I recently returned to an old habit I used to have as a teenager. It all started when we were visiting my grandparents and my sister read an article in AARP about 10 things you could do to improve your cardiovascular health, or something to that effect. Yes, we had a year’s worth of subscriptions to AARP, Reader’s Digest and Guideposts to catch up on. The article extolled the benefits of elevating your feet above your heart at least once a day to relieve stress on your heart.
This nugget of wisdom stuck with me as I certainly did not want a stressed heart. We soon continued our vacation by driving through Death Valley and across the deserts of the southwestern United States. I made it a routine to lie backwards on the hotel bed and put my feet on the wall by the headboard. My family teased me that I must have a fascination with the southwestern artwork displayed by Comfort Inn.
The way I do it looks a lot like this picture; I lay on my bed backwards with my feet up the wall.
Although I do not have any sketches of cactus and pink sand to look upon, I decided to revive this habit to see if it made my varicose veins feel better. I immediately felt like it improved my circulation, so I did some studying to understand why: It turns out that this is a yoga pose called Viparita Karani that is used to promote relaxation and relieve stress. But why does it work?
The scientific rationale of why this position is so relaxing is that it activates the “relaxation” part of the nervous system. The body switches from stressed-out, fight or flight sympathetic nervous system activity, which focuses on blood flow to the brain, heart, and skeletal muscles (arms and legs), to the more relaxed parasympathetic nervous system that focuses on digestion and relaxation of breathing and heart rate. This pose feels awesome on varicose veins as well.
I hold this pose for about 5 minutes and then bring my legs back down slowly. Please avoid falling asleep in this position, as your legs will go numb, which does not feel relaxing. And since this activity is really relaxing and can make you sleepy, it may be worth setting a timer to keep you from getting too much of a good thing.
While I struggle with poor peripheral circulation (blood flow in my feet and hands) because of my Raynaud’s symptoms, the return of blood to the core just feels good. All blood has to return to the core to be re-oxygenated, so I think this just makes it easier on the circulatory system to do that work by using gravity. Otherwise, your heart normally has to push blood with significant force, and the return of blood through veins in your leg occurs by forcing blood through trapdoors called “valves” that prevent that blood from falling right back into place when that heart pump relaxes. That is a huge paraphrase, but putting your feet up and using gravity to do the hard work feels wonderful.
A few cautions: if you have existing wounds on your legs, constantly cold feet, or have had surgery on your joints or back, ask your doctor about whether it’s safe for you to elevate your feet, how high, and for how long. The good news is that there are plenty of examples of how to adapt the yoga version to make it easier and avoid stressing joints or worsening circulatory problems.
Bonesmart has quite a few good techniques to try out. You can also find a variety of foot elevators on Amazon or other retailers.
Most of all, if you try it and it makes you feel awful, then stop. My husband, for example, said that it felt stressful, so he stopped. No problem. But you may just love it like I did, and then you’ll be glad you tried.