As the very flow of Consciousness, you whirl around in ecstatic delight as the mandala of existence—the cycle of birth (srsti), stasis (sthiti), and death (samhara); You dance the world into existence as its very Consciousness; You are the incomparable Divine Joy who has become the flow of differences imbued within the universe of your oneness. – Ksemaraja commentary of hymn 13-16 Shivastotravali
You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. That may not be a very vegan-friendly sentiment, but the old saying holds true. In order for one thing to be created, something else must be destroyed. That is the nature of the Universe.
The Trimurti is the union of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer. Like humans, the yogic deities express themselves in different ways. One of the manifestations of Shiva is as Shiva Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer.
Tandavam is Shiva’s dance. This vigorous dance represents the life cycle: creation, preservation, and dissolution. Tandavam can be danced in two ways. The first is Rudra Tandava, an aggressive dance that represents Shiva’s destructive nature. The second, Ananda Tandava, expresses Shiva’s loving, blissful side.
Shiva Nataraja is often depicted in art. His image is rich in symbolism! Shiva dances in a wheel of fire. The wheel is the wheel of suffering and the fire represents transformation. Shiva has broken free of suffering. He beckons to us to join him in his sacred dance and be transformed!
The symbolism of Shiva Nataraja can appear to be quite frightening! The cobra symbolizes death. Shiva wears a cobra around his neck, or in some images around his wrist, because he has conquered death. By donning the cobra as if it were a mala, Shiva encourages us to take heart and face our deepest fears. We are afraid because we have forgotten the nature of our True Self. When we face our fears, we discover a strength within us and the ability to overcome, or destroy, the obstacles that block us from joining Shiva in his dance of liberation.
Close inspection of Shiva Nataraja reveals he is dancing on a very small figure. Shiva is dancing on the demon Avidya. Avidya is one of the five kleshas Patanjali discusses in the Yoga Sutras. Avidya means ignorance and refers to our ignorance of our True Self. We believe that we are our bodies and ego-selves. We have forgotten that the Divine is within us. Knowledge, from a yogic perspective, means we have remembered our true nature and know who we really are.
Shiva’s right hand is in a mudra that means “fear not”. His left hand holds the fire of knowledge. Of course, as we often see in images of yogic deities, Shiva has multiple arms. His other left hand is gesturing toward his left foot. This emphasis on the left is intentional. Shiva is associated with yoga’s left-handed path, or Vamachara. The left-handed path includes some very controversial practices. However, much of the controversy surrounding yoga’s left-handed path is due to a poor understanding and appreciation of the practices in their proper context. The left-handed path is unconventional and focused on experiencing the Divine through our bodies. Because of the emphasis on creation, the left-handed path is sometimes called the Goddess’ path. By indicating his left foot, Shiva is encouraging us to explore the Divine within ourselves through the mystical practices of Tantra and Hatha Yoga.
Shiva’s body is in the shape of OM, the primordial sound from which all things come from and will return to. Shiva’s heart is at the center of Shiva Nataraja images. We overcome suffering when we lead with our hearts and live from a place of compassion.
How to practice Natarajasana.
You can participate in the cosmic dance in your own practice! Natarajasana is a balancing pose and a standing backbend. Its primary expressions are suitable for newer yoga students. Yoga students who have been practicing for a while will enjoy its more challenging options. Here’s how!
- Begin in Mountain pose.
- Shift weight to right foot. Place right hand on hip.
- Bend left knee and hold left foot with left hand.
- Hold left foot with both hands if you can.
- Hinge at the right hip crease.
- Arch your back and extend your chest forward.
- Lift your left leg higher.
- Option: Extend left arm forward and up towards the sky. Bend left elbow and take left hand back towards left foot.
- Grab left foot with left hand.
- Do the same with the right arm and hold foot with both hands. Bend both elbows up towards the sky.
- To come out of the pose, release the left foot and set it on the floor. Relax arms to the sides. Return to mountain pose.
Kaivalya, Alanna. “Natarajasana.” Becoming the Hero: the Myths of Yoga. www.alannak.com
Rea, Shiva. Tending the Heart Fire: Living in Flow with the Pulse of Life. Boulder, Sounds True, Inc. 2014.