Whether you're a backbend enthusiast or backbend avoider, you may find that the sequence below helps you to confidently begin exploring natarajasana. Practicing it regularly helped me to transform an asana I tended to skip into one I genuinely enjoy practicing.
Before we get started:
You really, really don't have to—I promise. That's not the point of the pose.
In fact, even if you can touch your foot to your head, it may not be the best idea, as doing so tends to bring the backbend more into the lumbar spine (lower back) and cervical spine (neck)—which already tend to want to "take over" in backbends—as opposed to the thoracic spine (middle back), which is generally where we want to focus our backbends. (See Jenni Rawlings' "The Easiest Mistake to Make in Backbends" for more on this.)
If you want to (eventually) work toward catching your back foot with both hands reaching overhead in dancer (or pigeon, or splits, or low lunge, or any other asana), here are two important tips to keep in mind when you practice:
1. Regularly and diligently practice preparatory poses.
These are poses designed to prepare your body to move toward natarajasana smartly and safely. If you're moving toward dancer, be sure to regularly include simpler chest openers, shoulder stretches, and backbends in your practice, as well as "thigh stretches" (which tends to be "yoga speak" for poses that stretch the fronts of the thighs/hip flexors).
2. Regularly and diligently practice dancer using a strap. This seems to be a perennial lesson for me: If I want to learn how to do a pose that seems challenging (or even just learn to like a pose that seems challenging), I actually have to practice that pose on a consistent basis. When it comes to dancer pose, most of us need to use a strap (at least when we first start practicing). Work with one regularly and you'll likely find that your dancer pose feels more stable and comfortable. Eventually, your hands might even come into contact with your foot!
As you come into the pose, avoid pushing your pelvis forward. Instead, back out of lunge a little bit at first, and engage between your two frontal hip bones (as if you were cinching a drawstring between them, drawing them closer together). This will engage your deep abdominals, allowing your psoas to relax and "ungrip." Lift up through your low belly so that you're not collapsing onto your front thigh.
Then sink a little deeper into the stretch, stretching your legs apart from each other as though you were stretching your mat in two as you lengthen through your spine and reach up through soft fingertips. You can even start to lift your chest into a gentle backbend here.
Keep these points in mind as you move through your sun salutes, and thus your anjaneyasana, more quickly: Deep low belly engagement, and an even stretch in all directions: out through your legs, and up through your spine.
I find that this variation allows for a little more chest stretch than a traditional cobra, making it a great preparation for natarajasana.
Lying on your belly, walk your fingertips out wide—so wide that they come off of your mat. Walk your hands back so that they're in line with your heart. If this feels too intense for your shoulders, you can walk your hands a little more forward, to a more comfortable position.
As you prepare to come into the pose, bow your head forward a little. Broaden through your chest, and lead with your chest (not your chin) as you rise up into cobra on an inhale. Let your head follow the movement of your chest, rising up to lift, and even moving back a little, but still maintaining length in the back of your neck. Release on an exhale, lowering your chest and bowing your head slightly once again. You can move through cobra dynamically a few times (inhaling to rise up, exhaling to lower down), or simply stay in the pose for a few breaths.
Exploration: It might sound counterintuitive at first, but you may find it useful to experiment with turning your hands to face in (instead of out), so that your elbows lift up to come in line with your shoulders as you prepare to rise up. You might actually find that this helps you to stay more broad and open through your chest, and it somewhat mimics the "switched grip" hand position we'll explore later.
Humble warrior is a popular example of incorporating a chest/shoulder stretch into a warrior II.
Start in warrior II, paying special attention to your front knee. Make sure it's tracking out toward the pinky-toe side of your front foot (not dropping in), as you press down firmly through the ball of your front big toe. Keeping that, interlace your hands behind you. Keep your elbows bent and your wrists straight.
Broaden your collarbones, lift your sternum, and start to reach your hands away from your pelvis (keeping your elbows at least slightly bent, which will help you to stay broad through your chest). On an exhale, bow forward.
As you settle into the pose, continue to track your front knee toward your pinky toe and to explore the chest expansion in a forward-bending position. Relax your face and jaw.
Stay for a few breaths. On an inhale, rise up to standing and repeat on the second side. This time, place the opposite thumb on top when you interlace your hands.
Cow face is another great way to sneak a shoulder stretch into your standing poses. Start in a warrior II leg position once again with your arms relaxed down by your sides.
Inhale and reach your right arm up alongside your ear, bend your right elbow and let your right hand rest at the middle of your upper back. Internally rotate your left arm so that your thumb faces in toward you, and reach back and around, bringing the back of your left hand to rest on your back. Perhaps you're able to clasp your hands here. If not, hold a strap between your hands. Lengthen your spine, and breathe into your back ribs (avoid jutting your bottom ribs forward). Especially lengthen through the bottom-arm (left) side of your torso, and draw your bottom (left) shoulder back (it won't go all the way back since the arm is in internal rotation—you're just working to find balance). Lengthen straight up through your crown, and stay here for a few breaths before releasing your arms out to a traditional warrior II position, then repeating on the second side.
A vinyasa-class staple, this variation of dancer will help you work on your balance, explore a mild backbend, and establish a solid foundation for other natarajasanas to come!
From tadasana (mountain pose), bend your left knee and grab hold of the inside (big-toe side) of your left foot with your left hand (holding the inside makes it easier to maintain external rotation in your upper arm, preventing your shoulder from rolling forward).
Begin with your standing and bent-leg knees next to each other. Spread your left toes, and press your left hand and foot against each other to create some resistance. Kick your left foot against your hand to lift the foot up. Try to lift your foot up faster than your body comes forward. Broaden your collarbones and lift your sternum. Draw the back-leg side of your belly toward the front-leg side of your belly to prevent the hips from rolling open significantly.
You can extend your right arm forward, alongside your ear, with the palm facing in, or even bring your right hand to your heart (my personal favorite in this pose) to encourage the chest to broaden and lift, bringing more of the backbend into the thoracic spine.
This pose is a great way to simultaneously stretch your quadriceps, open your shoulders and chest, and work on a hand grip that serves as a preliminary step to the overhand grip in natarajasana.
Start on your belly, in sphinx pose (up on your forearms with your elbows stacked directly under your shoulders). Engage your low belly, broaden your collarbones, and lift up through your chest.
Then, come up onto your left fingertips, bringing your left hand out wide (as it was for fingertip cobra). Lightly squeeze the back of your left thigh and the left side of your butt as you bend your left knee and draw your heel in toward your seat. Catch hold of the big-toe side of your foot with your left hand, bending your elbow to draw your heel in toward you for the thigh stretch. Continue to lift up through your low belly, and keep your rib cage and chest facing forward, toward the short edge of your mat.
Come out of the pose if you feel any pinching or pain in your lower back or shoulders. Otherwise, remain in the pose for a few breaths, or play with "switching your grip"—spinning your left fingers forward to point toward the top of your mat, and your left elbow to point up toward the ceiling. Press your right forearm into the floor, as though you were pushing it away from you, continuing to lift up through the pose. You can even straighten your right arm if it's comfortable to do so.
Release on an exhale, and repeat on the second side.
Continue on your quad-stretch quest with a thigh-stretch lunge variation. While a traditional anjaneyasana provides an excellent stretch for the back leg rectus femoris (the quadricep muscle that crosses both the hip and knee joints), in order to stretch the other three quadricep muscles (the vastus muscles, which only cross the knee joint), you have to bend your back knee.
Starting in a low lunge with your right leg forward, you can choose to either catch hold of your left foot with your left hand, or you can come into a low-lunge twist and catch hold of your left foot with your right hand. As a rule, when catching hold of your foot with your same-side hand, hold the big-toe side of the foot; when catching hold of your foot with the opposite-side hand, hold the pinky-toe side of the foot. In each case, this will help to prevent your shoulder from rolling forward.
For either variation, set up in a low lunge. For the non-twisting version, walk your hands up onto your front thigh, interlacing your hands and pressing them down to activate your abdominals and keep you from collapsing onto your thigh. For the twisted variation, walk both hands to the inside of your front foot, and press all of your fingertips into the floor to create that same abdominal activation. Keep that engagement, and walk your right hand up onto your right thigh. Lengthen your spine and twist your belly to the right.
For either variation, lightly squeeze your left hamstring and the left side of your butt to draw your heel in toward your seat. If you're twisting, catch the pinky-toe side of your foot with your right hand. If you're not twisting, catch the big-toe side of your foot with your left hand. Keep your toes active, and even bend the elbow of your foot-holding arm to help you draw your heel in.
Stay for a few breaths before releasing on an inhale and repeating on the other side.
Tip: If you're practicing the non-twisting variation, you can play with flipping your grip as you did in ardha bhekasana—spinning your fingers to point forward and your elbow to point up.
I'm constantly amazed by what a big difference a few pre-natarajasana urdhvas can make!
To set up, lie on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet flat on the floor as you would for bridge pose. Place your hands alongside your ears with fingertips pointing down toward your shoulders or slightly turned out. Don't let your elbows splay open; instead, draw them in toward center (but not so much that you're squeezing your ears).
On an inhale, lift your hips, straighten your arms, and press up into wheel. Only release your head if your arms straighten completely.
To deepen the pose, rise up onto the balls of your feet, and walk them back a couple of steps toward your hands. Be careful not to turn your toes out! Then, grounding into the balls of your big toes, lower your heels down. As they touch the ground especially press into your outer heels. Keep your arms straight and press your chest back through your arms. Relax your face and jaw.
To exit the pose, walk your feet forward if you've walked them back. Rather than coming onto the crown of your head, lower your chin to your chest and your upper back onto the mat first as you come out of the pose.
Take a resting breath or two, then repeat two more times.
You can work toward the same overhead foot catch in pigeon as you will in dancer, but without balancing on one leg as in dancer.
From downward facing dog, bring your right shin forward toward the front of your mat so that your right knee is outside your right wrist, and your right heel is in front of your left groin. Point your front foot, but spread your toes back so your foot is in between flexed and pointed (some people call this "flointed"). Press the pinky-toe side of your foot into the floor so that your heel lifts up and your front ankle stays straight. While you might want your front shin more parallel with the front edge of the mat for a forward-bend version of pigeon, for this variation you'll want to keep your front foot close in toward your groin.
To set up for the thigh stretch, lightly squeeze your back-leg hamstring and glutes as you draw your left heel in toward your seat and catch hold of the big-toe side of your foot with your left hand. You can choose to stay here and work with the thigh stretch—resisting your foot against your hand as you bend your left elbow and draw your foot in toward you, all the while squaring your rib cage and chest toward the front of the mat. You can also work with flipping your grip here, spinning your fingers forward and your elbow up.
If you'd like to work toward catching your back leg behind you with your hands overhead, start with a strap. Make a generously sized loop with the strap, and wrap it around the sole of your left foot. Hold the loop in your left hand, palm facing up, and externally rotate (turn out) your upper arm. Keep the external rotation as you spin your left elbow up toward the ceiling. Then, reach your right hand up and back to catch hold of the strap as well. Keep your spine long, and turn from your belly to help keep your torso facing forward. Walk your hands down the strap as you keep broadening your collarbones and lifting your chest (you might touch your foot, you might not). As your chest lifts, move your head back to follow, keeping your neck long as you enjoy the backbend. Don't worry about touching your head to your foot. Just keep your backbend smooth and even.
If you're ready to try without the strap If you're able to walk your hands down the strap and easily catch hold of your foot, you may wish to try coming into the pose sans strap. Here's how to do it:
From your pigeon thigh stretch with right leg forward, reach your right arm across your body and catch hold of the big-toe side of your left foot with your right hand. This keeps your foot in place while you get a good grip on it with your left hand. With the foot held in place by your right hand, externally rotate your left arm (just as you did when you were holding the strap), and wrap your left thumb around the pinky-toe side of your left foot, and your left fingers across holding onto the big-toe side of the foot. Once you have a good solid grip with your left hand, release your right hand as you spin your left elbow up toward the ceiling and your torso to once again face the short edge of your mat. From here, reach your right arm up and back, bending your elbow to hold onto your left foot with your right hand as well. Stay only as long as you can comfortably breathe before returning to your starting position and repeating on the other side.
Use the very same actions you did in pigeon to catch your back foot in natarajasana:
Start in the natarajasana prep described earlier, bending your left knee and catching hold of the inside of your left foot with your left hand.
To work toward "catching" your back foot with both hands reaching overhead, just as with pigeon, loop a strap around the sole of your left foot. Hold the loop with your left hand (palm facing up), and externally rotate your left upper arm. Keep the external rotation as you spin your left elbow up toward the ceiling, and your torso toward the short edge of your mat. Then, reach your right hand up and back, bending your elbow to catch hold of the strap with your right hand as well. Keep your spine long, and keep your torso facing forward. Walk your hands down the strap as you continue broadening your collarbones and lifting your chest. As your chest lifts, move your head back to follow, keeping the back of your neck long as you explore the backbend.
To work toward catching your back foot without a strap If you're able to bring your hands to meet your foot using the strap, you may be ready to explore the pose without the strap, just as you did in king pigeon.
From natarajasana prep: Reach your right hand across your body and catch hold of the big-toe side of your left foot to help keep it in place while you change your grip with your left hand. Keep your left toes active and your left knee hugging in toward center (not splaying open). Then externally rotate your left arm (the way you did with the strap), and wrap your thumb around the pinky-toe side of your left foot, and your fingers across the top of your left foot, holding onto the big-toe side of the foot. Once you have a good solid grip with your left hand, release your right hand and spin your left elbow up toward the ceiling and your torso to face the short edge of your mat. From here, reach your right arm up and back, bending your elbow to hold onto your left foot with your right hand as well. Again, instead of trying to touch your foot to your head, explore an even backbend: broaden your collarbones, lift your chest, and keep your neck long as your head moves back. Here too, stay here only as long as you can comfortably breathe before returning to your starting position and repeating on the other side.
To round out your practice Once you've completed your exploration of natarajasana, come to a nice, neutralizing downward facing dog pose for a few rounds of breath before taking a grounding hip opener (think agni stambhasana, fire log/"double pigeon"), baby cradle, figure-four stretch, or a non-backbendy version of pigeon). Follow with some simple twists and forward bends, and a nice, restful shavasana.