Natarajasana: Shiva’s Celebratory Dance
It’s June, time to kick off your shoes and shed your extra layers. The Roman poet Ovid named June after juniores, or youth, following as it does, the month of May (named for maiores, or elders). With its long hours of daylight, June celebrates the carefree fullness of summer and the plethora of outdoor festivities it brings—festivals, weddings, outdoor concerts and farmer’s markets. Kinda’ makes you want to dance.
In Indian mythology, the shape-shifting god Shiva famously assumes the form of a dancer at times. Being a god, however, Shiva is not just any dancer. He is, in fact, the literal Lord of the Dance, Nataraj, from the Sanskrit natar-rajan, or “dance king.” In this rollicking form, Shiva is often depicted encircled in flames, four arms flung in all directions, one foot crushing a small, misshapen figure that represents ignorance, while the other kicks out in enlightened joy. Shiva dances to destroy, and he destroys in order to create. In Shiva’s dance, sublimating the veil of ignorance brings about the infinite clarity of awareness.
This month’s pose, Natarajasana, celebrates Shiva’s dance, and the joy of June’s youthful exuberance. Begin by standing on a solid surface with your feet hip width apart. No mat is needed for Natarajasana. Check in with your feet. How is your weight distributed between them? Do you feel more weight on the insides or the outsides? Are your heels or balls of your feet bearing more weight than the other?
Feel how you are relating to gravity. Is your body collapsing into your feet, bringing a tired or sluggish feeling? Or are you tightening the muscles around your bones, propping yourself up away from the earth? Try the middle way, what New Zealand yoga teacher Donna Farhi calls “active yield.”
Here’s how: Standing on both feet, yield your weight into your feet. Now instead of collapsing or pushing the floor away, feed your feet into the floor, as if you are growing roots. When you practice active yield, rooting your foundation into whatever surface you’re on, you will feel a gentle rebound that lifts the rest of the body up away from the floor.
Now shift your weight onto your right leg, actively yielding into the right foot. Bend your left knee and take hold of the top of your left foot with your left hand or with a strap, holding your foot behind you. Let your tailbone descend toward the floor as you raise your right arm up toward the sky. This is the first variation of Natarajasana. In this variation, there’s no need to bend forward as in the photo; stand upright, grounding your right foot and holding your left foot with your left hand. You may want to stand with your back close to a wall and allow the toes of your left foot to touch the wall for extra stability. Stay five to ten deep breaths. Gently release your left foot and return to standing.
If you’d like to explore a more challenging variation, from the first version, begin lifting your left foot up behind you, toward your head. As you do this, let your torso begin extending forward and outward until your torso, right arm and left thigh are approximately parallel to the ground (as in the photo). Reach back through the left knee as you reach forward through the right arm, lengthening everything in between. Meanwhile, continue to root the right leg into the ground. Remember, it is Shiva’s bottom leg that stamps out ignorance, the condition necessary for spacious enlightenment, so give the grounded leg ample attention. Stay for five to ten deep breaths. Tilt the body back up to vertical, release your left foot and return to standing.
What do you feel? How has your body changed? How has your consciousness changed? Take a few natural breaths and allow the effects of the pose to settle. Close your eyes if that helps you to feel your subtle energies more clearly. Now repeat the process on your second side.
Whichever version of the pose you choose, remember that Natarajasana is about intelligent action. It is Shiva’s stationery leg that sustains his multi-limbed abandon. For one person, the most intelligent pose may be the second variation, balancing on one leg with the rest of the body in full, horizontal extension. For another, the most intelligent pose may be practicing the vertical variation, touching the wall for stability. Remember that yoga is not about what your body can or cannot do; it’s about finding the perfect balance between challenge and comfort. No two people will ever express any asana exactly the same way.
Balancing poses challenge your concentration, and therefore cultivate concentration. Balancing develops steadiness of mind and a quality of calm that can keep you clear-headed even as your life presents its inevitable daily challenges. Practice Natarajasana when your mind feels agitated or scattered, or when you need clarity for making an important decision. Or practice it when you feel like dancing—in your home practice; at the top of a mountain after a long, uphill hike; or at one of June’s many celebrations.