I had a brief exchange with a yoga student last week about the ego. He was struggling in a pose and exclaimed in obvious frustration,
“Why can’t I get this?!”
I instinctively responded,
“You’ve got to let that ego go!”
The student later questioned why I said what I did. I’m glad it came up because it gave me the opportunity to address the deeper, more meaningful layers of yoga.
A lot of people assume because Western yoga classes are mostly focused on poses, that yoga is primarily about physical fitness and stress-reduction, when in actuality the poses are very small part of what yoga encompasses.
The subject of the ego comes up often in yogic philosophy. We all have an ego and the ego can be helpful for some decision-making, but often the ego runs the show in inappropriate moments. For example, in class, if we are really determined to “get” a pose, we have to first consider the way we want to approach the pose so that we’re treating ourselves well and working with a healthy ego. If our first thought is, “I have to do this pose or else I’m worthless,” or alternatively, if our thoughts are, “I can’t do this pose, I shouldn’t even try,” we’re looking at two different kinds of egos— the powerful and the powerless.
In yoga, we’re trying to find the place in between where it doesn’t matter whether we “get” the pose or not, instead we can be content with where we are today. A healthy ego knows that with time and consistent practice, the pose will eventually come. There’s no need to self-abuse or self-judge in the process of getting there. The journey is more important than an attachment to the outcome. But very often we are our own worst critic and our ego can be quite destructive to our well-being. This is true for both men and women, and it shows up in different ways everyday.
This kind of contemplation is the heart of yoga. The poses are helpful because self-inquiry can start in a challenging pose, but it gets really interesting when we bring yoga out into the rest of our life. For example, if we’re in a heated argument with someone that we love, and they say something that triggers our ego, the work we’ve been doing in yoga class might prepare us to not be so reactive and instead make a different choice in how to show up in the conversation. Instead of our ego being offended, we can see that the person that we’re speaking with is upset and going through something themselves, and we can make a more loving choice in how to respond.
Unfortunately, there’s just not enough time to pause and discuss these subjects in the middle of an hour long yoga class. People pay me to teach them poses, not an exuberant amount of philosophy. Though, I always try to sneak some in.