Take a Yoga Break! Nourish Body and Mind with Supported Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose)
It’s the season of short days, long nights and monumental to-do lists. Potlucks, concerts, parties and gift buying take us out of our usual routines. Normal activities often take a back seat. At a time when our schedules are stuffed to capacity, often the first things to get knocked off our to-do list are those niceties we do to take care of ourselves, like our yoga practice.
I’m inspired to write this post to suggest—strongly—that you leave at least one of your self-nurturing habits on your list. (Please note that I’m making this suggestion for myself as much as I am for you.)
Whether your regular retreat is bodywork, yoga, hot baths, getting lost in great fiction or seeing an absorbing film, keep at least one of these on your list. In addition, I’d like to add one more thing: Restorative Yoga.
The beauty—and the power—of Restorative Yoga is at least partly that we can stay a long time in the poses. While our Western exercise paradigm assesses the “power” of a physical practice by its speed, how hard we breathe, the amount of sweat it induces, and amount of pain we feel during and after, the paradigm from which yoga has evolved sees it quite differently.
Yoga for the Whole Being: Restorative Yoga and the Five Koshas
According to Yoga, we are all amalgams of five koshas or bodies. The koshas are rather like Russian nesting dolls; each successive kosha nests inside the last. Starting from the outermost, here are the koshas: annamaya, the physical body; pranamaya, the energy body; manomaya, the body of emotion and intellect (mind stuff); vijnanamaya, the body of higher intelligence; and anandamaya, the body of bliss. The purpose of Yoga practice is to bring all levels of being into balance.
In order for a yoga pose to reach the deeper koshas, we need to give it time. Rushing through a few quick sun salutations may loosen some muscles and release a few endorphins, but if we really want to feel restored and balanced on all levels—physical, energetic, emotional, mental and spiritual—we need to slow down and allow time for all koshas to integrate in our practice. Because we are completely supported with various props in Restorative poses, we can take the time we need to nourish our whole being.
I can’t say I’ve ever met a Restorative pose I don’t like, but one of my favorites in recent years has been an invention of Restorative teacher Judith Hanson Lasater’s that she calls “Instant Maui.” Instant Maui is actually a supported version of Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose). A slight inversion, Instant Maui is cooling, calming and stimulates the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) side of the autonomic nervous system. Practiced 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, Supported Viparita Karani can help ward off insomnia. It’s a 20-minute vacation for your body, mind, and heart.
I prefer to practice with my pelvis slightly elevated while my legs rest on the chair. Elevating the pelvis creates a small inversion that I find more calming than lying flat. If you find you prefer lying level on the floor, by all means, practice that way. Comfort makes for effective Restorative Yoga practice. If you are experiencing any of the contraindications to inversions—your menstrual period, high blood pressure, or eye problems such as glaucoma or detached retina—lying level is best.
In some ways, I prefer the supported version of Viparita Karani to the traditional one. Often, my legs become fatigued when I’m practicing Legs Up the Wall Pose. In this version, there’s much less pressure on the legs and hips. This makes it easier to stay longer.
How to Practice Supported Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose)
- Gather up two or three blankets, a chair, and an eye bag if you have one.
- Spread one blanket out on the floor. You can place the blanket on a yoga mat if you want some extra padding, but it’s not necessary to use a mat.
- Place your chair on top of the blanket with the seat facing you.
- Fold another blanket so that it’s about 12 inches across and 2-3 inches thick. You may need more than one blanket to achieve that height. Place the folded blanket in front of and parallel to the chair.
- Lie down, resting your pelvis on the horizontal blanket. Make sure that the fleshiest part of your rear is slightly off the blanket toward the chair so that your torso is horizontal. If your torso slants toward your head, the pose will not be very relaxing.
- If your legs don’t feel comfortable on the chair, you can move it closer or farther away.
- Practice for as long as your schedule will allow. Twenty minutes is ideal, but don’t stress if you only have 5 or 10 minutes. Supported Viparita Karani will still help you relax, even if time is short. Remember that Restorative Yoga is a gift to yourself, not yet another thing you have to check off your list.
Our bodies naturally cool down in Restorative yoga, so you may want to have another blanket handy to place over your entire body, or at least over your torso. Stay as long as you like. Set aside your to-do list. Do nothing.
Restorative yoga is not about stretching. It is about settling and opening. If you feel any discomfort, including a strong stretch, in the Supported Viparita Karani, you may want to experiment with your props. The ideal Restorative Yoga pose is one that allows you to settle into deep rest.
Restorative Yoga practice is about replenishing vital energy on all levels. When we are constantly exhausted it is hard to access our joy. Restorative yoga allows the benefits of practice to reach down deep, not just stretching muscles, but nourishing our entire being. You don’t have to travel to a faraway place to relax your body. You can take a 20-minute Viparita Karani vacation anytime.
Reprinted with permission from Hugger Mugger Yoga Products blog.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.