Discover inner grace with a heart-opening sequence that evokes the ancient dance of Shiva.
By Mark Stephens
Human beings are naturally dynamic. Even when we opt for stillness, our hearts are beating, our breath is flowing, and all our systems are at work. Yet oftentimes, when we choose movement, our actions are unconscious and feel disconnected from our intention. Hatha yoga invites mindfulness into our actions, whether voluntary or involuntary, so that we become increasingly aware of how we move, breathe, and, eventually, how we might begin to ease into meditative stillness. In this way, all hatha yoga embraces flow—the conscious dynamism of movement within and between poses.
To flow with integrity we need good form and a stable structure. Like a river flowing from its mountain source toward the sea, the riverbed and objects along the way channel the flow, while the flow itself alters the shape of that which holds it. Sometimes the structure is so rigid that the flow becomes constricted, and sometimes a powerful flow will break the banks, creating a new path. With time and evolution, a careful balance always emerges, and the flow finds its optimal expression.
This dynamic interplay of structure and movement is beautifully embodied in natarajasana (king dancer pose), which symbolizes the ancient dance of Shiva. An intermediate/advanced-level asana, natarajasana helps to cultivate strength, openness, and an elegance of form and action amid the powerful energy required to balance on one leg while in a deep backbend. It is a glorious heart-opener that asks us to be stable yet at ease, committed yet non-attached, and fully engaged yet at peace. When we remain present to these essential dualities of structure and movement, natarajasana invites clear communication with the teacher dancing in our heart.
In his book Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Heinrich Zimmer points out that Shiva’s dance has two principal and antagonistic forms, corresponding to his wrathful and benign manifestations: tandava is the fierce, violent dance, signifying the destruction of self-limiting awareness; and lasya is the gentle, lyric dance in which Shiva reveals the beautiful, loving, and tender aspects of existence. “Shiva,” Zimmer intones, “is the perfect master of the two.” Here, on the pathway to natarajasana, we will explore the qualities of the lasya form by moving through a slow and graceful meditative flow.
Exploring the Flow
According to tantric lore, Shiva’s dance was first performed at Chidambaram, the mystical center of the universe. Within the microcosm of the human being, the center of the universe—the stage for this divine dance—correlates to the heart itself. Thus, the spirit of natarajasana inspires a fluid sequence that opens the heart and invites conscious awareness.
To begin, warm up with 15 to 20 minutes of your favorite variation of surya namaskar (sun salutation). Include anjaneyasana (low lunge) or virabhadrasana I (warrior I pose), which are especially helpful for awakening and stretching the iliopsoas muscles crucial to the safe and full expression of natarajasana.
1. Lasya Vinyasa
To more fully open the hips, warm the spine, and awaken the shoulders and arms, play with the spirited and graceful flow of a lasya vinyasa. From adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose), move very slowly and in synchronization with the breath as follows:
Inhaling, extend the right leg back and up, externally rotating the hip and bending the right knee, while rooting the left heel down.
Exhaling, release the right foot to the floor about mat-distance to the left of the left foot, toes pointing backward.
Inhaling, sweep the right arm around in a wide counter-clockwise circular motion toward the sky.
Exhaling, continue the arm movement to bring the right hand back to the mat.
Inhaling, extend the right leg back and up to its original elevated position in three-legged downward-facing dog.
Inhaling, extend the right leg back and up to its original elevated position in three-legged downard-facing dog.
Exhaling, draw the shoulders over the wrists as you move toward plank pose, while drawing the right knee toward the chest; then extend the right leg to the left, crossing it underneath the left leg at a 90-degree angle and planting the outer edge of the foot on the floor.
Inhaling, root the left heel in and down and the right hand evenly into the floor, while sweeping the left arm up and around in a wide clockwise circular motion toward the sky
Exhaling, continue the circular motion of the arm to release the left hand back to the mat.
Inhaling, extend the right leg back and up, repeating the first movement, and continue for five complete cycles.
Repeat on the other side before resting in adho mukha shvanasana, evenly rooting the palms, while externally rotating the upper arms. Ground down through the legs and feet, and lift up through the arches of the feet; this creates an energetic activation called pada bandha, which allows you to more easily access the pelvic floor, while strongly pressing the tops of the thighbones back to further extend the spine.
(Hands to Feet Pose)
Every asana and transitional movement works and stretches the body in particular ways that create new needs and possibilities for further exploration. The neutralizing practice of pratikriyasana (prati means “against,” and kr means “action”) integrates prior actions in a way that prepares you to move forward into the next asana or sequence with greater ease and integrity.
Integrate the fluid movement from the lasya vinyasa with a calming forward fold: float forward into ardha uttanasana (half standing forward bend pose), slide the hands under the feet, palms face up, and then fold fully down into padahastasana. This will release the wrists, stretch the back of the body, and restore energetic balance.
3. Dolphin Pose
Flow through another surya namaskar, finishing in adho mukha shvanasana. Then draw forward into plank pose and place the forearms on the floor with the elbows directly under the shoulders in preparation for dolphin pose. Rooting evenly through the palms, press the shoulders away from the wrists, while stretching the hips up and back. Try to maintain the same external rotation of the upper arms practiced in adho mukha shvanasana. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths before releasing onto the knees and back into adho mukha shvanasana.
(Cow Face Pose)
Come to a seated position for gomukhasana, and cross the right knee over the left, with your heels tucked in close to your hips, and your feet pointing straight back. If you can’t get your sitting bones to reach the floor without slumping in the pelvis and low back, sit up on a block. Here you will further stretch the shoulder and arm muscles as well as the hip muscles that must release in full natarajasana. Extend the left arm straight up while drawing your right arm behind and up your back. If you are unable to clasp the fingertips of your left and right hands together, use a strap. Stay for one to two minutes, breathing steadily and deeply, before switching sides.
5. Supta Virasana
(Reclining Hero Pose)
Follow gomukhasana with two or three mindful rounds of surya namaskar before coming to a high kneeling position in preparation for supta virasana. As with gomukhasana, consider sitting on a block placed between your heels to get the pelvis neutral and to reduce pressure in the knees. Either stay in this position, or to further open the hip flexors and shoulder girdle, gradually recline back onto your hands, elbows, or back, staying attentive to pressure in the knees, low back, and neck. If the knees lift off the floor, come back to a less reclining position. (If sitting on a block, recline only to your elbows or onto a high bolster placed under your back.) Staying with the breath, hold supta virasana for two minutes. After releasing, press into adho mukha shvanasana and play with “walking the dog” by alternatively bending the left and right knees, restoring balance to the knees.|
6. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
(One-Legged King Pigeon Pose) Variations
To come into the preparatory position for eka pada rajakapotasana, start in downward-facing dog and extend the right leg up; then bring the right knee forward and place it down slightly wider than the right shoulder, releasing the left leg straight back onto the floor. It is very important to have the right hip firmly placed on the floor or a block level with the left hip in order to (1) protect the inside of the right knee, (2) rotate the left hip forward and even with the right hip, and (3) keep the left leg extended straight back from the left hip without letting it externally rotate.
With an inhalation, come up high onto the fingertips and open the heart toward the sky. Tapping into the graceful fluidity of lasya, exhale and slowly release the heart toward the horizon and then the earth before undulating back up with the next inhalation. Repeat this dynamic movement several times, staying grounded and balanced in the pelvis while opening the hips and heart. Then, release the heart back toward the earth, allowing either the chest or the forearms to remain resting on the floor. Hold the pose for two to three minutes.
Moving slowly and consciously, draw back up onto the hands, reposition the left hip forward in line with the right hip to more easily extend the left leg straight back, with the kneecap pointed straight down. (This will enable the knee to function as the hinge joint it is rather than twisting it and possibly straining the ligaments.) Make a small loop at one end of a strap and hook it around the ball of the left foot; then draw the strap up overhead. With the right hip crease drawing back and the left hip rotated forward, you will establish a relatively symmetrical base in your pelvis for a backbend. Moving with the breath, slowly draw your hands down the strap. Press the tailbone down and keep the gaze forward, focusing the backbend in the mid-spine. Eventually release the crown of the head into the arch of the foot. Breathing spaciously through the heart, hold for 5 to 10 breaths. Slowly release, press into adho mukha shvanasana, and switch sides.
7. Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana
(One-Legged Upward Bow Pose)
Anticipating natarajasana more closely, this is the perfect place in the sequence to explore additional asymmetrical backbends. Lying supine with feet positioned parallel and close to the hips, place the palms on the floor by the shoulders, with the fingertips pointing forward and the elbows pointing straight up. If it is difficult to position your elbows in this way, play with placing the hands slightly wider apart and turning them slightly out to more easily externally rotate the arms and stabilize the shoulders. Reawaken pada bandha to aid in internally rotating the legs, which reduces pressure in the sacroiliac joint and ultimately deepens the backbend.
With the completion of an exhalation, feel the lower back press into the floor and the tailbone slightly curl up. On an inhalation, use this action to press into urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow pose, or wheel). Consider pressing up just to the crown of your head at first to reposition the elbows in line with the shoulders. In order to maintain this alignment when straightening the arms, play with isometrically spiraling the palms outward (without actually moving them). If stable and comfortable, root more firmly through the left foot, maintain internal rotation of the left thigh, and lift the right knee straight up to the sky; then extend the knee to straighten the right leg. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths on each side. Consider repeating two to three times before releasing slowly down and resting the knees together to release in the low back.
8. Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana
(One-Legged Inverted Staff Pose)
Repeat eka pada urdhva dhanurasana, or transition to eka pada viparita dandasana. Begin as you would for urdhva dhanurasana, pressing up to the crown. Then lower your forearms to the floor one at a time and interlace your fingers around your head as though for shirshasana (headstand). Rooting down through the forearms, try to lift the head off the floor and keep strongly spiraling the upper arms outward to open the upper back. Staying sensitive to sensation in your lower back, slowly walk the feet out to straighten the legs, with the feet together and firmly rooting down. If stable and comfortable, root more firmly through the left foot, maintain internal rotation of the left thigh, and bend and lift the right knee, eventually straightening the leg. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths on each side before releasing slowly down and resting the knees together. Consider doing a simple supine twist to release tension in the muscles along the spine.
9. Virabhadrasana III
(Warrior III Pose)
Natarajasana is a glorious heart-opening backbend, but it is first and foremost an asymmetrical standing balance pose. In order to arrive at the pose’s graceful dynamism, you’ll need the integrity of a strong and stable foundation in the standing foot, leg, and hip.
Virabhadrasana III involves placing the full weight of the extended upper body on one hip joint (which is contraindicated for students with weakness in the supporting musculature, trochanteric bursitis, or other hip issues). To come into the pose, start in crescent pose with the right foot forward and the left heel off the floor. Then hinge at the hips to bring the torso forward to a 45-degree angle; bring the hands on the hips or let the arms come alongside the body to help center the weight over the standing leg. Lightly spring forward to bring the weight of the body fully onto just the right foot. At first keep the right knee bent, slowly extending it to feel your way into stability without straining in the hamstrings, knee, or hip of the standing leg. Eventually the pelvis rotates forward 90 degrees, the left leg extends straight back with the knee and toes pointing down, and the torso extends forward. Finally bring the arms alongside the ears. Explore on both sides, holding for up to one minute.
The Peak Pose
Now come to standing in tadasana, hook the looped end of a strap around the ball of the left foot and bend the left knee, bringing the heel up next to the hip, while clasping the strap overhead with both hands. Apply all the actions of the standing leg that you explored in vira-bhadrasana III. Begin to slowly rotate the pelvis forward, while moving your hands down along the strap as you did in eka pada rajakapotasana. Try to keep the standing leg straight, strong, and stable; if you tend to hyperextend the knee, micro-bend it instead.
You can also play with slightly bending the standing knee to level and square the hips and pelvis, creating a more symmetrical foundation for the backbend, while reducing pressure in the hamstrings and standing hip. Try to keep the sternum lifted as you rotate the pelvis forward and draw the hands closer to the feet, eventually clasping the foot with both hands and releasing the crown of the head into the arch of the foot. Do both sides, repeating two to three times, and eventually holding on each side for 5 to 10 breaths.
As you open more through the hips, torso, shoulders, and arms, try transitioning from tadasana to natarajasana without the strap. From tadasana you will bend the left knee to draw the left foot up toward the left hip, then clasp the inside of the left foot with the left hand, and rotate the left shoulder to point the elbow straight up. Then draw the right hand overhead to clasp the foot with both hands. To go into a deeper variation, try to straighten the arms and extend the left leg straight up to the sky.
From natarajasana, the dance of body, breath, and mind flows more deeply as you progress toward shavasana. Lying on your back, start with a gentle apanasana (knees to chest), moving the knees in circles to initiate release in the lower back and pelvis. Then explore the simple twist of supta parivartanasana (reclining twist pose) by extending the left leg straight out onto the floor, the right arm out to the right, and drawing the right knee across the body. Be more interested in keeping the right shoulder on the floor than in getting the right knee to the floor, thereby focusing the twist more in the mid-spine than the low back. Play with bending the left knee, drawing the left foot back to the right hand, and clasping the foot to stretch the thigh and groin muscles. You can also explore straightening the right leg and clasping it with the left hand to stretch the iliotibial band along the outside of the left leg, which shares attachments with several hip and pelvic muscles used in virabhadrasana III and natarajasana. Stay with the breath for one to two minutes, then switch sides.
From here, explore other simple twists, such as ardha matsyendrasana (half lord of fish pose) and bharadvajasana II (pose of Sage Bharadvaja II), as well as symmetrical forward bends, such as baddha konasana (bound angle pose) and pashchimottanasana (posterior stretch). Complete your finishing practice with inversions: come into shirshasana (headstand), followed by balasana b (child’s pose); then transition onto your back for salamba sarvangasana (supported shoulderstand) and matsyasana (fish pose). Finally, make your way into a deeply restful shavasana, letting the breath flow effortlessly as you slip into blissful awareness of the beauty and grace at your heart center.
Download guided audio instruction for this sequence.
Mark Stephens, author of Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques (North Atlantic Books, 2010), has practiced yoga for over 20 years. He lives and teaches in Santa Cruz, California.