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. Natarajasana (Dancer Pose) celebrates Shiva’s dance.
Natarajasana is, first and foremost, a balancing pose. If you’re looking to improve your balancing skills, practicing poses from this asana genre is essential. Any pose that challenges your balance—including standing, kneeling and sitting balance poses, helps you improve your ability to balance. In addition, Natarajasana helps you strengthen your legs and ankles. It also strengthens the muscles around your hip joints.
How to Practice Natarajasana
- Begin by standing on a yoga mat with your feet hips-width apart. (No mat is needed for Natarajasana, but if you like to use a mat, choose one that is on the thinner side.)
- 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 yoga 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; 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.
- If you want to try an alternate arm position, you can play with the position in the above photo. In this version, loop a yoga strap around your left foot, grab both ends of your strap with your left hand. Keeping plenty of slack in your strap, raise your left arm overhead, bending your elbow. Then grab your strap with your right hand as well.
- Stay five to ten deep breaths.
- Gently release your left foot and return to standing if you are practicing just Variation 1. Otherwise, skip now to the instructions for Variation 2.
- If you’re not continuing to Variation 2, stand in a neutral Tadasana (Mountain Pose). 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.
- If you are just practicing this variation, repeat on the other side.
- If you’d like to explore a more challenging variation, 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.
- At this point you can hold the top of your foot with your arm stretching straight back from your shoulder. Or, you can practice the arm position described in step 8 above.
- 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 your body back up to vertical, release your left foot and return to standing.
- After you finish, stand in a neutral Tadasana (Mountain Pose). 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.