Natarajasana, Pose of the Lord of the Dance, is a complex pose that is deep backbend with the added fun of balance. As with any backbend, is it essential to fully warm up the thoracic spine and hip flexors as well as integrate core stability for the safety of the lower back. A myriad of arm variations possible in this pose also allow for shoulder and chest opening.
Risk factors: Falling, low back.
What to warm up:
The hip flexors (front of the thighs). Low lunge, high lunge, and Virabhadrasana I are great poses for opening the front of the thighs. Hanumanasana with a bolster and a focus on a sagittally neutral pelvis in order to access the BACK leg. Instead of treating Hanumanasana as a stretch, instead use it to access and tone the adductors, make the legs neutral, and then open the hip flexors of the back leg. Ardha Bhekasana can also be used to stretch the quads, particularly when we focus on anchoring the pubic bone as we draw the shin in.
The thoracic (upper back). Work to open the front of the heart by broadening the collarbones, lifting the sternum, and drawing the shoulders deeply into the body. Can you work to isolate the drawing in of the upper back while you keep your lower back long? It’s a little bit of a conundrum, but this is exactly the paradoxical work that backbends require. Poses such as sphinx, bhujangasana (baby cobra), dhanuarsana (bow), and salabhasana (locust) can refine this work.
The core. To maintain a long lower back, we must use strength through the front of the body to contain the area between the front hip points (the ASIS) and the lower ribcage. Poses such as plank, forearm plank, and navasana (as well as other non-yoga varieties that might be in your repertoire) can bring awareness to this area.
The inner thighs/neutral legs. The adductors link to the core and help keep our legs neutral when they would otherwise flare into external rotation. Prepare the legs to remain neutral through engaging the adductors in lunges, Virabhadrasana I and Virabhadrasana III. By engaging the inner thighs and rolling them slightly to the back body, we widen the sacrum, create length through the back and more room to squeegie the buttocks flesh down the thighs.
The shoulders. Classical Natarajasana has the standing leg arm reaching forward, while the bent leg arm reaches over the head in external rotation and flexion to grasp the foot or big toes. (Like the upper arm in Gomukhasana.) While this is quite a feat for most of us dealing with tight shoulders and hip flexors, we can approximate the actions of this pose by using a strap around our bent knee ankle. Make a Grecian sandal with your strap by wrapping it around your ankle and threading the two ends between the big toes. Presto, you’ve made your leg longer! Work the actions of the pose here: draw the inner things to each other, tailbone to the floor, lower back long, upper chest opening. Breathe and then climb your hand down the strap as the opportunity avails. To prepare for the classical variation, use poses such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog), Utthita Hastasana (hands up in tadasana), Gomukhasana (cow-face pose, arms only), and inversions to open the shoulders.
A great variationof Natarajasana is to reach back with both hands and clasp the foot (like your clasping your hands around the top of the foot). In this variation, the shoulders are in extension, which creates a delicious opportunity for opening the chest. Use Prasarita Padottanasana C (wide-legged forward bend with hands clasped behind), Purvottanasana, Setu Bandha (bridge), and Dhanurasana (bow) to prepare the shoulders for this variation.
Props: Use a strap as a Grecian sandal to assist in the classical variation (see above). Use the wall to assist in balancing.
Variation: At Wall. Start in Virabhadrasana III at the wall, hands at the wall, with one foot under the hip and the other reaching back into the center of the room. Keeping the lower back long, begin to move into a backbending variation by walking the hands up the wall. Alternatively, strap the arms above the elbows and bring the forearms on the wall parallel, fingers pointing up. Option to bend the lifted knee , keeping the thigh open and neutral. Natarajasana at the wall!
Energetics: Natarajasana is a pose about opening into fear. We are asked to open our hearts on uncertain ground (on one leg). Before you begin, relax. Smooth out the breath. Grounding the energy and stabilizing the standing leg are crucial pillars. Once the base has been established, then slowly open the upper back into a backbend. Less is more at first. From a stable base, let the breath open the pose from the inside.