Nataraja and the Fiery Dance of Summer
Welcome to Summer! The element associated with this season is fire; the days are long and luscious, and it is the growing season. In the Yoga traditions fire, or Pitta, energy is balanced by water and air; Kapha and Vata. The elements of water and air are encouraged by deep forward folds and spine extensions respectively. These three elements come together to produce movement, stillness, and the right and perfect atmosphere for seedlings, both literally and metaphysically, to take root and grow. When we combine water, air, and fire together we create a greenhouse of sorts, that supports a new cycle of life.
In my asana teachings this month we are exploring Natarajasana, a powerful heart-opening pose that requires balance, stability, and flexibility. Beyond the physical nature of the pose lies a beautiful and inspirational story that awakens our inner ability to stand in the fires of life and not be consumed by them. It is a story of awakening, grief, anger, forgiveness, and ultimately union. It is a story of creation, sustenance, revelation, and dissolution it is; the story of every breath, every posture, and every aspect of our being.
So let's go back in time when gods and goddesses moved about the earth in rather complicated, wondrous, and transformative relationships with one another through millenniums of miraculous shapeshifting, transcendence, and resurrections.
The story goes...
Daksha, a very proud and wealthy man, the son of Brahma, god of creation, had a fabulous and wealthy kingdom and a beautiful wife, Prasuti. He lived lavishly and abundantly in his kingdom. For many, many years Daksha and Prasuti had desired another daughter and steadfastly Daksha made offerings to the gods and was a dedicated devotee to the goddess, Shri. Many years passed and still, they did not have another daughter but Daksha remained devoted. One day he went deep into the forest and performed a heartfelt puja, the goddess found him to be so sincere and told Daksha that she herself would be born to them with one condition. Daksha was stunned, he would be a father to the goddess, he was absolutely giddy with delight and asked what the condition of the birth would be. Shri told him that if he ever forgot who she really was or offended her in any way then she would leave this world and never see him again. Daksha agreed and with delight returned to his palace to share the wonderful news with Prasuti.
As the goddess promised Prasuti gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and her name was Sati. Sati grew into a beautiful young woman and was like a priceless jewel to her father. He adored her and showered her with affection. As it came time for Sati to marry Daksha rebuked every suitor, princes and gods alike were not good enough for Sati. He became very arrogant and demeaning to anyone who might pursue her. Sati was happy though, she was actually secretly pleased that her father found no one suitable for her as it gave her more time to study and explore spiritual practices in the lush forests that surrounded the palace.
One day while sitting quietly in meditation, deep in the forest at the foot of Mt. Kalish, Sati caught a glimpse of Shiva. She saw his wild matted hair and the animal skins he wore, she watched him as he sat for endless hours of meditation never stirring or opening his eyes. She decided as she gazed at him that she would marry him and spent days visiting the forest and trying to get his attention. She herself sat for hours in meditation and in devotion to Shiva hoping that one day he would notice her. That one day arrived as she sat in awareness only of him and suddenly her pure love and devotion awakened him, he opened his eyes, and at that very moment fell deeply in love with Sati. He came down from Mt. Kalish and for the first time, together with Sati, explored the forests, the rivers, and the mountains of the earth through love. It was a divine union of consciousness and matter. Recognizing that they were one, known as Ardhanarishavara, they were wed.
Sati was so thrilled she ran back to the palace to share her news. Shiva was Adi-Yogi, supreme Yogi, and she imagined her father too would be ecstatic about their marriage. To her shock Daksha rebuked her, he stormed about speaking horribly, cursing at Shiva, and vowing that he would never acknowledge their marriage.
Sati left the palace heartbroken and returned to her beloved Shiva. Her heartache slowly turned to anger and while anger brewed in Sati, Shiva remained sanguine, eyes closed, in a deep state of mediation. Soon after, Sati heard news that her father was hosting an extravagant gathering for all the gods and goddesses, and was planning a Yajna, an elaborate and powerful fire ceremony. Sati was now beside herself, she and Shiva were not invited, they had been excluded, it was humiliating, after all, she was the most powerful goddess, and he was the most supreme god. She begged Shiva to come out of meditation and accompany her to the palace to confront her father yet he, in blissful meditation, could not be roused.
Sati arrived at the palace and upon seeing her Daksha worked himself into an arrogant affront, he dishonored her and Shiva in front of the other gods and goddesses. He laughed at her and mocked her while ridiculing Shiva for having no palace and no kingdom. Sati, unable to take any more of his insults, stood in front of the fire and shapeshifted into a terrifying form of the goddess she was. Daksha, witnessing her transformation, stood trembling in fear as he suddenly recalled the condition the goddess had given him upon her birth. All the gods and goddesses around her were shocked and stunned into silence. As the full effulgence of her supreme power became evident she joined the flames of the fire and ascended into nothingness leaving her body behind.
Virabrahda, Shiva's devoted friend, quickly ran to Mt. Kalish to tell him what had happened; that his beloved Sati had thrown herself into the sacrificial fire. Upon hearing the devastating news Shiva flew into a rage and made his way down the mountain through the forest to the Palace. When he arrived he was out of his mind with anger and grief. He began to move in a fiery dance, a Tandava, a dance that is the very source of the cycle of creation, preservation, and dissolution.
As Nataraja, in this fiery Tandava, Shiva begins the dissolution of everything around him, and in his fury, he dismembers those around him and beheads Daksha, he is wild with anger and is out of control...until finally, after all the destruction and loss of life, he is breathless and the Tandava gradually slows. Recognizing what he has done Shiva is overcome with regret for the suffering he has caused. He replaces Daksha's head with the head of a goat and Daksha, forever grateful just to be alive, recognizes the full power of Shiva and falls at his feet. Shiva stands in the center of the flames and lifts Sati's charred body from them. He gently places her upon his back and begins to walk the earth in grief.
As time does in these great stories, it passes, and Shiva has covered the earth in his sorrow. Not far behind him is Vishnu, the god of sustainment. Vishnu follows, his heart aching with empathy for Shiva witnessing the heaviness of his burden and without Shiva knowing it, gently cuts away parts of Sati's body leaving her limbs on the earth, which flourish into Sacred temples of the Divine Feminine. These 51 temples or Shakti Peethas are sacred and revered pilgrimage sites still visited throughout India today.
Shiva, as Bhairava, his fiercest form, is often seen at the gates of these temples, as the protector of women and protector of the goddess, his beloved Sati.
As we arrive at the end of the story, more time has passed, as it does, and Sati is resurrected as Parvati, and she once again marries Shiva and takes her place as his consort on Mt. Kalish for eternity. God and goddess in the divine union of consciousness and the energy of matter.
These great stories make us remember our connection to the collective energy and the deeper soul of the world. They bring us back to our core and connect us to our heart and our innermost essence. By listening, sharing, and remembering these old stories, a deep, primal, and ancient part of us is activated within us. Whereas facts talk to our minds, stories talk to our hearts. We identify with them and realize that we all share a common ground.
Nataraja, king dancer, the cosmic Tandava, is rich with metaphors and insights and parallels every cycle of life from the most mundane to the most miraculous, and everything in between.
When we move through life there is a cycle of creation, the sustainment, the revelation, and eventually the dissolution. When we stand in Natarajasna we stand in the fire of the cycle without being consumed by it.
One of my favorite Vedic stories, this story invites us to think of what parts of ourselves we have left behind. Are there parts of ourselves that are worthy of protection and of honor, metaphorically speaking, with a temple of devotion?
In our own lives, what needs to be thrown into the fire of Yoga for transformation?
Are there parts of ourselves that need to be redeemed and offered self-forgiveness, or perhaps parts of others that we could forgive?
I hope this sheds a bit of light on this popular posture in Yoga and inspires you to embrace the firey dance of creation and transformation.
OM & Blessings, Kate
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