‘Is that real yoga?’
That was a comment from a passerby who chatted to us as we practiced our outdoor class last week.
It certainly felt very real to us as we all attempted to hold our active natarajasana!
Below is a photo of me in active natarajasana. Look, no hands!
If the passerby had have walked past a few moments later when I was in full natarajasana (picture at top of page) then no doubt she might not have even asked whether we were doing 'real yoga'.
The thing is, the top pose looks really impressive, but the active, less impressive looking one, is, in many ways, harder.
In this post I talk about how to progress to full natarjasana. A video of me coming into the posture is at the end of the post.
What is Active Natarajasana?
Active natarajasana is where you try to initiate the pose without using your hands.
It is relatively easy to pull your foot to your bottom using your hand.
It is much, much, much harder to try and draw your foot close to your bottom without using your hands and then try to push your shin back and foot up (still without hands).
It is challenging for a number of reasons.
For a start you are trying to balance on one leg as you do something tricky.
Then, while many people may have tight hamstrings, not many have strong hamstrings (note you can be tight and weak).
Bringing your heel to your bottom without hands activates hamstring muscles.
Try it yourself and see how much you can bend your knee.
If you are like many people it wont be very far.
In fact, you might be lucky to get it past 90 degrees.
Then, if you do manage, you might find that you start to get a cramp either in your calf or foot or hamstring or any combination of these and you somehow need to figure out how to come into the pose without this happening!
Here I had a special note, it helps if you do not point your toes and foot and if you move slowly.
Why would I do active natarajasana?
Active natarajasana does not look that impressive—until you try it for yourself!
I suppose that is one reason why the passerby thought we were not doing real yoga.
But active natarajasana will help your practice a lot.
Coming into poses actively helps you build strength and reduces the chances of overstretching. And I generally find that hamstrings are always in danger of being over-stretched by yoga students.
In this pose using the hip extensor and knee flexor muscles to draw the body into the posture will help opposing muscles (the ones that will be lengthened—the hip flexors) to relax.
This helps you come more deeply into the pose without feeling like you are stretching since the muscle is more relaxed.
That means you improve mobility.
You can also learn to relax chronically over-tense muscles.
Hip flexors are some of those muscles that tend to be chronically short and tight given most people sit with them in that position all day.
For some people this can, in turn, help relieve low back tension.
If you find you cannot lift the leg at all, then you can get good work with just toe tip on the ground, as shown below.
We don’t stay in active natarajasana, although some of us choose to. That is where we might be at.
If we want to move deeper, we then go to an active-assisted version of the pose.
What is active-assisted natarajasana?
The active assisted version is where you do take hold of the ankle.
It is the way that you take hold of it and what you do next that is important.
When you hold the ankle you cultivate a push-pull action.
That is, you try to push the ankle/shin into the hand as you pull with the hand (as though to bend the elbow).
When you do this you should find that some of the muscles that have been lengthened now start to activate.
They are activating in a lengthened state.
This posture is not about pulling your leg up with your hand.
After I push my shin into my hand I then push my foot up.
I will be able to take my leg higher in this way. But the key point is that it is still active.
At the same time there are other elements to the posture.
I am trying to unsquash my lower back through two main actions.
First, pushing sitting bones to heels and top of pelvis back., which lengthens lower back.
Second, by using the free hand to push the armpit forward and up, which has a whole spine tractioning effect.
Why do active assisted natarajasana?
Start by remembering, you don’t have to do it.
If you are in the posture you will find that the muscles that are being lengthened are now also being activated, which creates a relaxation effect when you come out of the posture.
That means you will have released even more tension in those muscles.
However, you are also teaching your body to be both strong and flexible.
Is this for everyone?
Well, you should let your comfort be the judge of that.
For people with chronic tightness in their hip flexors such that they tend to get aggravated with activation I tell them to stay with just the active version and avoid the active-assistive version.
That means they get the relaxation effect in their chronically tight muscles by activating the muscles on the opposite side of the joint.
As a teacher (remember you are the teacher of your own self as well even if you do not teach other people) you don’t take a one-size fits all approach to people’s bodies.
For people with chronic tightness in their hip flexors that get aggravated by activation, I also modify postures that tend to oblige hip flexors to be active.
While it might now sound like I am back-tracking on active movement, it is actually that I am using a whole of body approach to balance the activation that is required to move towards freedom.
Here it starts to get very technical and where you want to make sure you talk to a skilled yoga teacher before just reading something on a blog!
Below I have taken a video of me going through the steps to come into the full natarajasana. It takes a lot of shoulder mobility. It is definitely not for everyone. Most people I know cannot get enough shoulder rotation to do this and you must move slowly. I do not encourage people to try without a teacher's guidance and it is only shown for demonstration purposes. You can see that I let my hand go at key points and try to hold my leg in position without the hand for a small moment.
Have fun with your active natarajasana. You tell me whether you think that is ‘real yoga’ or not!!
I teach active movements in classes and workshops and this is definitely something we will workshop on our retreat in Bali. Spaces are filling up fast so sign up soon.
Happy and safe practicing.