I’m sure I’ve taught this sequence more than any other. Students who come to me with critical back pain, high blood pressure, depression, or chronic tension will most certainly be taught this sequence. It’s also great for anyone craving a nap, but with only ten minutes to spare! I learned the deeply healing properties of this sequence when I was sick with Lyme, and I continue to use it whenever I need a refreshing break, or after being on my feet all day. You do not need to be sick or injured to enjoy the benefits of this sequence!
The legs up the wall sequence gently lengthens the muscles throughout the entire body without putting undue strain on the intervertebral discs, and it can be done in bed or on the floor. If you have herniated discs or any other back pain, this is the safest way to stretch the muscles contributing to your pain without adding to the problem. You may be surprised to discover that when you stretch without allowing your spine to bend, your leg and hip muscles are tighter than you realized!
The other surprise about this sequence is how incredibly refreshing it is. Just 10 minutes of this sequence feels to me like I took a good nap. Sometimes if I’m too busy but need a refresher, I’ll take my phone with me. You can remain productive on your phone while doing legs up the wall, but it’s better to close your eyes and focus on your breath and body. Breathe only through the nose. Explore the full capacity of your lungs – both on the inhale and the exhale – and enjoy as you notice over time that you are able to take longer, deeper breaths. This alone is calming and refreshing and leads to a sense of well-being.
Perhaps the most exciting benefit of this pose is its apparent ability to lower blood pressure. Several studies claim as much, and I decided to check it out for myself. I began asking my students with high BP to cuff themselves before and after this sequence, and I have yet to not see the pressure drop. In fact, several of my students have had to reduce and even stop their BP medications because they practiced this daily. If you are currently on BP meds, I strongly recommend you begin this practice while also regularly monitoring yourself. You need to make sure your BP is not dropping while you are doing the sequence. I have never seen this happen, but if it does you should bend the knees and lie on your side before coming to sit. The other reason for monitoring your BP with a cuff is that you will have data to share with your doctor, and you won’t risk your BP dropping too low, which I have seen in students who doubted the effects of this sequence.
According to my reading, some of which I share in the links below, a likely trigger for the drop in blood pressure while in this pose comes from the carotid sensors. The carotids are the large arteries running in the front of the neck bringing blood to the brain. The sensors in the carotids monitor changes in blood pressure in order to ensure that the brain is getting the right amount of blood. When the legs are high above the head, pressure slightly increases in the carotids, the sensors tell the heart to pump less hard. Another factor in this phenomenon may come from a sensor in the right atrium of the heart. When you put your legs up the wall, blood pools to the belly and to the heart, and the sensor may tell the heart to slow down and also to reduce the strength of its contractions. You may well find your pulse is much slower after spending time in this pose.
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Of course, hypertension is also reduced because you are slowing down, breathing deeply through the nose, relaxing, and lengthening your muscles. I hope you’ll try the sequence a few times and let me know if you notice any changes. Here is the link to the video, but please also review the notes I give below. There are important contraindications and details to help you get the most out of the experience. Enjoy!
When your legs are straight up the wall you are targeting the hamstrings. It is imperative that you keep your back entirely on the floor in order to not strain the discs in the lower back. Move your hips as far away from the wall as necessary until you feel that your sacrum – the bottom-most part of your spine – is fully resting on the floor. You may rest easy here for as long as you like, but for a more dynamic stretch, extend the sit bones to the floor while you reach through your heels to further lengthen the hamstrings and calves as well. The more you flex your feet, the more you will feel the calves. To repair torn or over-stretched hamstrings, press your heels strongly into the wall to activate and contract the muscle. It is possible that when you start doing legs up the wall you will feel tingling in your legs and feet. If that happens, simply move on to the next step in this sequence. This sensation should go away after doing this sequence a few times over several days.
When the legs are extended out to the side you are stretching your inner thigh muscles. These muscles are connected by fascia to the psoas muscle, which attaches the front of your lower spine to the legs. When the inner thigh muscles tighten, they often cause the psoas to tighten, which leads to lower back pain. In this position make sure your legs are moving evenly out from the mid-line so as to not continue any imbalance. Think of extending from the mid-line. If want to be more active, you can dynamically extend through the heels, but mostly allow the exhale to move you into a deeper opening. This may take some time – some of you will find more range of motion in a matter of minutes, some of you in a matter of months, but it will happen.
When the soles of feet are brought together you continue to stretch the inner thighs, and now also the hips. If your feet feel tender against the wall, feel free to slide something soft like a folded towel or a scrap of yoga mat between yourself and the wall. To increase the stretch, you can use your hands to gently nudge the thigh bones towards the wall.
When doing ankle to knee, you are stretching your outer hip muscles as well as your inner thighs. Please keep the foot that is against the knee flexed. If you feel any strain on your knee you need to back off. It is also important that you do not lift your sacrum off the floor much, and that you continue to extend your sit bones towards the floor. This keeps the discs in the low back safe while you are increasing the stretch in the hips. Feel free to rock slightly side to side in order to move the stretch throughout the glute muscles. Pause where you feel an especially productive stretch.
Next, slide your feet down the wall as you continue to extend your sit bones towards the floor. If it is impossible to keep the knees together, your psoas is too tight. Bind the thighs together with a yoga strap and spend some time here pressing your feet into the wall while extending your sit bones to the floor. You will likely feel a stretch in the low back, where your psoas attaches to your spine.
When you are twisting you’re continuing to stretch the glutes, but you are also stretching the trunk muscles, and even moving the stretch to the front of your chest and neck. It is important that you keep the back of your shoulders on the floor. Use a bolster and/or blankets to support your legs in order that you may easily rest the upper back on the floor. Press your feet into the wall as you extend your top hip towards the wall. It is fine if your knees stay apart, but over time they will be able to stay together on their own. When you’re ready to increase the twist, you may bind the knees together with a yoga strap, but it’s imperative that you back off if you feel strain in any one part of the body, especially the spine. You should be able to rest in this pose for a while, so find a way to be comfortable here. As with everything, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
If you slide a bolster under your low back, you will enjoy the added benefit of gently stretching the muscles of the diaphragm while also lengthening the muscles and discs in the low back. You might feel it is easier to breathe into the upper chest in this position.
Use the inhalation to stretch the rib cage from the inside out. If the bolster feels too extreme, try a folded blanket or pillow. It can also feel good to rest the sacrum on a firm block, which has the added benefit of leveling out the sacrum.
Contraindications: Do not hold long if you are in late-term pregnancy, have glaucoma, extremely high blood pressure, or you have any other reason that prevents you from lying on your back for a long period of time.
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