Lord of the Cosmic Dance Pose This balancing back bend cultivates openheartedness and poise—and helps you uncover your inner radiance.
According to tradition, hatha yoga postures were first practiced spontaneously by sages during meditation. They named some poses for their resemblance to animals or natural phenomena such as trees or mountains. Other poses, suggesting more esoteric and symbolic meaning were named after ages and Hindu deities.
Natarajasana is of the latter type—it’s named after Nataraja, the mythological “royal dancer” depicted in Indian iconography as a graceful figure with one leg lifted in dance, surrounded by a circle of flames. In Indian philosophy, Nataraja represents the dancing form of Lord Shiva, the all-pervasive Supreme Consciousness, who playfully and blissfully dances the entire universe into existence.
Natarajasana is a standing pose, a back bend, and a balancing pose all in one, so it has great physical benefits. The beginner’s version builds leg strength, opens the shoulders and chest, and enhances inner steadiness and poise. Natarajasana also provides a wonderful psychological lift. The name Shiva literally means “benign” or “noble.” Shiva, who is supreme goodness itself, is the reality that underlies all creation. So each time you practice Natarajasana, the pose can remind you of your own innate goodness.
To perform Natarajasana, first, stand tall with your feet close together. Take a breath and soften your skin and muscles. Relax your face and tongue, so you begin your posture with a lessening of self-will. Keeping a quality of soft inner expansion, hug the muscles of your legs and hips to the bones. With your legs strong and stable, balance on your right leg and bend your left knee behind you. Take hold of the left foot with your left hand. If this is difficult, hook a belt around your foot.
Square your hips to the front and slowly bend forward from the top of the right leg. Lift your chest and draw your shoulders back. Stretch your right arm out in front of you, parallel to the floor. Looking straight ahead, stretch your left leg up behind you, so the foot is raised to the height of the right hand. Turn the top of the left thigh in and roll the pelvis down to level the hips. Then draw the tailbone down and in. Keeping the pelvis and legs steady, turn the chest to the right until it is square to the front.
Take five slow breaths. With each inhalation draw the heart forward and up and extend the back foot up and away from the pelvis. With each exhalation soften your inner organs and melt into a quiet, soothing state of mind. At the end of the fifth exhalation, bring your torso more upright, then slowly release the left foot. Mindfully reset the feet close to each other. Then balance on the other leg and do the pose again for five Slow breaths.
After performing Natarajasana on both sides, pause and contemplate the 5 holism reflected in the form of the pose. In traditional Indian iconography, the dancing Nataraja symbolizes the five active functions of Supreme Consciousness—creation, preservation, dissolution, concealment, and revelation—which play throughout the universe every moment. Each gesture of the limbs represents part of this fivefold creative dance. The same symbolism can be extended to the yoga pose.
Traditionally, the left arm of Natarajasana represents creative action in the world, and the back arm, dissolution or reabsorption of the creation back into the original Absolute. In Indian philosophy, the light of creation and the darkness of dissolution are considered equally valuable. To reflect this truth while performing Natarajasana, attempt to bring the hands to the same height.
The front arm also represents the power that sustains and maintains creation. Classically this power is symbolized by changing the position of the front hand so that the wrist flexes back and the palm of the hand shines forward. This hand position is called Abhaya mudra, or the gesture of fearlessness, whispering to us “Don’t worry, it’s all just a cosmic dance.”
The back arm, which is difficult to see when performing the pose, also represents the concealing nature of Shiva. Shiva conceals and limits his omnipotent and eternal nature by veiling universal divine consciousness in an endless variety of physical bodies. In every hatha yoga posture, we experience some physical limits in flexibility, strength, stamina, or balance. Cloaked in our physical body, we forget our divine heritage.
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The standing leg of Natarajasana represents the power of constant remembrance that keeps the demon of forgetfulness underfoot. The pose teaches us to be grounded in the knowledge that, as supreme consciousness, we are essentially pure, worthy, and complete.
The uplifted or “dancing” leg represents the divine grace of supreme consciousness, which descends to lift the veil of ignorance from our inner vision. In the pose, we may feel a tremendous inner expansion of power, radiance, and freedom. This is the magic of divine grace revealing your true unlimited inner Self.
From Natarajasana we learn directly that we are a microcosmic expression of the fivefold creative power of universal consciousness. When getting into the pose, we create; when balancing, we maintain our creation; when coming out of it, we dissolve our creation. While struggling in the pose, we feel how our omnipotent nature is concealed. And yet when we have a breakthrough, we experience the revelation of our true nature—expansive, scintillating supreme consciousness full of goodness.
This article appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Yoga Journal and is reprinted here with their permission.