Lord of the Dance Pose
Nietzsche once wrote, “If they want me to believe in their god, they´ll have to sing better songs… I could only believe in a god who dances”. As one of the Hindu trinity, Shiva has many different personae that illuminate his essence. The most well known is his role as the King of the Dancer or, in Sanskrit, Nataraja.
In this guise he is commonly portrayed with snakes around his neck, dreadlocks standing on ends, balancing atop a tiny dwarf, and encircled by a ring of fire. Oddly enough, this imposing image conveys a lot of compassion if we know how to look at it through the yogic lens.
The ages of the world are long, and at the end of each one, Shiva stands ready to turn it all to dust, so that yet another world can be created to exist for yet another age. While we, as mere mortals, will never live long enough to see an entire age from the beginning to the end, the deathless form of Shiva as Nataraja sees each age as only a passing moment in time. In one of his hands he holds a drum, and with each beat he signals the death and rebirth of another age. And this drum beats fast. Shiva dances to his own music within a circle of flame known as samsara.
Samsara is the cyclical pattern in which we are all stuck, the constant repetition of birth, life and death. This corresponds well to the idea of reincarnation. Another way to think of samsara is as the many ways in which we get stuck in patterns and habits throughout our lives that don´t serve us, but rather inhibit us. This spinning karmic cycle of samsara does not trouble Shiva. He just sees it as one more rhythm to dance to. Shiva is unafraid of the serpent around his neck.
Snakes are potent metaphors within yoga philosophy, and for most of us they are frightening creatures, especially the cobra that dangles from Shiva´s neck as he dances. The poison the cobra carries symbolizes the toxic nature of avidya, the misunderstanding of ourselves as something other than divine. The cobra´s poison is not toxic to our lord of the dance. He has found the remedy to that affliction, which is enlightened knowledge, and he carries its symbolic flame in one of his palms. Yoga seeks to rid us of the ignorance of avidya through various practices, such as asana, pranayama and meditation, and by constantly reminding us of the fact that we are all divine in nature. Still we constantly forget, become locked into the cycle of samsara, and fall prey to the poison of avidya.
In the depiction of Shiva as the King of the Dancer, ignorance is represented by the tiny dwarf-like demon upon which he stands. This seemingly helpless creature is usually busy causing mischief, which mainly consists of keeping us all caught up in our own daily dramas. Once again, Shiva proves to be the master. He does not let this little character get the best of him and instead uses him as a pedestal for his dance. By standing over the demon of ignorance, he is able to have a higher gaze, or a higher level of consciousness, which allows him to rise above daily drama. For him, the only thing worth paying attention to is the rhythm of the dance.
Shiva, the cosmic dancer, is not filled with guilt over the destruction of each age. He knows that everything that is born must also die. He understand that destruction clears the path for rebirth and that in rebirth and growth there is compassion. Brahma the creator cannot do his work properly if Shiva the destroyer has not done his. It is Shiva´s destruction that provides the fertile platform for Brahma´s process of rebuilding.
In order to dance like Shiva, we must feel free. Freedom comes from knowing there is nothing that binds us permanently. Shiva´s dance is born out of liberation from the fear of change. He teaches us to ride the wave of change as if we´re on a cosmic surfboard, coasting toward the shore of bliss. Shiva´s lessons are integral to the yoga path.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali outlines five obstacles that prevent us from true freedom, which are called kleshas. The first is avidya, and the fifth and most powerful obstacle is the fear of death, or abhinivesha. Death is the ultimate change and takes many forms in our lives, until the greatest death of all, which comes at the end. As the lord of death and destruction, Shiva understands that change, even one as great as death, is really the only constant in the universe.
The fear of change causes more stress than possibly any other fear. It is fear of changing borders that causes many wars. And the fear of changing our views makes us cling to dogma. The sheer desire to have things remain the same, according to the Buddha, is the nature of suffering. Conversely embracing change liberates us from suffering.
The scientific law of conservation of mass states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. In essence, if you want to make something new, you must destroy something old of allow it to die. So Shiva, in his ultimate wisdom, is utterly compassionate in his destruction. He gives us the freedom to demolish our social norms and create something entirely new. He creates the space for us to make positive, abundant choices in our lives and let go of fear. If we truly want to change, then we must learn to embrace a little death and destruction.
Natarajasana allows us to experience a couple of physical elements that can bring about fear in our bodies. Backbending and balancing both elicit fear because of the openness and bravery they require. We tend to store fear in our heart (according to the chakra system), and when we open the heart, we give ourselves an opportunity of let go of fear. Likewise, balancing gives us an opportunity to overcome our natural fear of falling and to be brave and free. If we can backbend and balance with the same sense of liberation with which Nataraja dances, then it will be easier for us to embrace this freedom in our minds and hearts.
Myth of the Asanas
Alanna Kaivalya & Arjuna Van der Kooij