Since only a superficial interpretation of the 8-Fold Path would imagine Patanjali was suggesting that to achieve enlightenment one must practice yoga postures, what wisdom is being offered to us here? For one (and I mean that literally), ASANA is singular, not plural. So right away we know that this isn't about yoga postures. But it IS linked to right posture, at least as a symbol.
But here Patanjali, in the great tradition of hoary sages down through ages, throws out a red herring (actually, as I understand it, he didn't eat herring. Perhaps if he had encountered a red herring, he would have thrown it out. Well, no sense speculating.) Indeed, one of the almost tongue-in-cheek aspects of these bearded sages is the use of words that have not just multiple meanings but meanings that might throw you off the scent unless you have a wise teacher or developed intuition! (Omar Khayyam, in the Sufi tradition, used images of wine and romance to disguise his true wisdom.)
To be consistent with my prior two articles, let us find the key by examining the third stage from the point of view of its elemental quality: FIRE. If we think literally of fire (as in "How do you combine earth and water to produce fire?"), we might miss subtler points. Think, instead, of the fire at the center of the earth. In this molten chamber, the molten (liquid-water) meets the earth in high temperatures. As the stomach converts both beverage and meal into energy at the center of our being, the third stage, ASANA, is aligned with the third chakra, opposite the navel. FIRE then refers to the otherwise unseen, INNER energy that vitalizes all atoms and molecules, whether of earth or water (meaning anything in liquid form). (Did I mention in the previous two articles that the first stage, YAMA (earth), has its energy center (vortex or chakra) at the base of the spine? And, that NIYAMA, the second stage (water), is opposite the sex organs?)
Fire in the belly in relationship to the word ASANA (posture) hints at the straight posture of the meditator. It is this inner fire of energy which is reflected in the straight spine and conveys alertness, energy, vitality, and the drive and self-initiative of one who stands tall and walks and talks straight.
Whereas with the first two stages of our path toward enlightenment we are struggling with overcoming the hynosis of matter attraction, ego affirmation or protection (YAMA), and with establishing good habits and becoming self-sufficient (NIYAMA), the inner path of Self-realization through meditation could be said to begin in earnest at the third stage, ASANA. Paramhansa Yogananda taught that there exists at the manipur chakra (opposite the navel) a subtle passageway known as the brahmanadi which is the doorway to our soul consciousness. This article is too brief to explore this vast and technical subject more than superficially, but suffice to say the deeper meaning of the inner fire is that we go within, seeking ot unite with the prana (Life Force) within ourselves as the object of our aspirations.
When the intelligence and energy of ASANA spills one-sidedly out into the world of the senses we exhibit anger, ruthlessness or controlling and abusive tendencies. It is the destructive aspect of fire. The straight spine with a vengeance, so to speak, creating hell on earth for everyone around you. But turned within, this is the fire and energy of prana. It can serve as a lantern to guide our path upward in the labyrinth of the inner path and spine. It offers us zeal and strength, self-control and yields the fruits of health and vitality.
On the level of daily life, it has been well documented, even if anecdotally, that a straight spine adds years of healthy, zestful living to one's life. One with correct posture tends to think straight and act with honor and virtue. It represents that stage of maturity where values, mores, and good habits have been internalized and made our own. No longer is our behavior the product only of outward influences, reward and punishment.
Let's not forget that the practice of yoga postures can contribute to both a straight spine and the deeper aspects of vitality and self-awareness suggested by the third stage of the 8-Fold Path. Whereas the aspect of self-control exhibited by the power of YAMA is in relation to the objects of senses, the Self-control of the FIRE element relates to our determination and enthusiasm for Self-realization through meditation. ASANA is the power to control the body in order to be still (and "know that I AM GOD").
There is also a creative aspect to fire. The reproductive creativity of the WATER element (sacral center or swadhistan chakra whose intelligence guides the reproductive organs) is in relationship or in response to the world around us (especially people and circumstances). The creativity of the FIRE element comes from within. It manifests new ideas and new projects without necessarily any obvious outward influences or compulsions. It is just this kind of inner drive that is the necessary foundation for one who meditates. No one can meditate for you. Meditation is creative because it opens us to the world of endless possibilities and inspirations.
Very few people have good posture. You will find how good posture will help your digestion and convey that sense of vitality and righteousness that can help both your meditation and your life. There are yoga postures that can help ignite the fire in the belly. In chakra meditations there are "bandhas" (locks) used at the navel (manipur chakra) center that can stimulate the life-giving, uplifting intelligence prana of the third chakra whose awakening is the third stage of the 8-Fold Path: ASANA.
See you next week, with PRANAYAMA!