Over the last few weeks I’ve been planning a workshop with a fellow yoga teacher, Namita. It’s a workshop all about a specific asana, Natarajasana, with a physical and meditative practice that draws inspiration from the mythology behind the pose. And it got me thinking about how the myths and stories that sit – often quietly, not getting as much attention as they might deserve – behind the postures in our practice can add another element to our understanding of how yoga and creative work are connected.
The asana, which translates as ‘dancer’s pose’, takes its name from Nataraja, one of the many forms of Shiva; a Hindu deity who is one of three gods said to be responsible for creating, maintaining, and destroying the world. Shiva is the third of the three – the one who’s all about destruction. But it’s only through his destructive work that space is made for new worlds to be created. Shiva uses a drum to mark the passing of time, and deaths and rebirths – he dances to the rhythm that he beats on his drum, inside a circle of fire which represents the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. In the form of Nataraja, the ‘cosmic dancer’, Shiva wears a cobra around his neck and dances on top of a dwarf: the cobra is a symbol of human beings’ ignorance of their true selves, and the mischievous dwarf is a symbol of the human inclination to confuse the ego with the true self. By recognising and dancing on top of ignorance, and beating his drum to destruct, Shiva is said to clear the way for Brahma – the creator – to build and rebuild.
The story of Nataraja teaches, as the yogic texts teach, that nothing in the material world is permanent, and that we are not our egos; and we are not our emotions, or our jobs, or our clothes or our mobile phones or cars or our words or our thoughts. At the centre of it all, when everything else is cleared away, we are our true selves – and our true selves exist in a natural state of bliss (ananda).
When I talk about the aspects of yoga that are informed by Hindu mythology, I always feel compelled to add a note – to avoid alienation! – about the relationship between yoga and religion. It’s a huge discussion and the cause of much heated debate within and beyond the world of yoga practitioners, but to be brief…yoga is a mind/body practice that is not inherently religious; it is a practice of connectedness and self-exploration, which can be – and often is – used as part of religious practices. And many of the words and ideas used in yoga are drawn from religion – most notably, from various forms of Hinduism. But yoga is not a religion. And for many people, including myself, it is not a religious practice; it’s for exploring and studying and understanding and learning and connecting with ourselves and with all the other stuff outside of ourselves. But I think it would be reductive, and a disservice, not to pay attention to the philosophical, religious and spiritual beliefs which have been a part of shaping our practice into what it is today.
The physical pose, Natarajasana, reflects the lessons of Nataraja in the ways in which it works with human anatomy – the physical body, and the subtle, energetic bodies. The big physical elements of it are balancing and backbending; balancing requires focus and concentration and for many people, it can require them to overcome a fear of falling, too. Backbending, as well as strengthening the spine, stretches the muscles of the superficial front line of the body – the core, the chest, the quads – and opens the heart. Strong backbends do often elicit an emotional response. Sometimes, a positive, joyful feeling of opening and release; sometimes, if that feeling of opening is unfamiliar or beyond the comfort zone of the practitioner, it can leave them feeling uncomfortably exposed. But that feeling of vulnerability can be part of the destruction of barriers held within the body that, when worked through gently, can lead to a feeling of strengthening and an increased willingness to be open. Like the beat of Shiva’s drum, the pose can mark the destruction of old habits, and make space for positive change.
The myth and the pose can translate beyond yoga practice: into our creative work. Natarajasana teaches us to let go and allow ourselves to lose things, because it teaches us that when we lose things, we make room for freedom and for new things. Hopefully, better things. And these are valuable lessons for people who want to make things, because part of creativity is going through processes which create material that we shouldn’t always hold onto (either the process, or the tangible outcome). Part of being continuously creative, and being successful in creative work, is letting go of old ideas and old material so that we can make new. It doesn’t mean that the stuff that came before hasn’t been useful to us, but that it’s important to relinquish control enough to understand that new things can be built on the foundations of old things without any visible traces of the old things still being present. In yoga and in creative practices we constantly learn, generate, unlearn, regenerate, rip things up and throw things away and burn space in our brains to build new work.
Van der Kooij, Arlana and Kaivalya, Arjuna. 2011. Myths of the Asanas. Mandala Publishing
Website: Shades of Yoga
Art: Nataraja by Satheesh Kanna. Found on God of Fine Things.