There are few poses I have clear memories of doing for the first time. I don’t remember my very first Downward-Facing Dog (do you?), but for some reason, I can recite every detail of my first attempt at Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose).
It was 20 years ago, and I was in my sophomore year of college (yes, do the math). I remember seeing the teacher on the VHS tape do it and saying to myself, “Whoa, I will never be able to do that.” They hadn’t even done the variation with both hands grabbing the foot overhead.
My first few tries were far from graceful. I gripped the edge of any furniture I could hang onto, leaving fingernail marks on the surface, as I shakingly kicked my foot into my hand. Over time, the pose became easier. Eventually, my relationship with Natarajasana changed from being a pose I hoped to “master” (whatever that means) to becoming a shape that was easy for me to perform in front of the room, without even warming up.
But then—as those of you who have been practicing for a long time know is to be expected—my relationship to the pose changed once again.
After some pretty severe injuries, including my shoulder, I completely changed the way I approached my practice. I started moving much more mindfully and rather than letting my ego drive me to do every single pose to the nth degree, I started to pull back. I got much less interested in what I was doing and instead started focusing on how I was doing it.
Natarjasana is a living, breathing metaphor of the choice we get to make every day: Will we live from a place of ego and external display or will we embrace our human limitations and focus on our much more meaningful (yet invisible) intentions?
Props keep us humble
Natarajasana is a pose that one can choose to “perform” or do with curiosity. Most classic variations of Lord of the Dance Pose involve using your hand(s) or a strap to lift the back leg. This may tempt you to backbend deeper than is appropriate or even safe, either by tipping the pelvis forward or using your hand to lift your leg higher than it should go.
My relationship to the pose changed when I started shifting my goal from backbending as deeply as possible to observing where and how I was moving my body. The best way to observe those actions was with props.
Many students poo-poo props as making the poses too easy or thinking of them as something we need to work away from in time, but props keep us honest and humble. I often joke that, like the rings of a tree, you actually can tell how long someone has been practicing by all the props they grab before class.
Where we once may have measured our practice by our physical ability, over time we learn that we are truly advancing when we choose not to do something or do something more carefully.
Also from Sarah Ezrin: Want to Fly in Eka Pada Koundinyasana II? Try This Smart Prop Practice
A prop practice for Natarajasana
Strap around foot with upper arms at wall
Often in Natarajasana we get the illusion of backbending deeper when we are really just tipping over in the standing leg hip (which is technically a forward bend!). Walls help us backbend honestly. It can be humbling at first to learn what the body is actually doing when we have that kind of feedback. This variation teaches us how to maintain the action of lowering the front ribs, which helps us learn to backbend from the upper thoracic. The wall also helps us see how much extension we really have in our hip on the lifted leg, since we are unable to tip forward.
Loop a strap around your left foot and hold the tail in your left hand. Stand directly against the wall and bend your left heel toward your bum. Take both arms overhead. Bend your elbows, so your upper arms are pressing into the wall and walk your hands down your strap. Actively lift your left inner thigh, engaging your hamstrings, but while keeping your pelvis on the wall. Release your front ribs down as you lift your sternum up. Close your eyes, if that’s comfortable, or let your eyes soften. Hold for eight breaths.
Come out slow, loosening the grip on the strap and lowering the left leg. Check if you need to step away from the wall for a few breaths before switching the strap to the other side.
Prone with belly on bolster and opposite hand forward and on block
Another truth-teller in the prop world is the floor. It is similar to the wall in that it gives our front body feedback, but because we are prone (on our tummy), the pose can be held for much longer, allowing us to really access certain actions. Having a bolster under your pelvis is helpful for employing another key action in backbends, which is lengthening your tailbone toward your knees. This is also an excellent variation for beginners, though nothing about it is easy!
For this variation you will need a bolster (or rolled blankets) and a block. Set your bolster up in the middle of your mat and place a block toward the front. Lay onto your bolster, so that your hip bones are supported by it and place your left hand on your block about a foot in front of your shoulder. Bend your right knee and reach back, holding the outside of your foot. Press into your left hand, as you release your left shoulder away from your ear. Keep your neck long by looking straight forward. Hold for 10–15 breaths.
To release, let your right leg go slowly and place both hands on the floor before moving your block to your right and taking your other side.
Active range of motion exercise with blanket and chair
Another fun variation of Lord of the Dance comes to us from YogaWorks teacher trainer, Jennie Cohen. Cohen is known for her creative sequencing and, as she says, “movement explorations are my idea of a good time.” Cohen encourages forgoing the strap and hand assistance and instead learning how to lift your back leg by active range of motion. This is when we move the body solely with our muscles. It differs from passive range of motion, which is when an outside force, such as your hand or a prop, moves your body.
Natarajasana classically uses passive range as we traditionally hold the back foot. Though you may not physically get as “far” in this version, the benefit of moving your body in this way is that you learn how to engage the proper muscles needed to create the movement. You are also safer from the temptation to “manhandle yourself into an extreme shape,” as Cohen calls it.
I will be honest: This is not the most elegant variation to get into, but once you are in, the feedback is remarkable. Stand behind a chair (or anything you can use for balance). Bend your right knee, hugging your right heel to your bum and drape a blanket in between your thigh and calf. Hold it tight with your leg. Tip forward at your hips slightly, placing your hands on the chair ledge, and begin to lift your left thigh up, while trying to balance the blanket. The blanket helps to ensure that you are lifting your leg up without letting the hip rotate open. Try lifting the blanket up even higher. Hold for eight full breaths.
For a fun game, try holding the blanket as you lower your leg back down. Set up for your second side.