A Blythe Coach

Daring Yoga Dancer Pose: the story, strategy, & benefits of Natarajasana

I strike dancer pose on the bank of the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany

Natarajana / King Dancer / Lord of the Dance Pose, more commonly referred to simply as “Dancer,” is an iconic and challenging yoga pose that invites us to discover our own courage and compassion. 

Shiva-as-Nataraj is classically depicted standing atop a mischievous gnome as he dances and plays a drum. A cobra winds around Shiva’s neck, his dreadlocks swirl around his head, a ring of fire encircles him, a flame also burns in the palm of his hand.

Dancer Pose is a standing one-legged balancing shape, where one foot is lifted behind us, grasped by the hand as we tip forward and reach the other to the front. It can be a very confronting but rewarding pose and today on the podcast, on the blog, and in the accompanying YouTube video I provide some variations and modifications to help you find dancer pose that allows you to experience all of its benefits.

Podcast 064: Daring Dancer Pose – story, strategy, & benefits of Natarajasana

Use Caution, Be Aware

Please use caution when attempting any version of Dancer Pose. I am not a medical professional, just sharing what works for me and recommendations from other trusted experts. Definitely consult with a physician to treat any symptoms you may experience and determine if practicing yoga is appropriate for you. 

According to Mark Stephens in the book Teaching Yoga, the main physical risks involved with Natarajasana are the “Lower back, hamstrings and knee of the standing leg, shoulders if unstable or impinging.” (Teaching Yoga Location 4,091)

Always go slowly and with awareness, listen to and respect your body’s signals. 

How to Get into Natarajasana

According to Jessamyn Stanley in the book Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body, both supported and unsupported versions of Natarajasana are possible. Stanley provides a modification using a prop: “Optional Prop: 1 strap (make a loop with your strap that’s big enough to hold your foot)” (Every Body Yoga Location 1,092) I would add that if you don’t have a yoga strap, you can try using a long belt, dog leash, or towel to loop around your foot. Additionally, you can use the support of a wall or strong chair or table beside you to help with balance if you feel unsteady.

Stanley continues to describe getting into Dancer Pose:

  • “Starting in Mountain Pose, place your right hand on your hip for balance and bend your left knee.
  • Clasp the inside or outside of your left foot with your left hand and, using the power of your leg muscles, begin lifting your thigh.
  • If using a strap, hold the strap in your left hand. With your right hand on your hip for balance, bend your left knee and place your foot into the strap. Hold the strap as close to your foot as you comfortably can.
  • Keep squaring your hips forward and lifting your thigh away from the floor, actively flexing your foot into the hand or strap.
  • Sweep your right arm forward and up, reaching through your fingers and still continuing to lift your thigh.
  • Draw your standing thigh back and soften your heart forward. Stay for a few breaths, then switch sides.” (Every Body Yoga Location: 1,094-1,102)

Stanley provides helpful modifications and suggestions for a variety of poses, and when it comes to Dancer, shares these additional tips along with photos depicting the pose with and without a strap: “Keep your hips even and neutral,” “actively press your foot into your hand or strap,” “keep a bend in your standing knee if necessary,” “press your tailbone to the floor while actively lifting your pubic bone toward your navel,” and “if you are holding on to a strap, if you have the flexibility, rotate your shoulder so that your bent elbow points to the ceiling.”

In the book Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques, Mark Stephens provides slightly different instructions to guide students into the asana: “From Tadasana, flex the right knee to draw the right foot up toward the right hip. Clasping the right foot with the right hand, rotate the right elbow in and up while extending the right leg back and up from the hip. Lift the left arm overhead, bend the left elbow, and clasp the right foot.” (Teaching Yoga Location 4,093-5)

As teachers and students of yoga, he reminds us to look For and emphasize the following points: “Maintain pada bandha [meaning connection of the sole of the foot to the floor] in the standing foot to help stabilize the foot and ankle joint. Keep the standing leg straight and strong while aware of the tendency to lock the standing knee. Try to keep the pelvis level to create a symmetrical foundation for the full extension of the spine. Pressing the tailbone back and down, expand the chest, pressing the lower tips of the shoulder blades forward and up to open the heart center. If stable and at ease, release the crown of the head toward the arch of the foot and draw the elbows together. Breathe!” (Teaching Yoga Location 4,096-9)

Variations + Modifications of Dancer Pose

Here is my new 35-minute yoga flow, available free on YouTube, that takes you through a few variations and modifications of Dancer Pose:

Daring Dancer Pose Variations YouTube Video

I include a couple of low-level variations of Dancer, that allow balancing on two points (one arm and one leg/knee), on one side and twisted:

This variation I call “Low Side Dancer” and it provides a similar stretch and balance to classic standing Natarajasana with a different perspective, you can use a strap for this version as well
This I call “Low Twisted Dancer” and it provides a similar but a bit of a different stretch and balance challenge as the others, a strap can also be used
This position can be used along the way to standing Dancer Pose, or as a modification of it’s own, developing balance on one leg, lifting the heart, stretching and slightly backbending, a strap and/or wall can also be used
Here I am practicing standing Dancer Pose with support from a Yoga Strap

Remember that you may position yourself in front of or next to a wall for additional support, and consider your gaze/eye focus and shape through the front-reaching hand as well. A variety of hand positions or mudras may be used. There are truly endless variations and modifications possible to make your Dancer Pose your own!

The Story Behind Natarajasana

I find it inspiring when tackling this challenging pose, to consider its origins and potential benefits. In the book Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition, by Alanna Kaivalya, Shiva Rea, and Manorama, they explain that Nataraj represents one of the many guises of Shiva, that of the Master Dancer, destroyer of age after age, timelessly dancing to the beat of his drum, ultimately providing a fertile ground for Brahma to create again.

There are a few aspects of this story that I want to emphasize, that of Shiva as King Dancer, the Cycle of Samsara, and the Illusion of Avidya. Kaivalya and Rea explain that, “As one of the Hindu trinity, Shiva has many different personae that illuminate his essence. The most well known is his role as the King Dancer, or in Sanskrit, Nataraja. In this guise he is commonly portrayed with snakes around his neck, dreadlocks standing on end, balancing atop a tiny dwarf, and encircled by a ring of fire.” (Myths of the Asanas Location: 537-539)

Kaivalya and Rea explain what the ring of fire around Nataraj represents, how symbolically, “Shiva dances to his own music within a circle of flame known as samsara. Samsara is the cyclical pattern in which we are all stuck—the constant repetition of birth, life, and death.” (Myths of the Asanas Location: 544-5) 

Like all aspects of this arresting image, the snakes coiled around Nataraj’s neck bring an additional layer of meaning: “The poison the cobra carries symbolizes the toxic nature of avidya, the misunderstanding of ourselves as something other than divine. He has found the remedy to that affliction, which is enlightened knowledge, and he carries its symbolic flame in one of his palms.” (Myths of the Asanas  Location: 550-1 emphasis mine) 

What Dancer Pose Teaches Us

What might we gain from Dancer Pose, as dancers and as human beings?

Kaivalya and Rea provide some insights into how the physical challenges of Dancer bring us into conversation with our psychological limits as well: “Natarajasana allows us to experience a couple of physical elements that can bring about fear in our bodies. Backbending and balancing both elicit fear because of the openness and bravery they require. We tend to store fear in our heart (according to the chakra system), and when we open the heart, we give ourselves an opportunity to let go of fear. Likewise, balancing gives us an opportunity to overcome our natural fear of falling and to be brave and free.” (Myths of the Asanas  Location: 576-8)

So the yoga pose itself involves two elements that bring us into conversation with our fear- balancing and backbending. In my yoga classes, we typically work on each of these skills and facing each fear individually, then in combination, sequentially enlarging our comfort zone. We develop stability, balance, as well as flexibility in key muscle groups (hips, back, shoulders). We practice balancing on one leg (i.e. tree), on the arms (crow, handstand), and backbends in different orientations (i.e. camel, bow, wheel).

We might assume dancers ourselves are automatically bendy and able to easily get into and hold Dancer Pose. Not so, it poses its own challenges for each individual. For example, my lower back is not as supple as it used to be, not sure if that is use or age or the several accidents I’ve been involved in, so I have to be very mindful of preparing for and practicing Dancer. I face the same fear in balancing and backbending that most practitioners do! Rest assured that everyone has their own assortment of difficulties (and strengths) that they become more familiar with and better at navigating through the practice of yoga.

Dancers and athletes can benefit from the physical and mental challenges of Dancer Pose. Given the internal and external challenges it presents, I’m so proud and impressed with the courage of my students in trying Dancer for the first time! 

Both Nataraj’s myth and the experience of practicing the pose itself teaches us to face our fears, embrace change, to release attachment, liberating and embracing our true nature and that of the universe.

Spiritual Benefits of the Practice

On a spiritual level, we encounter avidya and a companion concept, abhinivesha, while practicing Dancer and other confronting poses. As Kaivaly and Rea describe: “In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali outlines five obstacles that prevent us from true freedom, which are called the kleshas. The first is avidya, and the fifth and most powerful obstacle is the fear of death, or abhinivesha. Death is the ultimate change and takes many forms in our lives, until the greatest death of all, which comes at the end.  As the lord of death and destruction, Shiva understands that change, even one as great as death, is really the only constant in the universe.” (Myths of the Asanas  Location: 566-7)  

In my experience, this is one of the most applicable skills that yoga teaches us for taking into our greater lives: how to navigate change! A big part of this is self-awareness and self-knowledge, fueled by compassionate self-study through reflective practice and meditation. In Yoga Where You Are, Dianne Bondy and Kat Heagberg include an entire chapter on such practices, proclaiming that “Compassionate self-study offers a path to meet yourself without judgement, just where you are and just how you are.” (p.212)

Compassionate self-study takes place in contemplative practices such as meditation and journaling, but also right in the moment when we practice yoga poses with mindful awareness. If you’d like to learn more about written reflection, you may enjoy my article on Reflective Practice through Journaling in Dance, Yoga & Life, or if you want to start a meditation practice, you will find more in my 2021 Meditation Practice Challenge blog.

Ultimately, we are looking for greater freedom: freedom of movement, courage to face what is to come, and compassion for ourselves and others.

“In order to dance like Shiva, we must feel free. Freedom comes from knowing there is nothing that binds us permanently. Shiva’s dance is born out of a liberation from the fear of change. He teaches us to ride the wave of change as if we’re on a cosmic surfboard, coasting toward the shore of bliss.” (Myths of the Asanas  Location: 564-5)   

Questions for Reflection

  • What obstacles have you identified for practicing Dancer Pose?
  • What modifications or variations help you access the pose?
  • What yoga poses or movements do you find especially challenging in general?
  • What emotions come up for you in these times of challenge?
  • What modifications or variations can help you access the potential benefits of these poses, movements, or activities?
  • How can I or another trusted teacher support your practice?

Blythe Stephens, MFA & Bliss Catalyst
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching 
move through life with balance, grace, & power

DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.

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