Describing mindfulness, the great sage Patanjali wrote: Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, which is generally translated as "Yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind." My own interpretation of this sutra is not a literal rendition of the Sanskrit original, but it explains how Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose) can help you to experience the metaphysical realm within the physical practice, to experience oneness: "Yoga is to everlastingly dance the dance of deities."
Natarajasana is a representation of Shiva, the presiding deity of yoga, who rules over transformation. He helps yogis realize there is more to the world than the immediately evident dichotomy between the physical and nonphysical, the other and non-other. When you first see or practice Natarajasana, you'll likely be focused on the physical aspects of the pose because it is so challenging. Learning it requires tremendous patience, persistence, and resolve. You will need to remain centered and true to your essential nature no matter what appears in your path.
Eventually you'll start to find the eternal and the nonphysical within what might at first have appeared to be the temporal and physical. Then one day, after much perseverance and devotion, you will overcome all obstacles and you will effortlessly feel Shiva's cosmic dance of the coming into and the going out of being and nonbeing. Existence will be divine. And as my teacher B.K.S. Iyengar says, your body will become a temple, this asana a prayer.
Eka Pada Urdhva Virasana
The key to maintaining your balance in Natarajasana is to make the four ligaments that surround the knee supportive and elastic, and the muscles that attach to those ligaments supple and strong. That way, when you're ready for the pose, the knee of your standing leg will support you. This variation of Virasana (Hero Pose) will help make the knee joint resilient. It also provides an intense stretch along the inner thigh in the adductor muscles, which will prepare you for the final pose.
Fold a blanket and place it against a wall. Kneel facing away from the wall. Bend your left knee, raising your foot closer to your buttock. Shuffle back and place your knee on the blanket, with your left shin against the wall. Place the sole of the right foot on the floor in front of the blanket and lunge forward, keeping the knee above the ankle. Initially, keep the hips low and forward and rest your fingertips on the floor on either side of the right foot.
As you stay and breathe in this simple pose, you are already learning the dance of Nataraja. Surrender to the reality of your experience while maintaining your sense of center. Be ready to gradually release more deeply into the pose if that becomes available to you.
To come into the next stage of the pose, slide your hands up your right thigh and, as you exhale, push your thighbone down toward the floor and lift your hips up and back toward the wall behind you. Aim for placing the buttocks on the inside of the left foot the same way you would in a classic Virasana and having your whole back against the wall.
Once you're in the shape of the pose, use your awareness to refine it. Become like an aja, a mountain goat, sure-footedly dancing across the rocks. Tuck your tailbone down; draw your lower ribs back. Feel your legs, buttocks, and hips nimbly follow that goat as it leaps high to impossible precipices, and deftly steps down to narrow ledges below. Wherever you go, your thigh, shin, and knee should support you. Start by drawing your inner legs together; then press them apart. Next, partly straighten the right leg, angling it slightly out. Gently push toward the wall while resisting slightly from the hips and torso; then gently push away from it, again resisting slightly. Now angle the leg slightly in and repeat. Experiment with the placement of your knee and notice how the movements affect the surrounding ligaments as they respond to the movements of the hips. This is going to be a vital skill.
Never, however, endanger your ligaments by subjecting them to too much stress. When your "inner goat" has played upon the mountain long enough, come out of the pose by placing your fingertips on the ground, leaning forward, and removing the left leg from the wall. Then repeat the pose on the other side.
In addition to strong, resilient legs, there's another secret to Natarajasana: long, strong hip adductors. The adductors are muscles that live deep within the inner groins and run along the inner thighs. Larger than the hamstrings and almost as large as the quadriceps, they are capable of many tasks: They draw the thighs together, rotate them, extend the hips, and help keep the pelvis level, steady, and balanced, particularly when you're standing on one leg. But in most people, they are tight and weak and get less attention than the quadriceps and hamstrings.
If your adductors aren't long or strong when you try to lift a leg up and back, as you would in Natarajasana, you'll lose your balance or overbend your lower back. And while there's no denying that the lower back needs to bend in Natarajasana, overdoing it is the surest way to create compression and injuries there. The more you can hollow your groins, the less stress you'll place on your lower back. The word "groin" comes from the Old English grynde, meaning abyss, so think of creating an abyss as you draw the adductors back.
To lengthen the adductors, practice these versions of Baddha Konasana. To begin, sit on a block. Exhaling, bend your legs, separate your knees, and draw your heels as close to your pelvis as is comfortably possible. Press the soles of your feet together. Before you fold forward, be like that mountain goat who jumps nimbly up before descending the mountain. Feel your torso lift and lengthen as though you were coming up and over your hips, then exhale as you incline the torso forward.
Move from the hips, not from the waist. Use deep awareness to fully contact your inner thighs with your mind and your breath. Continue lengthening the torso while you ease the femurs sideways, away from the hips. Never force the knees: They should always follow, and never lead, the slow releasing of the thighs. Stop immediately at any sign of unease or weariness. After several breaths, inhale to come up. Then turn very slightly to the right, lengthen away from the left inner thigh, and fold forward. Hold this for a few moments, release, and repeat to the left.
If your thighs, knees, and lower back survived the above with ease, enhance the pose by lowering your buttocks to the ground. Fold forward and repeat the whole series of instructions. Next, repeat the sequence with each foot alternately raised on a block; finally try it with both feet on a block and your buttocks on the ground.
A standing pose sequence such as this one develops the mindfulness and resolve that Natarajasana demands. Virabhadrasana III, in particular, requires adductor strength to help you maintain your balance. Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Take your feet 3 to 3 1/2 feet apart, turn your right foot out and your left foot slightly in. Inhale as you raise the arms and exhale into Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). Gaze quietly at your upper hand.
Inhale, bend your right knee, and bring your left foot about a foot closer to your right. Bring your right fingertips to the floor, outside the right foot and underneath your shoulder. Exhaling, straighten the right leg while raising the left leg into Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). Keep the upper leg strong by pushing steadily through the left heel. Keep the standing leg knee pointing forward. Hold for several breaths.
Then rotate the torso and pelvis down so that they are facing the ground. Stretch both arms straight alongside the ears and breathe steadily. You've arrived in Warrior III. To maintain your balance, draw the kneecap up and press the mound of the big toe down. Feel how the inner leg engages when you do this. Extend thoroughly through your left heel. Gaze at your fingertips to help you stay focused and poised. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. Next, rotate the torso to your right as you lower the left fingertips to the floor. Lift your right arm to arrive in Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon Pose). Gaze at the upper hand. Finally, lower the left leg to the floor and come into Revolved Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana), placing the left hand to the outside of the right foot. After 5 to 10 breaths, reverse the entire sequence, going back through Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana to Virabhadrasana III, to Ardha Chandrasana and finally Trikonasana. When you're ready, repeat the sequence on the other side.
Then go to a step, or the edge of a sidewalk, or something similar. Place the front half of the foot on the step with the heel suspended off the back. Go through the entire sequence again on each leg. Repeat with the heel supported and the toes suspended. Notice the front and back half of each foot, the inner and outer half, and the front and back quarters of the inner and outer foot. Build up to doing the sequence on every half and quarter of each foot.
Mukta Hasta Sirsasana
Doing a one-legged balancing pose requires structural and neuromuscular balance between each shoulder and its opposite hip. If the lumbar or cervical spine is unstable, and one hip pops up higher than the other, the opposite shoulder becomes strained. Likewise, instability or immobility in the shoulder joint will create strain in the neck and the lower back. By building strong, flexible shoulders, you'll put less strain on the neck and lower back in Natarajasana, which will create greater freedom in the pelvis and trunk. There is no better place to develop such mastery than Sirsasana (Headstand).
If these versions of Headstand present any problems, simply practice Sirsasana I until all of the contraindications have been alleviated. And if you object to falling over (and you will probably fall a lot at first!), then work near a wall.
Start by coming into Sirsasana I (Headstand I), and once you've found your balance, unclasp the hands and release the fingers. Lifting one elbow and wrist, draw the hand forward and place the palm on the ground, into Sirsasana II (Headstand II). The upper arm is horizontal, the forearm vertical. Once you are steady, place the other hand similarly, keeping the forearms parallel to each other. Keep your shoulders away from your ears, which will free the cervical spine and strengthen your upper back and shoulders. Build up to staying here for 3 to 5 minutes.
When you're ready for more, gradually straighten each arm in front of you until they are parallel to each other. The palms should face up and the elbows should extend thoroughly as you come into Mukta Hasta Sirsasana. Keep the shoulders lifted away from the floor—don't let them bunch by the ears. Firm the legs and extend up through the abdominal organs to keep the spine mobile and healthy, especially the cervical spine.
Once you've mastered that, turn the palms down. Slowly widen the arms, moving them away from each other on the floor. Aim first to get them straight out to the sides in line with the shoulder. Learn to balance in that position, which can be very challenging. Once you've mastered that, continue traveling the arms behind you until they are as close to parallel as possible behind your back. Hold for 1 minute in each variation.
You are now ready to become lords of your cosmic inner dance. This is as much about doing the pose as it is about refraining from participating in anything that might seek to destroy the pose and thus your equilibrium. This means practicing with conviction and sincerity everything you've learned about staying upright. If you sense a stumble coming, gather the strength and inner fortitude you've been building in the other poses and find your balance once again. That is the cosmic dance.
Begin in Tadasana. Find the four corners of your feet, ground them, and prepare them to receive the rotations and strivings of your hip and knee. Remember the sensations of the aja, the goat that springs lightly back and forth, up and down. Observe the strength and length of the inner thighs as they stabilize and ground you, while your torso flies upward. Contrast the potential for power and speed of the shoulder with the delicacy, stability, and control of the scapula you learned in Headstand.
Preparations complete, transfer the weight to the right foot. As you move the head of your right femur deeper into the hip joint and lift the kneecap, recall the presence and force that you had in your previously secure standing poses. Focus on maintaining poise. Refuse to surrender your balance. As you move on in the pose and your balance is threatened, immediately pause, search within, and maintain a relaxed composure until your mind and body announce that they are ready to proceed with the dance.
Once you are steady, raise the left leg back and turn the left palm out. Bend the elbow, reach back, and hold the left foot with the left hand. If that is too difficult, loop a belt around the foot and work with that. Continue to raise the left foot back (pulling on the belt if necessary) until the thigh is parallel to the ground. Alleviate any tightness in the leg by drawing the outer ankle in, toward the shin—an action very similar to lifting the instep when you're standing.
When you feel steady, keep holding your left foot as you externally rotate your shoulder so the elbow points up. Lift the front of your pelvis toward your diaphragm and drop your tailbone toward the floor to lengthen your lower back. Rotate the left thigh in, and level the top rim of your pelvis. When you feel steady, reach your right arm up overhead and hold on to your left foot. Keep the chest lifted and stretch out through your shoulders. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, keeping the lifted leg active and extending it back.
This is Natarajasana. It will help you find the eternal and nonphysical within the seemingly limited and physical, therefore immediately negating what at first seemed physical and limited. You've built the temple and recited the prayer. Having learned that, release and repeat the pose on the other side.
Kofi Busia is a devoted student of B.K.S. Iyengar and has been teaching yoga for 33 years.