Yoga and the Ego

Ego.  You might hear that word and think of it in a negative context.  Yes, it can be, but also maybe not. What’s my point here? What does the ego have to do with the yoga practice?  And what is the ego anyway? According to Rolf Sovik, President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, “the ego is a familiar word with a commonplace meaning.  It refers to the ‘me’ that I carry around in my mind, or the sense I have of myself.  An ego may feel safe and self-confident, or it may feel threatened, ill at ease, or even injured.  An ego may be pressured by wants and desires, conflicted over awkward choices, or constricted by the demands and criticisms of others.  We can get a sense of the relative size of the ego by listening to the way in which we use four common words: I, Me, My, and Mine. These words certainly have a role to play in everyday thought and speech, but they are often laced with extra emphasis.  Although the ego strives for balance and pleasure, it is not always a source of pleasure and delight.”

In normal, everyday interactions, we can watch the ways in which we alter reality in order to shield our ego.  Those small exaggerations, over-emphases that suggest something untrue, withholding information, and downright lying all reveal attempts of the ego to smooth the way for itself.  In the yoga practice, it is very easy to allow the ego to lead the practice. To allow the practice to be more about the “I, Me, My, and Mine,” especially with the modernized explosion of the practice via social media.  In my own experience, the yoga practice started with the ego. And I’m not talking about the ego that challenges me and helps me learn how to balance between what feels good and what is causing harm. I’m talking about the ego that is driven with competition and achievement.  How quick can it take me to press into a handstand? Can I achieve this posture before “what’s her name?” How amazing do I look in this difficult parivrtta surya yantrasana? How remarkable do I sound when I use the proper Sanskrit for pose names? Some fear that the goal of yoga is to annihilate the ego.  To destroy it. Some argue that the ego supplies an identity that should be abandoned and that mediation threatens the very fabric of that self. Yogis are surprised by such thinking. To them, the ego is an instrument to be used for as long as it will take to reach an even more profound state of self-identify.  So how do we find balance between the good and the bad?

The yoga practice, for me, started with competition – an ill environment that did not utilize the teachings of the yoga practice in a traditional or well-mannered fashion.  It consisted of teachings well beyond practicing what is preached. In time, I learned how driven the ego, my own ego, had of my yoga practice. Not the ego that assisted in challenging the body, but the ego that aided in harm.  The yoga practice was less about learning from the mat and utilizing those same tools in everyday life and more about how much I could achieve in a physical sense. “Let the breath guide the posture. If it causes pain, don’t do it.”  Those cues, those statements did not resonate with me. I was above those cues because I had the perfect practice others could not achieve. I was the beginner yogi attaining postures that took others years to access. Talk about an ego trip, am I right?  I scroll through old social media posts and find myself snickering at the way my practice appeared to the outside eye. What was I thinking? Just that. A learning experience. An ego-led practice. What does that even mean? What did I learn from it? And how did I overcome it?

I cannot begin to stress how important working within the “four corners of the mat” is when it comes to the practice of yoga.  Your body, your mind, your practice is sacred. A sacred space for you to evolve, to learn, to grow, to challenge, to lead; and you only have one body and one life to do so.  Carry that heavily in the soul, into the depths of the heart. Let the ego guide you as it challenges the mind, but do it no harm. I overcame that competitive side of me, the ego-driven practice, through time, trial/error, evaluation of self, and support.  I surrounded myself with a group of like-minded yogis that supported one another through the entire practice. Let me stress the entire practice here. After all, asana, the physical practice, is merely one of the EIGHT limbs of yoga. Yoga isn’t just moving the body.  The original purpose of yoga was spiritual development practices to train the body and mind to observe the self and become aware of individual nature. The purposes of yoga were to cultivate discernment, mindfulness, and self-regulation leading individuals to a higher level of self-actualization.

These yogis that consumed my being were those that supported and uplifted each other; but also those kinds of people that knock you off of the soap box when you build it too high.  These individuals reinforced my desire to push my body to the brim, but also confronted me to witness the cause of what was leading my need to push my body and soul to the edge. These are the people that encouraged me to explore, to dive deeper, but also assisted by allowing my mind to learn for itself.  They aren’t the type of people that brag or made the practice about achievement. They are the type of people that challenge you to notice why a certain posture, sequence or movement made you feel the way that it did. No “atta boy” here; but more “Hmm lean into that feeling and notice what comes up for you.”

If you decide to step foot into my classroom, or if you have been an individual student in my class and said the words, “I want to do a headstand.  I want to make sure I’m doing it [yoga] right. I want to know how to achieve a difficult backbend,” then you know where I’m going with this conversation.  You’ll constantly here me say the words that “yoga isn’t about touching your toes,” “There is no such thing as an end goal in yoga as the body is constantly evolving and changing,” and “There is no right or wrong in yoga, only safe and unsafe.”  Yoga is a practice of balance, a dance of the ebb and flow between control and surrender. Yoga is a space where you learn the body, the mind, and also learn how to utilize the concepts, the thoughts, the feelings that arise on the mat and take them with you as you leave the four corners behind.

In conclusion, I offer you an invitation to notice your own ego.  Notice the balance you might have between challenging the body and mind and taking it too far.  Notice if you’re pressing your strength to the brim for achievement or if those thoughts, feelings are present for another purpose.  There is no right or wrong way to do yoga. There is no ultimate purpose. The practice of yoga is ever-evolving and changing based on the needs, wants, and desires of the practitioner.  And guess what? Everybody is different. Quite literally.

aubrey bates