Dance as Yoga

Ritual Offering and Imitatio Dei in the Physical Practices of Classical Indian Theatre

  • Elisa Ganser University of Zurich


In the Nāṭyaśāstra, two main types of physical practices are described in some detail: the so-called “bodily acting” (āṅgikābhinaya) and dance (nṛtta). Although their building blocks are to a large extent common, their purpose appears to be different: while bodily acting is used for dramatic mimesis, dance is said to produce beauty and to be auspicious. Peculiar to the technique of dance are the one hundred and eight karaṇas, complex dance movements that require great coordination, balance and flexibility. Sculptural representations of the karaṇas in the mediaeval temples of South India and in Central Java, as well as some interpretations by contemporary dancers, have elicited comparisons with yogic āsanas, notwithstanding the fact that the karaṇas were first and foremost codified in the context of Sanskrit theatre. More generally, the overlap between dance and yoga-related concepts and practices in antiquity has not been studied in depth. In this chapter, I investigate the connection of dance with the pūrvaraṅga, the preliminary rite that precedes the performance of a play, in order to highlight the connection of some of the physical practices described in the Nāṭyaśāstra’s chapter on dance with ideas of mental cultivation, ritual, and devotion. This connection is particularly evident in the case of the piṇḍībandhas, a set of movements of difficult interpretation that present ideological affinities with practices described in early religious sources, especially, but not exclusively, those of Śaiva affiliation. Finally, I argue that this interface between drama and ritual points to a shared ground for practices and beliefs connected with the body in ancient India.

Author Biography

Elisa Ganser, University of Zurich

Elisa Ganser, PhD (La Sapienza, Rome), is a researcher at the Department of Indian Studies of the University of Zurich, where she is currently working on a project on “Performing Arts and Religious Practices in Classical and Medieval Sanskrit Literature.” Her research interests cover the history of the performing arts, their aesthetics and religious uses. Before arriving in Zurich, she held post-doctoral positions in Paris, Leiden and Cambridge. She has published articles on Indian theatre and dance, a monograph called Theatre and Its Other: Abhinavagupta on Dance and Dramatic Acting (Gonda Indological Studies Series of Brill, Leiden, 2022), and two co-edited volumes, Theatrical and Ritual Boundaries in South Asia (CIS 19.1–2, 20.1), and Literary Commentaries and the Intellectual Life of South Asia (AS/EA 46).

How to Cite
GANSER, Elisa. Dance as Yoga. Journal of Yoga Studies, [S.l.], v. 4, p. 137 – 171, apr. 2023. ISSN 2664-1739. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 15 june 2024.