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Your Ego and Your Yoga Practice

Posted Mar 13 2008 3:27pm 3 Comments

The American Heritage Dictionary defines ego as:

  1. The self, especially as distinct from the world and other selves.
  2. In psychoanalysis, the division of the psyche that is conscious, most immediately controls thought and behavior, and is most in touch with external reality.
    1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit.
    2. Appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem.

Some say our ego protects us, others say our ego is what separates us and causes suffering. Ego was the topic of Monday's A New Earth Webcast and I think that many of the points addressed can be applied to your yoga practice. Here are a few parallels (drawn from the book as well as the online workbook on Oprah's Web site):

A New Earth: In childhood, we start looking for a sense of self in the things we want and get. "My toy later becomes my car, my house, my clothes" (p. 35). Things themselves are not bad, but our identification with those things keeps us unsatisfied and unhappy.

Yoga: Do you identify too much with the term yogi? Is your yoga practice an obsession or a bragging point (your friends/family will think you're cool because you practice the ever-popular yoga or they'll be impressed that you can stand on your head)? Do you feel superior to others because you're a yogi? Do you often work the fact that you're a yoga practitioner into a conversation as a way of increasing your sense of self worth?

A New Earth: "Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. Resistance is an inner contraction, a hardening of the shell of the ego. You are closed. … When you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. … Your action will be in alignment with the whole and supported by creative intelligence. …" (p. 57–58).

Yoga: How do you approach your yoga practice -- do you push your way through or do you flow by allowing your body to be as it is? Do you feel the need to "keep up" or do a certain type of practice to satisfy your ego?

That pesky ego of ours tends to follow us around. The question is -- it is on the yoga mat with you; or worse, is it calling the shots in regards to your yoga practice?

I attended a yoga event some years ago and all of the participants were asked which category of yoga student they fell into -- beginner, intermediate, or advanced. What struck me was the criteria they gave for intermediate-advanced. The folks who put on the event felt that execution of Wheel pose qualified a practitioner as intermediate-advanced. Despite the fact that I can -- and often do -- Wheel, in my mind this doesn't make me an intermediate yogi. When being posed with the question of what level of practitioner I was, I was thinking more along the lines of "Despite the fact that I've been practicing for years, I still think of myself as a beginner." I was approaching the question from a bigger perspective I suppose -- I wanted to consider myself a beginner because I was constantly learning new things each day I unfurled my mat and I wanted to always approach my practice with a beginner's mind.

Despite my best intentions and my awareness of my ego, I still find myself, on occasion, in the position of letting my ego dictate my practice. I especially notice this when I'm in a class. I'm not sure if it's conditioning from years of school, but I do find that the whole "I want to please the teacher" mindset comes into play. I want to do things "right." I know that there is no "right" pose and that there's only the right pose for me, but still I feel these feelings rise to the surface.

Once I took a class with a lovely teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed the class, during which I noticed that the teacher gave a lot of personal attention to the students along with multiple adjustments. After class, the teacher struck up a conversation with me in which she said something to the effect of, "I can see that you've been practicing for a while. Your poses look wonderful and the way you adjust yourself says that you're a pro." AAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH -- while the words were meant to be complimentary, I found myself feeling put-off by them. It's not that the intent behind them was bad and that I didn't appreciate the praise -- I just didn't care for the delivery because I felt that it set me up to "perform" in class. Needless to say, I never went back to that class.

I can remember one time during the early days of my practice when I gave my ego free reign. I had been doing a fairly strong home practice for some time and after a few classes at a local studio I had pushed myself beyond the limit. My hamstrings weren't merely sore -- they were screaming. Yet I rose the next morning at 5:00AM to gut my way through another strong practice. Later that day I was practically hobbled and it struck me that I was acting in total opposition to the heart of yoga. I wasn't practicing holistically; I was practicing egomanically. I ended up laying off my practice for a few weeks (it took some time before my hamstrings healed up) and I really missed it. I remember that feeling of pushing beyond my body's limits and not listening to my body's signals. I can happily say that I've never repeated that experience.

There have been times that I've practiced yoga obsessively, over-identified with the fact that I practice yoga and felt superior to others because of my "yogic ways." Yeah, my ego doesn't want to admit any of that, but it's true. I've let my ego drive the bus on more than one occasion. Now I try to be aware when ego rears its head. I'll acknowledge that it's there but I don't let it take over my practice like I used to.

Years after that yoga class experience I went to a yoga workshop in which the teacher had us doing a practice that I felt was a bit dangerous. We were continually told to push ourselves and "go through the pain." It was the end of a long day (that had been filled with asana), and I was tired. I was also feeling like I was being pushed into an unsafe practice. I ignored my ego's desire to push through (and to please the teacher and do as she was instructing us) and finish the class. I rolled up my mat, collected my belongings, and walked out. My ego was thinking "quitter," but in my heart I knew that I had done the right thing for me.

So what do you do when your ego shows up on your mat? I try to gain perspective by looking at the glaring signs:

1. Am I in pain? How is my breathing?

As far as my yoga practice goes, I don't believe in the "no pain, no gain" theory (actually that belief extends beyond my yoga practice). If it hurts, I'm either pushing because my ego is telling me how far I should go. My breathing also clues me into what's happening in my practice. I use the breath as my barometer -- if it's erratic and choppy, then I need to back off. If I'm holding it -- that's a huge red flag -- then I'm pushing way too hard and I've gone from the realm of yoga to exercise.

2. How am I feeling about practicing?

If I'm feeling "put upon" and there's no joy in my practice then I check in with myself to see what's going on. I attended a workshop with Mark Whitwell in which he spoke about practicing obsessively with a goal in mind. I was so happy he brought that up because early in my practice I did practice obsessively. It was something I was doing because I told myself to do it rather than for the sheer pleasure of it. If I'm practicing because I think I need to in order to call myself a yogi, then it's ego. If I'm practicing because I want to get into an unassisted handstand then it's ego. If I'm practicing because I think that doing so makes me important or loveable or better than others -- whoa, that's ego. It's not bad to have goals -- you just have to be able to walk the fine line between I want and I should.

3. Am I identifying too much with a specific type of yoga?

For a few years after the start of my regular practice I was a vinyasa yogi. If I tried another style of yoga, I haughtily thought, "This isn't REAL yoga." Ummmm...yeah, hello there ego. Needless to say I was identifying a lot with a certain style of yoga because I thought that it said something about me and my abilities. What it really said about me was that I was letting my ego run roughshod over me.

4. What's the voice inside your head saying?

If the message loop inside your head is playing on negative, then you might want to stop and take a moment before stepping onto the mat. Are you thinking you "should" be practicing? Are you thinking that your practice isn't "good" enough? Are you thinking that your body looks "bad" in your yoga pants? Are you beating yourself up because you're struggling in a pose? Are you beating yourself up because the pace of your practice isn't swift enough? One of my turning points was when I literally fell over during a balancing posture. Rather than beat myself up, I laughed and praised myself for going all out and trying.

I always suggest to my students that they notice what's going on when they unroll their mat. I tell them to draw their attention to their emotions and the sensations in their body. If you take a moment or two before you begin practicing you might gain some awareness around your practice in relation to your ego. Maintaining that connection throughout the practice can be helpful as well. For that, I suggest using the breath. The quality of the breath is a sure sign as to what you're doing in your practice. Forcing, holding, and lack of depth are a sure signal that you're forcing rather than flowing.

Just a little something to think about. Ask yourself the questions above and see who's doing the answering -- you or your ego?

Namaste!
Comments (3)
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I'm in Los Angeles, which is the Western center for yoga and absolutely the wrong place to be if you don't want your ego to be tested to the limits with your yoga practice. It seems like a large percentage of yogis here are young, attractive women who grew up as dancers and gymnasts and can twist themselves into a pretzel. Around those women, I will ever be the "beginner," since I have congenitally tight hamstrings that aren't going anywhere. And yet, it depends on where I go do yoga.

I have one class I pop into regularly where all the women are older, overweight, and I end up being the most flexible one in the class.

I'm doing yoga teacher training in a week and I can't do wheel and I don't care. I maybe would have cared a year ago, but I just finally realized that more people are like me than not like me. Meaning, there are a heck of a lot of people out there who can't bend themselves in half. There's way too much yoga in LA for thin, young, athletes. There's not enough people here who want to teach yoga to older, slower, overweight people. But there's obviously some demand for it - in the class with the older women, they follow that teacher wherever she goes.

My worth as a yoga teacher will not be how well I can twist my body around but how well I understand the concepts of yoga and how good I am at teaching them. Furthermore, the better I am at dealing with people who can't naturally do the poses (people like me), the more valuable I will be. So everything that my ego would want from yoga, i.e., the ability to do well at certain challenging poses, is precisely that which would hamper my compassion and understanding as a teacher to those with flexibility problems.

In this way, I see my limitations as a gift.

Otherwise, the yoga identity has not overtaken me as much as say, the surfer identity I took on when I first started surfing. But I was much younger then...and I'm older and wiser now. :-)

"My worth as a yoga teacher will not be how well I can twist my body around but how well I understand the concepts of yoga and how good I am at teaching them. "

Very, very well said. Would that more teachers had this attitude!

I try to avoid the American Heritage Dictionary :-)
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