Learning Bharatanatyam Helped Expand My Understanding of Yoga
Before last spring, I had a well-established yoga routine: my own daily practice, teaching three classes a week at a nearby community center, and a volunteer gig teaching inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.
Then the first wave of COVID-19 struck. All of my teaching opportunities evaporated as lockdown measures were announced. I clung to my home practice to preserve my equilibrium. As the months stretched on, I fell into digital escapism, and found myself wandering through videos of Indian classical dance on YouTube.
Randomly—although I would now say providentially—I came across a recording of Supratim Talukder, a Bharatanatyam dancer based in Kolkata, West Bengal. It stopped me in my tracks.
Bharatanatyam is a highly codified and demanding dance style. One of the oldest classical dance forms, it originated in Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu, in the southern part of India. The dance, with its intricate footwork, hand gestures, and facial expressions, is usually done by women dressed in the style of Tamil brides—draped in brilliant saris and heavily adorned with jewelry. During British colonial rule, Bharatanatyam was disdained, discouraged, and eventually banned. But it never died. Today it has reemerged not just as a temple dance, but as a secular celebration of cultural artistry practiced by both men and women.
In the first video I watched, Talukder was dancing an interpretation of the Shiva Tandava Stotram, a hymn celebrating Lord Shiva’s power and beauty. In another of his dance offerings, I was drawn into a narrative world where Lord Krishna dances with peacocks in an enchanted grove. Talukder’s abhinaya, the emotional expression that is so critical to this dance form, allowed him to play multiple characters within a solo performance. In one moment he was Krishna, bestowing his blessings on the forest of Vrindavan; in another, he was a dancing peacock.
Talukder had mastered the technical elements of Bharatanatyam—the rhythmic physicality, intricate hand gestures, and expressive mime. Using these skills, he seemed to shape-shift, and incarnate Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. As I watched him, I felt as if I were no longer just idly checking out another YouTube video; I was receiving darshana, a glimpse of the Divine.
See also: A Guided Dance Meditation for Manifesting Your Dreams
A journey into yogasana’s sister sadhana
As yoga teachers in the West, we owe so much to the cultural matrix of our practice. I believe that if we are to avoid falling into cultural appropriation, we must attempt, with humility and an open heart, to learn more about yoga’s origins. I wanted to explore the common ground between hatha yoga practice and Indian classical dance.
Seeing this dance form as the embodied sister art of yogasana, I wondered how studying it might inform my practice and teaching of yoga. For instance, might my teaching of Natarajasana change if I were not only familiar with the alignment cues, but had an embodied experience of the sacred Hindu stories of Lord Shiva?
I continued to visit Supratim Talukder’s YouTube channel daily for inspiration as I delved deeper into my own study of Indian dance. One day I discovered that Talukder, like so many artists whose performing careers skidded to a halt in 2020, was offering online classes.
I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about Bharatanatyam, but I was simultaneously terrified to start something as an absolute beginner at age 61. In India, young girls study for years to perfect the intricacies of the dance. It’s steeped in their culture. As much as I loved watching the dance form, I wondered if I would be able to connect with performing it as a white Canadian woman. And could I really learn it from a stranger on the other side of the planet? I didn’t know—but I felt compelled to try. I messaged Talukder, and we soon arranged one-on-one Zoom classes across a 10-and-a-half-hour time difference.
In the first class, I awkwardly made my way through my first Namaskaram—a movement prayer where the dancer gently touches the ground upon which she dances, then brings the hands to touch her eyes. The hands then come together overhead to acknowledge the Divinity, descend to the forehead to acknowledge the guru, then settle in front of the heart as the dancer bows reverentially. This final gesture acknowledges the rasikas, those who gather to experience the dance. This sequence is important to learn because every dance class or performance begins and ends with the Namaskaram.
Over several classes, Talukder taught me the principles of the dance. He emphasized that Bharatanatyam is not intended for fun or recreation or even performance. It is, first and foremost, a devotional practice. “We need to first internalize the essence of the dance form and devote ourselves bodily and spiritually to attain divinity,” he says.
There is so much to learn. As I write this, I have had 30 classes with Talukder, and he has introduced me to so many elements of this powerfully communicative dance idiom. The hand positions, Hasta Mudras, comprise an intricate gestural language, as do the precise eye movements and head positions. The rhythmic footwork and arm motions have become increasingly complex. I have even had lessons on mime. Talukder explains that abhinaya, emotional expression, shows not only on the face, but extends to every gesture made during the dance.
I have found Bharatanatyam to be a dizzyingly beautiful and incredibly demanding art form. Attempting to learn it challenges me on all levels: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.
Expanding Cultural Horizons
I’m embarrassed to say that before I started these classes I hardly knew where to find Kolkata, where my teacher is based, or Tamil Nadu, where Bharatanatyam originated, on the map. But I’ve slowly begun to dance my way into a more informed understanding of Indian cultural heritage. I’ve been moved to tears by the poetry and stories I’ve read. I’ve been captivated by the powerful imagery used to describe Lord Shiva in my Sanskrit translation work, and am delving into the teachings of the Bengali mystic Sri Ramakrishna. I’m learning how to drape a dhoti-style sari (the style classical Indian dancers typically wear) for practice.
Because I can ask my teacher questions about his culture and his approach to sacred dance, it is no longer an abstract educational pursuit on my part, but an investigation connected with another person’s lived experience.
I am beginning to see how this sadhana, the spiritual practice of Bharatanatyam, is transforming my more established practice of yogasana. The muscle memory I’m slowly acquiring through dance is making certain asanas more accessible. I’m experimenting with integrating some of the Hasta Mudras into my meditations, and some of the devotional storytelling into my personal practice and teaching. Everything is shifting and becoming new again.
As my dance Namaskaram takes its place alongside my Surya Namaskaram, I’m reminded that both Bharatanatyam and yogasana are efforts to rediscover our intimate connection with the Divine. I am so grateful that in this time of physical isolation, I’ve been gifted with this opportunity for transformative connection.
A Sequence to Help You Dance Away Your Stress
Why Drawing a Kolam Is the Perfect Morning Meditation—And How to Do It
What Is Yoga? A Practitioner’s Guide to Asana, Breath + Meditation
About the author
Kate MacDonald is a mom, a recent grandmother, a longtime yoga practitioner/teacher, and a new student of Bharatanatyam, living in Ottawa, Canada. She documents her yoga journey at sweetreecrone.wordpress.com.