Cycles of endings and beginnings make up every aspect of our existence. One of the great symbols of this constant cycle of change is the image of Shiva Nataraja, the King of the Dance and namesake for the pose Natarajasana (Dancer Pose or Lord of the Dance Pose). Shiva Nataraja is portrayed in Hindu mythology as the aspect of Shiva whose ecstatic dance of destruction lays the foundation for the creation and sustenance of the universe. Depicted in southern Indian art dating back to the 10th through 12th centuries, Shiva Nataraja dances at the center of the wheel of samsara, a cosmic ring of fire that symbolizes the eternal cycle of birth, life, and death.
Dancer Pose is a “homage to this idea that you can be steady and joyful at your center while change happens around you. When you make the shape of the pose, you embody both the wheel of samsara and the hub,” says yoga teacher Alanna Kaivalya, author of Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth and Meaning of Mantra and Kirtan. You can celebrate life’s ups and downs knowing that a part of you is connected to all the pulsations of time and space.
As you settle into this backbend while balanced steadily on your standing leg, your heart lifted and open, you can extend that playfulness into the hand that isn’t holding your foot in one of several positions: Either hold the hand up in a “stop in the name of love” kind of gesture equivalent to the gesture of fearlessness that Shiva uses; or join the first finger and thumb in Jnana Mudra, the yogi’s gesture of wisdom (that is,”wisdom” in the sense of being aligned with a higher consciousness more than book smarts). Or simply turn the palm up in a gesture that signifies you are ready to surrender to the change that is afoot.Section divider
Dancer Pose basics
Sanskrit: Natarajasana (not-ah-raj-AHS-anna)
nata = actor, dancer, mime
raja = king
Other names: Lord of the Dance Pose, King Dancer Pose
Targets: Lower BodySection divider
Dancer Pose improves balance and focus, posture, postural awareness, and body awareness. It can boost energy and fight fatigue, and help build confidence and empowerment.
Other Dancer perks:
- Strengthens your core and back muscles, and stretches your chest and shoulders
- Stretches the front of your hip (hip flexor), front on your thigh (quadriceps), and ankle
- On the standing leg, it strengthens the front of your hip (hip flexor), your thigh (while also stretching the back of your thigh/hamstring), shin, and ankle.
- On the lifted leg, it strengthens your glutes and back of your thigh (hamstring).
Dancer Pose: Step-by-step instructions
- Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the front of the mat. Notice the symmetry of your pelvis and your torso.
- Press down through your big toe mounds and lift your inner arches. Rotate your inner thighs toward the wall behind and release your tailbone down.
- Lift your sternum away from your navel and soften your front ribs.
- Bend your right knee and bring your right heel toward your backside. Reach back with your right hand to clasp your ankle Ideally, you will reach from the inside so that your palm faces the right and your shoulder is in external rotation.
- Bring your right knee alongside your left knee. Pause and observe which of the elements from Tadasana have been lost. To bring your body back into symmetry, press down with your left big toe mound, draw your left outer hip into the midline, and bring the right side of your pelvis and chest forward in line with your left.
- Maintain the symmetry in your body as you start to press your right thigh back and up. Lead with your inner thigh and press your right big toe mound away from you. Simultaneously reach your left arm forward and up, leading with your inner upper arm.
- Reach your sternum away from your navel to maintain the lift of your chest while you extend back and up with your right thigh. Keep your right knee in toward the midline rather than splay it out to the side.
- Hold for 5–10 breaths, then release back to Tadasana.
- Repeat on the other side.
Explore the pose
Practice Dancer Pose near the end of the standing portion of your practice to ensure that you have spent plenty of time opening your heart, hips, and legs for optimal mobility and balance. Also, this helps avoid injury.
You can move even further into this pose by grasping your raised foot with your opposite-side hand by bending your elbow and reaching for the inside of your raised foot.Section divider
Dancer Pose variations
Lord of the Dance holding onto a chair
For balance and stability, hold on to the back of a chair.
Quadriceps stretch at a wall
This posture will help prepare you for Dancer Pose. Hold onto the wall and grab one foot, with your knee facing downward to target stretching the front of your thigh (quadriceps). If you cannot reach your foot, use a strap to extend your reach. Stay several breaths, then repeat on the other side.Section divider
Preparatory and counter poses
When preparing your body for Natarajasana, you want to challenge it in the same exact fashion. Include poses that move your body in the same shape as Dancer Pose demands, deconstructing it body part by body part. Focus especially on poses that stretch your quadriceps, front of your hips (hip flexors), and shoulders.
Counter posesSection divider
Your body in Dancer Pose | Anatomy
Natarajasana presents the challenges of combining a backbend with a one-legged balancing pose. Understanding these two elements provide a starting point for achieving this advanced posture. Deconstruct the pose into its component parts to separate out certain difficult aspects: distinguish the backbending from the balancing. Become proficient at each of these, and then combine them.
Begin with the backbending component. The ability to deeply extend your hip and leg is a prerequisite to Natarajasana. Accordingly, stretch the psoas and its synergists, the pectineus, adductors longus and brevis, and sartorius in other poses first, then apply this to backbending poses, such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) and Ustrasana (Camel Pose).
Next, fine-tune your balance by practicing poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and Utthita Hasta Pandangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). Finally, reconstruct the pose into the classical asana. Remember that each part of the process benefits you. Each part is yoga.
In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.
In the standing leg, the quadriceps straighten your knee and the tensor fascia lata synergizes this action, in addition to stabilizing the knee joint from the outside. The hip abductors—which includes the tensor fascia lata as well as the gluteus medius—automatically engage when you stand on one leg. This balances your pelvis by pulling on the origins of these muscles at the iliac crest. If the adductors are weak, your pelvis sags over to the side of the leg that is in the air. Remember that primary stability originates from the pelvis.
To lift your back leg, the hamstrings and gluteus maximus combine to lift it. Squeeze the buttocks and tuck the tailbone during this phase. Later you will relax the hamstrings and engage their antagonists (the quadriceps) to deepen the arch. Your knee will tend to drift out to the side as you lift your leg. Counter this by engaging the adductor magnus to draw your thigh toward the midline. This will also synergize the action of the gluteus maximus in extending your hip.
Arch your back by contracting the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum. Engage these muscles slightly more on your lifted leg. The standing-leg gluteux maximus also contracts to assist you in balancing.
On your lifted leg, engage the quadriceps to deepen the arch of your back. Note how contracting these muscles straightens your knee and lifts your torso.
Use your entire arm and shoulder to lift your foot by straightening your arm. Contract the triceps to do this. The posterior deltoid will synergize the infraspinatus and teres minor in externally rotating the shoulder. Your entire front body stretches in Dancer Pose.Section divider
Put Lord of the Dance Pose Into Practice
About our contributors
Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.
Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.