Dancer pose (natarajasana) fuses into one statuesque form the qualities of strength, stability, and suppleness. But those qualities may not already feel particularly fused in the practitioner, in which case practicing natarajasana can leave us feeling frustrated.
I’ve learned that when standing on one foot leaves me feeling wobbly, it is more helpful to support stability by propping myself than to hop about until I do or don’t regain my balance. Before I began exploring the natarajasana variations below, I could never seem to progress in the asana because I was focusing on lifting up my back leg before I’d established a solid foundation. That ultimately inspired me to experiment with these propped versions of the pose.
These variations provide the support that will allow you to work on the specific actions that increase the strength, stability, and mobility required by the pose without the constant frustration of losing your balance!
First things first: Make sure you’ve thoroughly warmed up your entire body, focusing on standing poses such as lunges that will prepare your hips and thighs; quad stretches such as half frog pose (ardha bhekasana); shoulder stretches such as cow-face (gomukhasana) and eagle (garudasana) arms; simpler balancing postures like a standing “march” with one knee lifted toward the chest and a standing quad stretch; and simpler backbends, such as locust pose (salabhasana), upward facing dog pose (urdhva mukha svanasana), and bow pose (dhanurasana).
Props: You will need a mat, a folding chair, and a strap long enough (eight or ten feet) to create a loop approximately the size of your leg. You may also need a blanket or two and/or four sturdy blocks, and an extra mat.
Setup: Place your chair in the middle of your mat with the seat facing the short edge of the mat. Stand behind the back of the chair and hook your hip points right above the top of the chair’s back and fold forward a few inches. If you tower over the chair, try placing a folded blanket over its back or placing blocks on their lowest setting under the chair legs. If you have to stand on your tiptoes to get your hip points on the chair, you may benefit from placing a folded mat under your feet so you’re a bit taller. By figuring out the right setup for your body, you’ll be able to use the chair for support and thus find your balance more easily.
Getting into the pose: Make a large enough loop with your strap, leaving only a two- or three-inch tail. Stand behind your chair as you did during the setup phase. Loop the strap under the arch of your right foot and over your right shoulder. Press your left foot firmly into the floor as you lean forward until your hip points touch the top of the chair’s back (getting ready to hook over the top of the chair, as they did during the setup). Now lean over the chair to secure your pelvis: The weight of your pelvis will push down onto the chair to make sure the chair doesn’t move. In effect, this placement of the chair deepens your left hip crease, which will help keep your left thigh moving back instead of jutting forward.)
Bend your right knee as you slide the strap off your right shoulder, taking the strap in your hands as you begin straightening your arms overhead (they probably won’t straighten all the way). Tug on the strap to encourage your chest to lift. Walk your hands down the strap with your palms facing in, lifting your right thigh as you do so. Incline your torso over the chair a few more inches as you continue lifting your right leg. Bend your knee to roughly a 90-degree angle and continue walking your hands down the strap, keeping it taught.
Keep your chest lifted and your right hip rolling toward the chair rim. Press your right foot firmly into the strap as if you were going to straighten the leg, and pull the strap up evenly on both sides.
Hold here for two steady breaths, and then—if you can do so without reaching your maximum range—bend your right knee a little more and walk your hands farther down the strap. Be in a place where you can work in the pose. Press your right foot into the strap, lengthening the sides of your body as you reach up with intent. Repeat this process—maybe even until hands and foot meet!
Firm your outer left hip in and pull it back as if to deepen the hip crease. Simultaneously, roll your right hip forward once again (since it tends to roll back) as you move your right ribs forward and your left ribs back. Maintain the opposing actions of pressing down into your left foot as you reach up with your elbows and right foot to create a sense of space and suspension rather than contraction in your lower back.
Remain in the pose anywhere from five to ten breaths to start. Then stand in mountain pose (tadasana) for 30 to 60 seconds to cleanse the body palate before switching sides.
Props: You will need a door frame and a strap; a block is optional.
Setup: Stand in the middle of the doorframe, facing to one side of the frame. Loop a strap snugly around your right foot. Toss the tail of the strap up your back and over one shoulder. Grasp the doorframe you’re facing so that your elbows are bent and a little higher than your shoulders; lean forward, hinging at your hips. Place the top of your right foot or your shin on the other side of the doorframe behind you. The exact height will depend on your particular proportions, but aim to bring your knee to hip height.
Getting into the pose: Walk your hands up the doorframe you’re facing, lean your chest into the frame, and lift your forehead slightly away from it. You can also secure a block between your sternum and the doorframe to prevent your chest from dropping and to give you feedback. Bend your left knee for stability as you slide your right foot higher—as high as it will go. Keep your outer hips firm as you continue deepening your backbend by lifting your right thigh and arching back (or you can stay right where you are).
Move slowly and incrementally as you press your right foot into the frame behind you and lift your chest by climbing your arms up the wall. Slide your right foot up a bit more and then press it into the doorframe once again as you pull down with your hands on the side of the doorframe you’re facing, lifting your chest. Repeat these actions a few times.
Stay here or reach for the tail of your strap with your hands. Walk your hands down the strap, keeping your chest lifted. See if you can maintain the contact of your foot against the doorframe (your knee may move away from it) as you walk your hands closer to your foot. At this point, I usually stop and do the other side. Once I’ve done both sides, I return to the first side, repeat what I did, and then proceed with the following actions in the same setup:
Grab the strap with your arms overhead and walk your hands down until it feels taught. With your arms bent, pull up on the strap as if to straighten your arms and lift your heart. Continue bending your elbows as you walk your hands farther down the strap. Pull up on the strap again, press your foot into the wall, and then slide it up the wall after you release the press (to deepen the backbend in your upper spine). Loosen this resistance after about five breaths, walk your hands down the strap, and repeat.
Eventually, some people may be able to walk their hands all the way down the strap to reach their foot. When you’ve found a variation that works for you, stay there for about five to ten breaths. Then ease your way out of the pose by guiding your foot down the wall, keeping your chest lifted until you are standing upright in tadasana. Then switch sides.
Bringing Your Dancer to Life
We often admire characteristics such as strength and beauty, and we can think of them as traits that people are born either with or without. Practicing natarajasana with props teaches me that qualities such as strength and beauty are deeply innate in all of us, and that it is up to me to cultivate and honor them in myself. As I tweak and modify along the way, I can feel the strength there waiting to be tapped—and that I am radiating beauty, regardless of how I may appear on the outside.
Photography: Andrea Killam