Shiva is the Lord of the Dance, of Destruction, Transformation, and Yoga. He spends his days on Mount Kailash deep in meditation, only drawn into the world by his love for the goddess.
In Tantra and Hatha Yoga, Shiva is pure consciousness. In the microcosm of the human form, he abides in the crown chakra, the sahasrara or thousand petaled lotus. The goddess, in her form as the Kundalini-Shakti, is the creative force of the material world. In the body, she sleeps at the base of the spine.
Our intention in Yoga is to awaken her. When she is free from her dormancy, like lightning she travels up the spine (the world pole or axis mundi on the individual scale) to reunite with Shiva—bringing together earth and heaven, matter and mind, lower and higher, and we realize that we are living incarnations of the Truth that All is One.
There are two versions of natarajasana. We will start with the one seen less often these days, found in the occasional old-school class and in James Hewitt’s Complete Yoga Book (1977).
It is in imitation of the posture assumed by Shiva at the finale of his Ananda-Tandava, his Dance of Bliss. (For the full story scroll down on this page about my tattoos.) Standing on a demon, who represents our ignorance of our own divinity, Shiva’s right leg is firmly planted and gracefully bent. His left foot is circling precariously in space, moving toward the right which symbolizes the path of the seeker from the material to the Sacred. His right palm is raised in abhaya mudra, meaning do not fear. And his left hand is angled down in a gesture of grace.
This natarajasana has a number of variations.
- To begin, a standing quad stretch is all it takes. Balance on one leg and bring the other foot up toward your seat. Take the same-side hand back to the foot. Bringing the hand to the outside fo the foot for a gentler variation or to the arch if you know you'll be taking the posture further.
- For those who need help balancing, a hand or finger on a wall or chair will usually suffice. A strap can be used around the ankle of the lifted foot if reach is an issue.
- From quad stretch, take the free arm forward, parallel to the ground, and begin to press the lifted foot into the hand. This action will initiate a back bend.
- Two options present themselves at this point. One is to keep the upper body as upright as possible, as in Iyengar’s version. The other is to tilt forward, bringing the abdomen parallel to the floor. In Hewitt’s book, he calls this Toppled Tree.
- Finally, for those bodies with sufficient strength and flexibility, the index fingers of hands wrap around the big toe of the lifted foot in an overhead grasp and eventually bring the foot to the back of the head.
The benefits of natarajasana are the same as those for all one-legged balance postures.
- Increased foot, leg, core, and side muscle strength
- Increased proprioception and balance
- Encourages bone strength in standing leg
- Builds concentration
The benefits of the first version have to be experienced for themselves. A powerful practice in Tantra Yoga is to identify with a deity through meditation. Natarajasana is one of the rare postures where we practice this with our whole selves, body and mind.
In dancer pose, we become the outward manifestation of the Sacred that inwardly we always already are.