Depicted in southern Indian art dating back to the 10th through 12th centuries, Shiva Nataraja dances at the center of the wheel of samsara, a cosmic ring of fire that symbolizes the eternal cycle of birth, life, and death.
The name Shiva derives from a Sanskrit root that means “liberation,” and liberation or freedom is what the dancing four-armed Shiva Nataraja expresses. He can’t stop the passage of time or the fire that surrounds him, but he can find bliss amid the chaos. His dreadlocks shake as he balances on the demon of avidya, or ignorance. In one of his hands, he holds a drum on which he beats the passage of time. Another hand holds a conch shell, recalling the power of the sound of Om that reverberates through the universe. In a third hand, the flame of vidya, or knowledge, reveals the internal light of our true nature. One of Shiva’s right hands is held up in Abhaya Mudra, a gesture of fearlessness. It’s the fearlessness that comes from knowing one’s own transcendent nature—that though the mortal form you inhabit will change and die, there is an energy within you that will continue on, like the pulsation of an atom or the light from the supernova of a dying star that reaches earth with its beauty.
Shiva’s heart is the center of the wheel; the hub that stabilizes him within the great cycles of cosmic change. When you make the shape of the pose, you embody both the wheel of samsara and the hub. As you settle into this backbend, balanced steadily on your standing leg, your heart lifted and open, feel free to reach a hand forward in one of several positions. Either hold the hand up in a “stop in the name of love” kind of gesture that is the equivalent of the gesture of fearlessness that Shiva uses; or join the first finger and thumb in Jnana Mudra, the yogi’s “okay” symbol. Or simply turn the palm up in a gesture that signifies you are ready to surrender to the change that is afoot.
The beauty of working toward a difficult pose is that, in the best of circumstances, the desire for the form of the pose eventually falls away. Along the way, the fire of the practice may leave you free from desire for the final pose, as you embody steadiness and joy in your own Shiva’s dance.
Excerpt from Yoga Journal article Joy to the World by Alanna Kaivalya