Last week we received a little taste of winter—a snowstorm that knocked us off balance as we prepared for Thanksgiving. As we move into the final month of the year, we give Nataraj, Lord of the Dance, the spotlight and unpack the rich imagery of his story, which offers us a reminder to relish rather than lament winter’s destructive power.
In Hindu mythology Nataraj is a four-armed, wild-haired dancer who balances atop a dwarf demon while he performs a dance said to destroy humankind’s ignorance. Whereas we mere mortals fear nature’s cycles – of birth, death, and rebirth – Nataraj, an incarnation of Shiva, happily rides these rhythms, benevolently assisting in the destruction of the universe so that new life can emerge. In Nataraj’s eyes, winter is no time to mourn or to hibernate, it’s a time to celebrate as we prepare for the rebirth of springtime. May we all be dancers this season!
Fearlessness and Liberation
The image of Nataraj is an iconic one. The svelte and muscular dancer holds a drum in one hand and fire in another, all while holding hand mudras (seals) that represent fearlessness and liberation. He is encircled in a ring of fire and wears a serpent around his waist. He stands atop the demon Apasmara and maintains, always, a peaceful countenance.
By keeping a firm foot on Apasmara the dwarf demon, Nataraj protects humankind from at least two layers of ignorance. Take what you want from the mythology, of course, but the two forms of ignorance are:
- The illusion that we are separate from divinity.
- The illusion that the trials of daily life are all that matter.
Apasmara the demon is held underfoot by Nataraj to protect humankind from ignorance.
Apasmara would have us get caught up in the trivial ups and downs of our daily interactions. He would like us to believe that we are our worry, or we are our regrets, our anxiety, our hopelessness, our sadness, or our excitability, and he loves when these fear-based emotions take us over because they cloud our sense of self and obscure our relationship to deepest consciousness.
Winter is a natural time to sink into contraction and hibernation, but instead of allowing its fallowness to dampen our spirits, the image of Nataraj encourages us to remember that it’s an essential part of the birth-death-rebirth process, one measure among many in the song of life.
The Lord of the Dance reminds us not to get swept up in our own mundane dramas and instead choose liberation from fear-binding thoughts. Only by destroying fear can we be truly free. And how will we know when we are free? That’s easy. We will be dancing.
The Pose: Natarajasana
King Dancer pose is a one-footed balance and back bend all at once. In it, the practitioner grabs one foot or ankle and reaches the other arm forward. There are as many variations of the pose as there are yogis, but it is always a balance, and it is always a heart opener. It also opens the shoulders, stretches the hip flexors, and tones the back body.
To explore the pose’s significance, you might try it balanced upon a block which can symbolize the demon underfoot who if freed would see to it that we remain shackled to our own little turbulences. Stand on the block to symbolically break free of the patterns that keep you bound to fear.
The pose itself can strike fear, as many balance poses do (especially when we try them on a block). If it seems elusive, try it at a wall to cancel out any sense of instability. When you do eventually feel stable in the pose, draw your heart forward, tilt it up, and notice the pose’s power to liberate your spirit.
Feel lifted and light, peaceful and celebratory. Let nature’s rhythms course through you without resistance. Keep the beat with your breath and give yourself over to the moment.