Viparītakaraṇī isn't the Sanskrit name for legs-up-the-wall pose.
I know, I know, that's what we call it all the time.
But the word is actually much more fascinating, giving us insight into a deep well of yoga philosophy.
Viparītakaraṇī is an Entire Concept.
The Sankskrit word viparīta means inverted or reversed. But what exactly does this mean to reverse or invert?
Buckle up, my fellow nerds, because this is an entire fascinating concept.
In order to understand this fully, I’d like to orient you on the yoga history timeline.
A Brief Yoga History Lesson
The three foundational texts of Hatha Yoga, dated 1300-1650 CE, are:
Śiva Saṃhitā or Shiva’s Collection
Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā or Light on Hatha Yoga
Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā or Gheranda’s Collection
Gorakṣaśataka, The Hundred Verses of Goraksha, is technically the earliest text of Hatha Yoga, dated 1000-1500 CE. However, the majority of its verses - at least 84 of 100 - are included verbatim in the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā so we are talking about that text as well.
The best know of these texts is the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā in part because B.K.S Iyengar gave us an English translation with deep commentary in his 1966 book Light on Yoga. This has since been edited and republished multiple times including one illustrated edition and many editions that are referred to as “The Bible of Modern Yoga.”
Whether you read Iyengar’s version or another translation, the Śiva Saṃhitā, or the Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā, it is easy to understand that the postures described are specifically intended to cultivate steadiness in preparation for other yoga practices and techniques like breath work and meditation.
However - and here is where it gets interesting! - in these texts, viparītakaraṇī is categorized as a mudra. Not a posture but a seal or a lock that directs energy.
So no, viparītakaraṇī is NOT the Sanskrit name for legs-up-the-wall pose.
Legs-up-the-wall is a posture where we practice the concept of viparītakaraṇī, just one of many poses that reverse the flow.
Okay, I know, I still haven’t answered what it means to reverse the flow.
It’s coming. I promise.
Before I go on, you will find useful the following glossary of Sanskrit terms:
Śakti is energy (pronounced shock-tee).
Mudra are gestures for cultivating specific qualities. Often this word is used for specific hand gestures but in this particular case, mudra is describing energy locks in a way that is interchangeable with the term bandha.
Bandha are energy locks in the body used strategically to manipulate energy. For this purpose, you should specifically know the terms:
Jālandharabandha = throat lock Uḍḍīyanabandha = abdominal lock Mūlabandha = root lock
Nāḍī are channels or the rivers of the subtle body including:
Suṣumṇā is the central channel (pronounced suh-shoom-nya), depicted as the white cylinder.
Iḍā is the left side, characterized by feminine, cooling moon energy, depicted as the blue line.
Piṅgala is the right side, characterized by masculine, energizing sun energy. depicted as the orange line.
Chakra are spiritual energy centers in the body.
Pictured here in my graphic are maṇipūra chakra at navel center, sahasrāra chakra at crown, and viśuddha chakra at the throat.
(Please note the limitations of my illustration. The chakra are said to stack flat in the central channel, horizontal to the ground like plates in your cabinet, not vertical like a wheel on a car as they are shown here.)
Kuṇḍalinī is the source of powerful energy at the base of the spine, described as a coil, often as a metaphor of a coiled snake. (This is not to be confused with the style of yoga known as Kundalini Yoga)
Okay, now here is where we get to the really good stuff.
The Problem Yoga Solves
Hatha Yoga is trying to solve a specific problem.
It’s the problem of the ages, the quintessential problem of humanity, that everyone everywhere has been trying to solve since the beginning of time.
We age, we die, and we suffer.
And often that happens before we have made a real impact or have fulfilled our life’s purpose.
Even more specifically, Hatha Yoga explains exactly what is happening that causes us to age, die, and suffer.
The Cause of the Problem
Bindu visarga (literally seed fluid) is our essence, what makes it possible for us to live and think and be human.
This fluid within us contains both the nectar of immortality (amṛta) and the poison of inevitable aging and death. It continually drips down the central channel from the sahasrāra chakra, the energy center at the top of the head.
Then it is destroyed in either the digestive fire at the maṇipūra chakra (navel energy center) as part of the metabolic process or it is ejaculated as semen.
Not much mention of what happens for those of us who do not produce semen. Remember these texts are from a time before women were permitted to be taught or to practice yoga. That doesn’t mean they weren’t practicing or learning yoga though that’s a blog post for a different time.
There are lots of other ways the yogis believed this life fluid was depleted and wasted. Stress, overwork, overexertion, eating things that are difficult to digest, talking too much, taking on the problems of others, hopelessness, fear… It's a long list.
The bottom line is that the destruction and depletion of bindu visarga is the cause for physical decline and ultimately death.
First, you must do your posture practice to build strength, steadiness and stamina in the body. Once you are fit, you will be able to sit for a long time in a meditation seat and employ the bandha.
Jālandhara bandha (throat lock) blocks the downward flow of bindu visarga (the seed fluid) and directs it to the viśuddha chakra (throat energy center.)
Here, the poison is cleared and only nectar remains.
Next, uḍḍīyana bandha (abdominal lock) and mūla bandha (root lock) unblock the central channel. This allows the kuṇḍalinī to rise to the sahasrāra chakra (energy center at the crown.)
Now the nectar of immortality is free to flow down the body and be widely dispersed.
This leads us to mokṣa, or liberation from death before we are ready.
If you think that whole process sounds like a ton of hard exhausting work, you are not alone.
The Short Cut
All of the DIY hacks on YouTube have nothing on the brilliant yogis who found the greatest yoga hack of all time.
I’ll bet their sales pitch went something like this…
“You can achieve the exact same results without the hours of intense and onerous posture work, bandhas, and hours of meditation! Who has time and energy for all of that?!?
Get the exact same results in WAY less time and effort with…
Flip yourself upside down and voila! Immortality is yours for the taking!”
Well it probably wasn’t like that but I like to image that.
Viparītakaraṇī as a Practice.
If you invert your body, you can achieve the same reversal of the flow of life depleting fluid.
THIS is the concept of viparītakaraṇī.
Go upside down in headstand, shoulder stand, handstand, even downward facing dog! Use one of those fancy inversion tables or a feet up stool.
Of course the easiest, the least challenging, and the most readily sustainable inversion is legs-up-the-wall.
For the Skeptics
I know what you are thinking.
There isn't actually a bodily fluid called bindu visarga with poison and immortality elixir.
We don't actually have a coiled up snake just chilling at the base of our spines.
Our life force isn't depleted by eating hard to digest foods or by talking too much or by stress and overwork...
Oh. Wait. Maybe that last part is legit...
Regardless, I think the metaphors in these ideas are totally worth learning and considering.
First, anytime we can more about the meaning of Sanskrit words or the history and philosophy of yoga practices, we are honoring the traditions and not simply appropriating yoga.
Not only that, it is well documented by modern medicine that elevating legs helps with a whole host of health issues including edema and circulations issues. Practicing inversions like legs up the wall can improve neck pain, knee pain, back pain, headaches, and blood pressure issues.
What are you waiting for?
Get your legs up ASAP.
I’ll meet you there.
And if you want to nerd out even more on stuff like this, let me know in the comments and I'll give you a reading list. 🤓 📚