As one of the three aspects of the yogic mythological triumvirate, Shiva is known for his role as the dealer of destruction and death.
Because of this, Shiva is largely misunderstood because there is something more poignant and significant within his symbology. In order to dissolve what is no longer fruitful, Shiva exercises supreme compassion and courage so that the death of one thing will create the space for something new to arise. In fact, it is a simple law of physics that matter (or energy) can neither be created nor destroyed. However, it can often be very difficult or painful to let go of or destroy something to which we are attached, whether it be a belief system, mode of thinking, way of life, or life itself. All things in the universe move through the cycle of birth, life and death. And while it is usually easy to witness the birth and sustenance of things, it is often death and dissolution that takes us on a roller coaster ride.
This roller coaster ride of inevitability is known as samsara in the yogic tradition. Everything we know of and experience goes through a cycle of birth, life and death from a gross to a subtle level. What if, instead of riding on the outside of this fiery wheel we were able to slide down the “spokes” and come to rest at the hub, where it is fixed and steady? Luckily, we have a powerful image of Shiva that conveys this concept and allows us to bring the metaphor home…to where the heart is. Shiva as Nataraja, the King of the Dance (nata = dance, raja = king), shows us how to stop resisting the cycle of samsara through compassion and courage. The wheel is going to turn. Everything changes. There are going to be times when life gets hard and the proverbial light goes out. There is no stopping the cycles of life and death. There is naught to do but accept it and let go of our resistance. The key to acceptance? Compassion and courage.
The etymological meaning of compassion is “to suffer with,” indicating that when those around us are suffering from the inevitable cycle of life, we can empathize with their state while remaining steadily fixed within our own heart. The etymological root of courage comes from the old french word for “heart” and the idea of “internal strength.” When we are in the inescapable throes of life’s difficulties, the only way to stay steady is to move from the strength of our whole heart. Nataraja’s image inspires us to do this and transcend right and wrong, past and future, and maybe most profoundly: desire and resistance. Shiva Nataraja dances no matter what universe or moment is present–he dances to the destruction of outdated world views, and ushers in new thought forms with every beat of his drum.
Read on an internal level (which is the way of the mystical yogi), we can do the same thing. Internally, our dance is centered in our heart and each heartbeat allows every moment to vibrate with new potential. Death is not final for Shiva, as it is also in many ways not final for us. Shiva sits within the cycles of birth and death, but he himself is deathless as he rests in the timeless continuum of total awareness and grace. What if, instead of thinking of death (of the body, of thought forms, of relationships, etc) as a finality, we thought of it as an adventure? A reason to step more fully into the timeless flow of grace that courses through us when we stop resisting it? Death can actually be the demarcation of a great transformation into a new way of life…a gateway to a resurrection of sorts. When we die to our old way of being (fear, pride, anger, resistance) we open the door for a new way of being (open, honest, in line with our integrity and graceful). And, as we watch others struggle within this cycle, we can keep our hearts open with compassion to encourage them through their journey. In every journey–whether it be other’s or our own–every hero goes through a transformation where either a part of them dies, or they themselves die, in order to embody heroism, which Joseph Campbell would call “living out of your own center.” In fact, every true hero must be willing to die in order to rise to the challenge, confront his or her fear and embrace courage. While heroes may encounter fear on their journey just as we do, a hero calls forth the courage necessary to overcome it.
Courage is what leads to the mark of the hero–the ability to live out of one’s own center and move (relatively) fearlessly through life. The image of Shiva as Nataraja exemplifies this idea symbolically. The dread-headed, radical, ash-caked god is dancing wildly within a ring of fire–the wheel of samsara–the cycle of birth, life, death. Or, in other terms, the constant replaying of our patterns, habits, thought forms and belief systems. This cyclical pattern dominates our life, particularly if we’re living on the outside of the wheel. Things may look good for a short time as we’re riding our way to the top, and once at the top we enjoy a brief moment of happiness, but it is fleeting as we start dropping toward the bottom of the wheel, only to be crushed by life and circumstances.
The wheel sucks.
Nobody likes the wheel. This is why Buddha’s main teachings are about the release from the suffering of this wheel. Jesus said, “whoever loses his life shall find it again,” to remind us that as we let go of our attachments (die a little bit) we discover the meaning of life. Nietzche said in Thus Spake Zarathustra, “you must be ready to burn in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?” With the symbology of Shiva being amidst the wheel covered in ash, it seems as if Nietzsche was bringing to life the very concept that this symbol evokes. Like the resurrection tales of mythological heroes and the beautiful phoenix, once we are consumed by the fire, we rise from the ashes with a new life, even if it is only a new outlook on life or a shift in perception.
Synchronistically, A Course in Miracles defines a miracle as a shift in perception. So, maybe we really have to look no further than our own internal source of strength and courage to invite miracles into our life. In the image of Nataraja, Shiva does this by symbolically sliding down the spokes of this great wheel of inevitable suffering to ride out the bumps and toils at the very center, the hub: his own heart. The center of our great wheel is at the same place. When we live from our own center, even when death touches us, we use courage (literally, the strength of our heart) to face the fear it shows us and allow the death to bring forth new life. Too many of us ignore death, tragedy, aging, calamity, hard times and even just the blues, when the secret is acceptance and rather than pushing it away–out to the edge of the wheel where the suffering is felt even more greatly–embracing it and letting the heart be our guide in even the most challenging times.
Dance the Dance of Shiva: How to Do Natarajasana
King Dancer’s Pose, Natarajasana, is inherently a heart-opening pose that requires the ability to move from one’s own center–the heart–in order to fully express the shape. While standing on one foot, grab the other from behind with the corresponding hand. Lift the heart in order to express the courage and compassion that the pose’s namesake encourages us to embody. Raise the free hand up and tilt forward, leading with the heart. As the foot kicks back into the hand, the body completes the shape of the great wheel of samsara, as we stand steadily balanced from within our center.
Great warm-ups for this pose include cobra pose (bhujangasana), bow pose (dhanurasana) and a standing quad stretch. Cobra pose, done by lying on the belly on the floor and using the back to lift up the head, chest and shoulders, is a nod to another symbolic element of Nataraja. In the image, Nataraja wears cobras like jewelry to express the fact that he has overcome fear in order to embrace the timeless flow of grace. Embodying the cobra in this mild backbend gives us a chance to express the same sentiment as we open our hearts and prepare for Natarajasana.
Bow pose (dhanurasana) is basically the same shape as Natarajasana, except we’re on the floor. This helps the body to take the circular shape with ease, not having to worry about balancing on one leg. By reaching back to grab both ankles while lying on the belly, we can use this heart-opening posture to embrace abhaya, or fearlessness, which Nataraja expresses with one of his right hands. His gesture of abhaya mudra (right hand held up) is a symbol for the courage that is cultivated when we’re able to move from our own center.
Finally, standing on one foot, and grabbing the other ankle with the corresponding hand is a great quad stretch in preparation for the pose. Nataraja also stands on one foot, though he stands balanced on a small demon known as avidya, or ignorance, which is one of the great obstacles to the realization of yoga. When we overcome it, as Nataraja has by standing on the demon, then we know ourselves to be intimately connected to our Self, and the universe. Overcoming this obstacle and making this connection is at the heart of being able to express compassion and courage, which is the heart of Natarajasana!
The earth turns on its axis once a day. We take a spin around the sun once a year. Autumn turns to winter which then yields to spring. Children grow up and turn into adults. The cycle of life is an inevitability that is present and constant in everything, and it reveals itself to us in every aspect of our existence. One of the great archetypes that embodies this constant narrative of change is the image of Shiva as Nataraja, the King of the Dance. This iconic representation stands amidst the wheel of samsara, a cosmic ring of fire that demonstrates the turning of all things within the cycle of renewal, sustenance and dissolution. Shiva is often thought of only as the god of destruction and death, but this image shows his ability to multitask not only as the one who presides over involution, but also as the one who gives us the tools to walk with grace through the fire.
When the fire burns hot, and the wheel is turning with a fervor, we often feel its fiery burn in our lives and want only to escape from it. But, there is another way. Within the form of Shiva Nataraja, we find bliss, transcendence and peace amongst the chaos, because even Shiva cannot stop the turning of the wheel. Nataraja stands within the ring of fire and dances. He moves to the beat of his damaru drum which is like the “tick tock, tick tock” of time passing, because though Shiva cannot stop time, he can engage in the timeless dance that honors its constant rhythm. His dreadlocks shake wildly as he jumps from foot to foot, all the while balanced on the demon of avidya, or ignorance. This small, undeveloped figure has not the strength and courage to know himself as anything other than his fleeting, deranged mortal form, and so he is not strong enough to stand up to the perennial wisdom of Lord Shiva. In one of Shiva’s hands, he holds the flame of vidya, or knowledge, ready to pass it over to us, knowing that the realization of oneself as timeless and deathless will bring the liberation from the stress and pain of being attached to this cycle of change.
After all, the name, Shiva, does derive from a root that means “liberation.”
Freedom is what this archetype is after. Freedom from the inevitable cycle. There is a difference between working to be free of the cycle and trying to stop the cycle. It’s the same difference between being a player on the football field and one who is merely in the stands and can leave at any time. The one who is the witness to the game can enjoy it, cheer when a team makes a touchdown and boo when the team loses. But, the investment in the game is for entertainment purposes, and the spectator of the sport ends up with far less bumps and bruises at the end of the meet. Shiva Nataraja is offering us this kind of freedom. One of his right hands is held up in abhaya mudra, which is the gesture of fearlessness–which arises when one knows fully one’s own freedom from the cosmic cycle. It’s almost like he’s pushing fearlessness and freedom toward us saying it can be ours, if only we embrace the change, accept its inevitability and dance with it like he does. This kind of fearlessness comes with knowing one’s own deathless nature and is the transcendence of time and space. That is the great cosmic trick, in fact. That though the mortal forms we inhabit and live with may change and die, there is an inherent energy within us that will continue on.
Like the pulsation of an atom. Like the wind that never tires as it circles the earth. Like the neutrinos from the sun that pass right over the earth and continue into the far reaches of space. Like the light from the supernova of a dying star that reaches us with its beauty even though it represents the passing of a phenomenal starry body. This is the celebration of the dance, the tandava of Shiva Nataraja, who’s fearlessness and freedom is rooted in one place. For all the movement, all the jumping and all the swaying of the dreadlocks, there is one place on Shiva that never moves, and that is his heart. If we trace the wheel of samsara to its very center, we land upon the steady place within Shiva amongst the movement. His heart is like the hub of the wheel that centers and stabilizes him within the great cycles of cosmic change. It is the same for us. We can be the ones who dance, who celebrate life’s ups and downs, who recognize all forms of death or dissolution as the substrate that brings new life. All the atoms present in our body were forged in the hearts of dying stars. Somehow those atoms made their way across time and space to vivify and sustain us. Shiva’s dancing form is like an atom at play with the nucleus in tact, because no matter what form the universe takes on, he is forever dancing.
When we are in the middle of our own cycles of life, we can stand amidst the wheel and move from our own place of steadiness, which allows us, as Joseph Campbell would say, “to live from our own center.” Living from our own center means that life (and death!) can happen around us and when the wheel rolls up or down, we are standing amidst the flow, steadfast in the knowledge that there is a part of us that is both birth-less and deathless, just like Shiva. Nietzsche said in Thus Spake Zarathustra, “you must be ready to burn in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?” Shiva, always covered in ash, has definitely arisen from his own flame as the symbol of one who is “ever-new” – which in Sanskrit is called pranavah. Pranavah is also the name for the cosmic sound of OM, that rings forth when the conch shell is blown. Shiva Nataraja holds the conch shell in one of his left hands honoring the all-pervasive vibration of OM as the timeless pulsation that connects us all.
This is what connects us. The subtle pulsation that drives Shiva’s dance, the all-pervasive vibration of the universe, the fact that no matter what form we appear in, the components of that form will always be in existence, just as we re-vivify that old, dying star. It’s a heartening concept within this great cycle of change, which is why it is probably obvious that Shiva is the patron saint of yoga. It was he who first was able to look with compassionate and connected eyes upon the universe knowing that it was all a part of him, and that though it might change and dissolve in front of him, it would never be entirely lost. This is what it means to move from one’s center. To know, within one’s heart of hearts that the great cosmic cycles are the play, the lila, of time and space, but that there is a part of us, the watcher, the one who is liberated, that ultimately is able to transcend time and space. We can do it if we take the flame of knowledge (vidya), stand on ignorance (avidya), embody fearlessness in the form of grace and dance wildly to the rhythm of our own heart.
*This article originally appeared in Yoga Journal Magazine, December 2013