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The Secret Tantric Teaching of Shiva Nataraja: Play More!

Statue of Dancing Shiva Nataraja


A widely held belief in the Tantric tradition is that the secret of the entire universe is hidden within the statue of Shiva Nataraja (the cosmic dancer). Shiva, who represents the vast, unbounded freedom of the soul, dances the eternal rhythms of life into existence for the sheer delight of it.


The spiritual journey, the path of the heart, is not meant to be a dirge. It’s meant to be a dance of the highest bliss and joy. But how do we access this bliss and joy?


The main teaching of the Nataraja is so basic and clear: PLAY MORE!

To really get underneath the concept of play, we first need to explore what is play and what’s in the way of our play?


Play is about being. It’s for no reason at all. If you ask little kids why they are playing, they will look at you weird. “Why are we playing?” “Because.” Because is the correct answer. What you probably won’t hear is this, “We’re playing to earn valuable coupon points at The Lego World!” 

children in a field playing with a toy airplane and a kite

Lila is the Sanskrit word for play. It means divine play, game, or sport. It refers to the divine play of the universe that exists in all of its infinite, kaleidoscopic and miraculous forms, with no apparent wind-up mechanism and no batteries.

Play is self-fulfilling. It’s for its own sake. Nothing more.

Work, on the other hand, is for a reason. There’s always some payback. It’s an exchange or a negotiation. I’ll do this for you if you do this for me.


In true play, there’s no exchange, no keeping score, no winners or losers. It’s about just being yourself, being in the present moment, being with what is. At its highest expression, kids become completely absorbed in their play. They BECOME what they’re playing. This is really a form of spontaneous meditation.


Additionally, play has many benefits in the development of the brain. It strengthens our ability to imagine, express, create, and role-play to experience things we might not otherwise experience.


I have a very fond memory of when I was a kid playing office with my older sister. I’m certain we played office to imitate my grandparents. My grandfather owned a parking lot business in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. We would often go to his office to play. My grandmother was the office administrator and we used sit and play on the floor while they worked. Then later that day when we returned home, we would play office. We had all of the props – a fake phone, desk, set of keys, blank purchase orders, tickets, play money, etc. For hours and hours we would make up scenarios at work and then play them out. It was great fun!


As adults, we can ask ourselves, what’s in the way of our play? What prevents us from really letting go and enjoying life? Is it that we feel we have to keep trying to achieve something? Is our worth attached to what we do? Or is it that we keep trying to change the unchangeable, resolve the unresolvable? We can exhaust ourselves with these pursuits which then leaves no energy left for play. 

man sitting on the edge of a bed in a dark bedroom

Of course, we need a good measure of work in our lives. Work permits the play to happen. It forms the boundary within which we can play and helps us afford to play.

It’s never a problem to work hard so that you can play hard.


But what is a problem is when all we do is work, leaving no space for play. Never a time to let go and chill out. Never a time to NOT ACCOMPLISH anything. Or what’s worse is, whenever we do play, we feel guilty. “Oh, I can’t play. I should be working now.” Guilty pleasure is the worst. And yet, how many of us have felt that way? I know I have.


When you’re clear that entering into a “play state” is really healthy for your body, mind, and heart, then you can leverage your life so you open up time for play in your calendar.


I have to schedule play into my calendar, otherwise I would never have enough time to do it. For me, play is my yoga practice, my meditation, skiing, biking, swimming, jogging, hiking, listening to music, dancing, and hanging out with friends. And, as you know, I love teaching yoga. For the last few years, I’ve been telling myself that teaching is like being on vacation for me. I’m so grateful for that. I purposefully bring play into my work. I believe that this is possible for everyone to do and it’s really necessary for longevity and peace of mind.


(And a secret benefit of scheduling regular play dates in your calendar is that when you feel recharged from your play, you work harder and get more done with less! I’m serious about this. Play enhances your work.)


If someone were to watch me exercise, they might see me grinding it out! Swimming, for example, is not easy for me, but I love it. I don’t just float and splash around. I work myself to derive the most benefit. Swimming on the U.S. Masters Team pushes me beyond where I would go myself. This produces the most profound benefit. My energy glows after practice.

male swimmer in a pool doing a butterfly stroke

The honest truth is that before practice I often feel exhausted. I usually swim at the end of the day because that’s when the team works out. I feel like I’m dragging my butt just to get into the water. But afterwards I feel like a million bucks. It works every single time without fail!


So, if no one has said this to you yet, let me be the first to encourage you to schedule PLAY into your daily or weekly activities and then prioritize your time as if it were the most important part of your day, week, and life. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter that you’ve accomplished amazing things or that you have millions of dollars saved up.


What matters in the end is that you enjoyed your journey, that you took care of yourself, and that you didn’t waste your entire life working. You played! You savored! You experienced your life and your relationships! You loved well! When you do that, then at the end of your life you can look back with gratitude, not regret, and say, “That was a hell-of-a ride!”


May you find the perfect balance of work and play in your life and may your yoga be filled with the highest bliss and joy!


I can’t wait to offer the enlightened and supremely freeing teachings of the Shiva Nataraja this February in the membership, one of my most favorite topics to teach! If you’re not already a member, I want to lovingly invite you to join the growing number of inspired heart followers!


I hope to see you on the mat.




Todd and the Ashaya Yoga Team

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