A single female dancer emerges from the darkness of the stage. Her presence is immediately captivating, the air suddenly fragrant with her appearance. Adorned in jewels from head to toe, radiant in a special red and gold sari, her long dark hair crowned in jasmine, she is the embodiment of the divine feminine, mirroring the images of goddesses from Lakshmi to Saraswati one sees everywhere in India. She begins her dance with an offering: With her hands in Namaste (Anjali Mudra), she dances her way to the altar to release a river of flowers over the golden image of Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance. The rhythm begins. “Ta ka dhi mi taka dhe,” a singer chants to the beat of a two-sided drum. Her dance unfolds from that moment in a spiral of complex movements driven by rhythmic foot patterns, precise hand gestures, and facial expressions arrested in sculpted postures in which time stops for a moment before the rhythm begins again. Even though her story is not familiar to me, I am lost in the grace of every expression and the pure stamina of her dance, which builds and releases through movement and stillness until, in a final crescendo of rhythmic fire, it ends in the stance of Shiva as Nataraja: her left leg crossed in front of her and extended to her right, as is her graceful left arm, while the right hand forms the Abhaya Mudra, which says, “Have no fear.”
With that encounter, I first fell in love with the world of Indian classical dance some 12 years ago while studying at Delhi University. I had come to India as a student of both anthropology and Ashtanga Yoga, ready to immerse myself in Indian culture. After being blown away by an evening concert featuring all the many styles of Indian classical dance—Bharata Natayam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Kathak, Mohini Attam, and Manipuri—I found my way to an Odissi dance class at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. It was here that I experienced the yoga of dance: postures, known as karanas, that reminded me of yogic standing poses in their grounding through open hips and strong legs; an intense concentration, as my awareness was asked to be everywhere at once; and an underlying relationship to the body and movement as a sacred means of unifying the Self. My study of dance started to transform my experience of Ashtanga Yoga; I started to push less and feel more, using the form to cultivate a unified consciousness and an inner grace.
Dance and Yoga: The Divine Connection
In the Hindu tradition, gods and goddesses dance as a way of expressing the dynamic energy of life. The image of Nataraja represents the god of gods, Shiva, as the Lord of the Dance, choreographing the eternal dance of the universe as well as more earthly forms such as Indian classical dance (which is said to have originated from his teachings). In Hindu mythology Shiva is also Yogiraj, the consummate yogi, who is said to have created more than 840,000 asanas, among them the hatha yoga poses we do today. While a cultural outsider may not relate to these mythic dimensions in a literal way, dancers in India revere the divine origins of their dances, which were revealed to the sage Bharata and transcribed by him into the classic text on dance drama, the Natya Shastra (circa 200 c.e.). What many practitioners of yoga do not know is that one of the central texts of yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, written around the same time, was also inspired by an encounter with Nataraja.
Srivatsa Ramaswami, Chennai-based yoga teacher, scholar, and longtime student of yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, includes a pivotal story of how Patanjali came to write the Yoga Sutra in his book Yoga for the Three Stages of Life. In Ramaswami’s account, Patanjali, a young man with a great yogic destiny, is drawn to leave home to do tapas (intensive meditation) and receive the darshana of Shiva’s dance. Eventually Shiva becomes so taken by Patanjali’s ekagrya (one-pointed focus) that he appears before Patanjali and promises to reveal his dance to the young yogi at Chidambaram, a Nataraja temple in present-day Tamil Nadu. At Chidambaram, Patanjali encounters a golden theater filled with many divine beings and sages. To Patanjali’s wonderment, Brahma, Indra, and Saraswati start to play their sacred instruments. Shiva then begins his ananda tandava (“dance of ultimate bliss”). As Ramaswami tells it, “The great tandava starts with a slow rhythm and in time reaches its crescendo. Engrossed completely in the divine dance, the great sages lose their separate identities and merge with the great oneness created by the tandava.” At the end of the dance, Shiva asks Patanjali to write the Mahabhasya, his commentaries on Sanskrit grammar, as well as the Yoga Sutra, the yogic text most widely used by Western yoga practitioners today.
Body As Temple, Dance As Offering
The first movement I learned from my Odissi master dance teacher, Surendranath Jena, was Bhumi Pranam. Just as Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) honors the sun, this movement honors (the translation of pranam is “to bow before or make an offering to”) bhumi, the Earth. Bhumi Pranam is done before and after every practice and every performance. With hands together in Anjali Mudra, I was taught to bring my hands above my crown, to my forehead (Ajna Chakra), the center of my heart, and then, with a deep opening through the hips, to touch the earth. Bhumi Pranam expresses the essence of dance as a sacred offering that recalls B. K. S. Iyengar’s famous saying, “The body is my temple and asanas are my prayers.”
In this case, dance is the offering; indeed, in classical forms such as Bharatha Natayam and Odissi, the dance actually originated in temple complexes, where 108 karanas were sculpted into the walls of temple entryways. These detailed reliefs reflect the traditional prominence of temple dancers known as devadasis (“servants of God”), who are thought to have incorporated some elements of yoga practice into their art. According to Los Angeles-based master teacher Ramaa Bharadvaj, “Of the 108 postures sculpted on the temples, only about 40 are part of the dance we do today. The rest require an extreme flexibility that would have been impossible without some training in the yogic arts.”
In the temples, the devadasis were the primary conduits for the pujas (ritual offerings) performed in front of the sanctums for the audience of the Divine. According to Roxanne Gupta, Kuchipudi dancer, scholar, assistant professor of Religious Studies at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, and author of A Yoga of Indian Classical Dance: The Yogini’s Mirror. “The devadasi was revered as a living symbol of the goddess’s shakti, or life-giving power.” When the devadasi danced, she became the embodiment of the divine, intending to transform the space being danced in as well as the audience’s visceral understanding, says Boulder, Colorado-based Sofia Diaz, a scholar who leads workshops on combining Bharata Natyam and yoga. “In Indian classical dance,” she says, “every posture, every expression is considered an invocation to the Divine to incarnate, to be felt as a presence in the here and now of the dancer’s body.” The devadasi tradition began around the fourth century c.e. and continued into the twentieth century, when it was outlawed by the ruling British and Indian elite and transformed from a purely temple-based devotional tradition into a national art form.
There are only a few living devadasis left, and Bharata Natyam is usually done in a way that emphasizes entertainment (while still demonstrating a depth of devotion rarely seen on the stage). The text of Natya Shastra unites the various forms of Indian classical dance by means of a ritual performance format that is still followed (with some variations among different styles). Many forms begin with an invocation to the Divine, or pushpanjali (“offering through flowers”), to root the dance in sacred expression. A pure dance section called nritta follows, showing with great skill the movement vocabulary of the form and the union of the dancer with tala (rhythm). The heart of a dance performance involves abhinaya, a combination of dance and mime in which a dancer or dancers will embody characters of a sacred story cycle by expressing the lyrics and rhythm of accompanying songs through body language, hand mudras, and facial gestures. The songs are based on mythic stories such as the Shiva Purana, Gita Govinda, or Srimad Bhagavatam.
The most common storyline uses a classic bhakti (devotional) theme based on the longing of a lover (the devotee) to reunite with the beloved (the Divine), as typified in the popular story of Radha and Krishna. As Ramaa Bharadvaj notes, “Dancing is bhakti yoga, which is based on the structure of duality—lover and beloved, masculine and feminine—that leads to oneness. I love duality. I love falling in love with God through the characters of my dance. Although I feel the presence of God inside, I also like to embrace the Divine outside.” The climax of abhinaya is similar to the culmination of a divine lovemaking: a crescendo of complex patterns and fullness of emotions that overwhelm both dancer and audience. The piece then slowly cools down from that climax and ends in pure dance, with a closing slokha (dedication to the Supreme). Says Bharadvaj, “At the end of my dance, I have reached my meditation.”
The Balance of the Sun and Moon
While there are many philosophical and practical connections between yoga and dance, the principle of unifying opposites is essential to both systems. Practitioners of hatha yoga are often told that the word “hatha” represents the figurative joining of the sun (ha) and the moon (tha), respectively masculine and feminine energies. On a practical level, this often translates as the balance of differing qualities within a pose: strength and flexibility, inner relaxation and focus. Within Indian classical dance forms, this balance of the masculine and feminine is understood as the balance of tandava and lasya. Tandava is associated with strong, vigorous movements and is considered to be the vibrant dance of the virile Shiva. Its complement, lasya, the dance of Shiva’s consort Parvati, embodies graceful, fluid movements. Dances are often classified as being tandava or lasya in the same way that certain asanas or Pranayamas are classified as heat-generating or cooling. In Odissi, tandava and lasya become embodied within the structure of the karanas, with tandava being the lower body and lasya the upper body. Tandava is the strong stamping of the feet, like Shiva, and lasya is the fluidity in the torso and the grace of the hand movement or mudras. Cerritos, California-based Odissi dance artist and teacher Nandita Behera often describes tandava and lasya to her students through imagery: “I tell them, ‘Let your lower body be like thunder, powerful and strong, and your upper body be open and graceful like a flower in full bloom.’ When dancing, the lasya, or grace, of the dance should not be disturbed by the power of tandava, nor should the lasya weaken the expression of the vitality of tandava.” Good advice not just for dancers, but for healthy relationships and a balanced life.
In Kuchipudi dance, a solo dancer can embody the two qualities in the form of Shiva Ardhanarishvara whose visage is half male (Shiva) and half female (Parvati). In costume, the dancer will dress differently on the two sides of the body and will perform the characters of both parts by showing one side or the other. Dance teacher and choreographer Malathi Iyengar sees this dance as a symbol of integration: “Every human being has tandava and lasya in her or him. At various times, depending on what is needed, the masculine or feminine comes out—in the dance forms and in life.”
From Alignment to Mastery
Another area where dance and hatha yoga meet is in the actual sadhana (practice), where there are many parallels between the two arts in both the technique and spirit (bhava) of the dance. The tradition is passed from guru to shishya (student) in a live transmission; the teacher gives the proper adjustments and guides the students into the inner arts of the practice. All of Indian classical dance refers back to the Natya Shastra text for an elaborate classification of the form. If you thought the technique of asana was detailed, you should peruse the Natya Shastra: It not only describes all the movements of the major limbs (angas)—the head, chest, sides, hips, hands, and feet—but also offers a detailed description of the actions of the minor limbs (upangas)—including intricate movements of the eyebrows, eyeballs, eyelids, chin, and even the nose—to create specific moods and effects. As in hatha yoga, one begins with the basics of body mechanics and gradually moves toward the subtler aspects of the art.
The karanas, dance counterparts of asanas, are linked into a sequence known as angaharas. Ramaa Bharadvaj compares angaharas to the flowing yoga of vinyasa, in which the “dance” of yoga is experienced as the linking of one asana to the next through the breath. “Even though a posture can be held,” she says, “it is really part of a flow. It’s like the Ganges coming down from the Himalayas: Although it passes Rishikesh and then Varanasi, it doesn’t stop; it keeps flowing.” Like the alignment of asanas, the karanas are based on the center line of the body in relation to gravity and include not only placement of the body but also attention to the pathways of energies that flow through the body.
The dance forms emphasize staying grounded, relating all of the movements with gravity to the earth, then reaching to the heavens. As Malathi Iyengar points out, “In some Indian classical dance, the forms are done close to the earth, with a focus on opening the hip joints, as in Padmasana. In dance we are basically imitating the bent-knee position of the deities such as Krishna and Shiva. We believe this aesthetic was given to us by God.”
The emphasis on stilling the mind through concentration on the inner and outer bodies, moving the practitioner toward an experience of freedom, also parallels the inner processes of yoga. When I was first learning the basic steps of Odissi, it took all ofmy concentration to keep a strong and consistent rhythm with my feet while tilting my head and eyes in opposition to my torso. I felt very mechanical and awkward, just like many beginning students of yoga. Only through repetition and focus on precision did I start to feel a flow of grace, or lasya. Watching the more experienced dancers practice and perform gave me a deep respect for the mastery that is the eventual fruit of so much sadhana.
Accomplished dancers transmit an aura of ease, joy, and playfulness, despite the degree of skill required. The greater the mastery of the dancer, the more breathtaking even the simplest movements become. As dancer-choreographer and yoga student Parijat Desai notes, “As in yoga practice, Indian dance begins to feel natural after long struggles with technique. Then letting go and feeling the dance feels beautiful and free.” Ramaa Bharadvaj adds, “When Radha is dancing for Krishna, she isn’t thinking about how perfect her posture is.”
Studying Odissi gave me enough patience with my Ashtanga Yoga practice to allow me both to embrace technique and to let go. Both processes can lead to a state of embodied communion. Ultimately, yoga is about connecting to the Big Dance, which one can experience either abstractly, through the lens of spiritual culture, or more intimately, as did physicist Fritjof Capra. In his book The Tao of Physics, he describes the experience he had while he was sitting on the beach and watching the waves, observing the interdependent choreography of life: “I ‘saw’ cascades of energy coming down . . . in which particles were created and destroyed. I ‘saw’ the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy. I felt its rhythm and ‘heard’ its sound and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva.”