternoon slump, after a draining conversation, before a coaching call or teaching, and even when I’m feeling stuck in a creative process like writing.
Waking the Empress of Your Relaxation Kingdom
Think about how fresh your mind feels after going for a run or doing some other kind of cardio work. Part of the reason you feel refreshed is that your blood is circulating more effectively through your body, including to your brain. Similar to running, you change the circulation of your blood with Inverted Lake, but in less time and without getting all sweaty and smelling like the onions you ate the night before.
When you set yourself up to maximize the benefits of the pose for you, the blood pools up in your abdomen, like a lake. Once this lake fills up, it cascades down into your upper body and head, nourishing all the organs and tissues along the way.
Don’t get me wrong—it is important to do your cardio. But sometimes you’re just too exhausted to get to that spin class.
Sometimes you feel like you’re already running around in fight or flight mode and the last thing you want to do is run more.
That’s exactly why this pose is so powerful.
In addition to changing the circulation of the blood, Legs Up the Wall can move you from fight or flight into the calming and relaxing rest and digest mode of your nervous system.
When the hips are elevated, the chest lifts towards the chin, and the chin moves towards the chest, much as it does in Bridge pose or in Shoulderstand. That position puts a touch of gentle pressure on the base of the skull and lengthens the upper neck, inside of which lies the empress of your body’s relaxation kingdom, the vagus nerve. The result? You feel super chill and refreshed at the same time.
It turns out that vagus nerve stimulation is becoming a super helpful treatment in many ailments, like epilepsy, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions. Click here or here for more.
Even if you don’t have one of these conditions, we live in an overstimulated, overcaffeinated, fight or flight world and most of us could benefit from some vagus nerve love. Why wait until your stress has progressed to the point of illness to wake up your relaxation empress?
How to Maximize the Pose for You
I’ve seen this pose taught as if the only thing that mattered was to get the backs of your legs against the wall. Not at all! In fact the pose can be done without a wall as well, so it’s not necessarily about getting to the wall. The wall is just there for support to make it easier to hold up the legs, which is super nice when you’re as exhausted as I was that day at Starbucks.
The key is to find the right combination of height under the hips and DISTANCE from the wall to make the abdomen flat for that pool of blood to accumulate, create a nice backbend for that blood to cascade down like a waterfall, and bring the chest towards the chin for that gentle vagus nerve stimulation.
When you elevate the pelvis and try to force the hips and hamstrings to the wall before they’re ready, the tailbone will lift and the chest will collapse, which potentially affects the oxygenation of the blood, its circulation, and the vagus nerve stimulation. The support under the hips also can cut into the rounded back in an uncomfortable way. Ouch!
Last time I checked, it’s a lot harder to relax when you’re in pain. If getting close to the wall isn’t working for you, there are two main paths to comfort in this pose:
Move further away from the wall, and/or
Lessen the support under the hips.
The lower the hips, the less backbend. This might be perfect for you if you have problems with your back, like one of my clients who wasn’t comfortable until he was flat on the floor with his hips about two feet away from the wall.
If you don’t have a back injury, my first choice is to move further away from the wall while still supporting the hips, so that you maximize the lift of the chest, and resulting circulatory and vagus nerve stimulation benefits.
If moving away from the wall doesn’t work, then try less support under the hips. If you started with a bolster, maybe try a block or even a blanket. Going flat is a last resort for me, unless I’m feeling lazy…which sometimes I am. For example, if I’m traveling and need a refresher, I might lay on the bed with my legs up the headboard.
The power of Viparita Karani is in the time spent in it, according to my teacher, Jehangir Palkhivala.
So take some time to find the right amount of support and the best distance from the wall for you so that you can stay in and really relish this pose. Listen to your body, not your mind, when you set up and as you do the pose. Believe it or not, your mind will thank you for (at least partially) ignoring it once it feels that fresh, clean, revitalizing feeling the posture offers.
Speak Your Truth
What is your set up for Inverted Lake pose? What is the effect of this posture for you? What’s your go to fatigue-fighting posture? Let me know in the comments!
P.S. Need a refresher at the office and can’t do Legs Up the Wall? Try meditation instead! Grab your copy of my FREE meditation guide Making Meditation Possible here.
P.P.S. NO information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. Certain conditions might be contraindicated for this posture. Check with your health care practitioner before making any changes, especially any changes related to a specific diagnosis or condition.