Two Mondays ago I was having a discussion with one of our teachers, Hayley (@hayleybethyoga) at The Shala about practice, our lives, Ashtanga Yoga, why Ashtanga is so different, why it attracts less students than the abundance of the flow classes here in Pittsburgh, and more. We traded stories, thoughts, advice and teachings as good friends and yoga teachers do. Hayley (who gave me permission to share this story with you) then said to me matter of factly “I’m bored with handstands.”
I was a bit confused, and quite surprised, at this remark. I mean, first of all she is amazing with inversions, but, what’s boring about handstands?? They are challenging, fear conquering, invigorating, and the list goes on! So I asked, “What do you mean?”
“I’m bored with how I’m getting up into them. I just kick up with the same leg,” she said.
“Well, why don’t you practice kicking up with the other leg then? To make it less boring?” I asked.
“Because, I can’t get up into it as easily, or sometimes at all,” she replied.
“So what? Why does that matter?” I asked. “If you know you can do a handstand and hold it, and you are bored, then why not work on getting into it a different way? Why not kick up with the other leg, or practice “piking” into it? You already know you can do and hold a handstand, so why does it matter if you get into it or not?!”
And then it became crystal clear to her. Hayley’s frenemy, Ego, has been hanging out with her on the mat. “Because……um, because I like to hold a handstand and show other students in the class that I can do it,” she said with in a lower, humbled, slightly timid voice as she grinned and curled her shoulders in. She knew the answer the minute I asked her why she wouldn’t try it another way.
Some of us like to keep frenemies around. Some of us don’t. Most of us don’t have too much of a choice with Ego. Ego is essential to our very existence as human beings. Ego is actually our sense of self, our physical body and mind that are shaped by experiences, thoughts, habits, dreams and more. There are many descriptions and definitions of Ego (Freud, Jung, etc.), but since we are in the world of yoga and I don’t want this blog to be too long, let’s focus on Ego in the spiritual sense. Much of my description of Ego will originate from Hindu belief or background, but I think you will find that Ego is a constant, common thread no matter what religious or spiritual journey you are taking in this human life.
Ego, or “Aham” in Sanskrit, is the notion of “I”, or “me”. It is considering yourself to be distinct from others and God due to identification with the physical body and its impressions (samskaras) in various parts of the subtle body. It is the feeling of separateness, a sense of duality, being distinct or different from others. Ego makes us perform our actions out of desire for the fruit of those actions. Ego can ironically help or impede us on our spiritual journey. In Hinduism, there is no separately existing self, and those who continue to identify with the self will only experience suffering.
Why is Ego a frenemy? Passages from the Bhagavad Gita Chapters 6.5 and 6.6 read: “Let man uplift the self (ego) by the self; let the self not be self-degraded (cast down). Indeed, the self is its own friend; and the self is it’s own enemy. For him whose self (ego) has been conquered by the Self (soul), the Self is the friend of the self; but verily, the Self behaves inimically, as an enemy, toward the self that is not subdued.”
Say what??? Bear with me.
Paramahansa Yogananda explains these versus of the Gita: “The physical ego, the active consciousness in man, should uplift its body-identified self into unity with the soul, its true nature; it should not allow itself to remain mired in the lowly delusive strata of the senses and material entanglement. The ego acts as is own best friend when by meditation and the exercise of its innate soul qualities it spiritualizes itself and ultimately restores its own true soul nature. Conversely, the physical ego serves as its own worst enemy when by delusive material behavior it eclipses its true nature as the ever blessed soul”.
So, essentially, we need Ego to help us take the journey to realize our true divine nature, but Ego can be a major pain in the ass and get in the way of this aid if he identifies with and dwells on our physical senses, experiences, and attachment to the physical world.
Existing in a physical body and having a human (or other life/object in Hinduism) experience is a choice we made as spiritual beings. Without Ego, we would not have this human experience that identifies itself as “separate”. We would only remember our spiritual selves, and thus negate this experience that we chose to have and from which to learn and grow. When we are born we are clean slates. As we grow into teenagers and young adults, we move further away from our spiritual roots and identify more and more with Ego. As we head into our elderly years, many of us begin to awaken to the light within us. But how many years we have suffered before getting there? And will we ever get there, to understanding our ture, divine nature?
In order to progress spiritually, we must eventually conquer Ego, even though he is our friend in helping us to start and work through this process. How, exactly, can we do this? Meditation and undergoing study with a Guru to learn how to detach from “I” and realize the true “Self” which is everything, oneness, is one path. Another path, the path of yoga, can help us to come closer to this enlightenment at any age.
Let’s visit the Sutras for a moment here. Sutra 1.2: Yogas citta vritti nirodhah – Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. Yoga is the “quieting” of the mind. Mind chatter? Are we identifying with that? Often? Always? Sutra 1.3: Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam – Then the seer stands revealed in its true form. Once we shut off the mind chatter through the practice of yoga, once we stop identifying with it, we will then see our true Selves, our divine or spiritual Self. When we eliminate our egos, we see our true nature as everything. We no longer suffer, we become open, exist lovingly, and realize there is no need to become so attached to “I” because it in fact does not exist.
So let’s get back to understanding Hayley’s predicament here. Hayley practices yoga for both its physical and spiritual benefits, as many of us do. Yet here she is letting Ego get in her way. Get in the way of what? Progress, not just in her physical practice, but spiritually as well. As we step onto our yoga mats and set our “intention”, are we really setting it to our spiritual journey, to self-realization, to divinity, to oneness, to letting go of the “I”? Or are we identifying so much with the physical body and our mind chatter that we begin to let Ego take over and impede the purpose of our practice?
Practicing yoga is a wonderful way to practice detaching from Ego (“I” or “me” or this sense of “separateness”). It is very difficulty to practice this in any other setting, even meditation (I mean, if you can shut your mind off completely for minutes to hours at a time while sitting quietly in the same position then you are well on your way my friend and I commend you!), because of the constant chattering of our minds and the constant external stimulation of our lives (friends, family, work, TV, phone, computers, pets, children…..). When we take practice, we afford ourselves the opportunity to put those stimuli aside for 30 to 90 minutes and move, breath, concentrate, and maybe just maybe achieve meditation as well.
However, when we begin to take attachment to the physical practice and to our minds (keep Ego on the mat with us), we again impede our ability to progress spiritually. What does Ego feel like on the mat? Here are some examples:
“I want other students to see I can do this posture and how amazing I am”
“I look awesome in what I chose to wear for practice today, I wonder if anyone is noticing”
“I’m the most advanced practitioner here. Cool.”
“I suck. Look at everyone else how good they are. I’m terrible at yoga”
“I hope no one sees my fat hanging out in this posture, so embarrassing”
“Why is she so flexible? I wish I was that flexible!”
“Holy shit he is strong! Why can’t I be that strong?”
“I’m tiring of being stuck in this posture. When is my teacher going to give me the next one? ” (for you Mysore junkies ha-ha)
“I’m going to cry” and then you start sobbing…..uncontrollably….to the point that you are identifying with your emotions completely and now disrupting class. Yes, it does happen.
“I’m afraid, so I’m not going to do it” (To this Guruji would simply say, Why Fearing?)
“I’m tired of doing the same postures over and over”
“I know I can do postures from the next series so I’m done with this practice, I want to jump to some more advanced postures already!!!”
“So and so should be a vegetarian. What is wrong with him?”
And the list goes on. Over the course of 12 to 15 years of practice off and on, and the last 6 years of a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practice, I have experienced all and more of the above on my mat (well, except for the vegetarian comment……i eat meat. I'm married to a Cambodian, what can I say?). It is not easy to tell Ego chill out for an hour while you practice. But it IS possible. And remember, Ego sometimes can sound like this: "You can do it. You are strong enough. I know you are tired but keep practicing. Don't give up!" So many a days I have needed those words from Ego on my yoga mat!
Developing a personal, self-dedicated (there I go using the word self……think of it as spiritual-journey dedicated) practice will help us, over time, learn to tell Ego to hang out in the waiting area or just sit quietly with us while we practice. How can you develop such a practice? I love that Ashtanga Yoga makes it easy for us. You start with a set sequence, and build upon the practice sequencing under your teacher’s guidance. You work through the same postures with all their associated struggles until you begin to open up, get stronger, and make progress. You practice in a Mysore class setting, in which you are surrounded by other students doing work on their mats, but can practice at your own pace with your breath in silence. My experience in both practicing and teaching in the Mysore class setting is that Ego eventually does tend to quiet down. Maybe Ego comes in and tries to hang out for a while on some of the mats, but eventually he gets bored and leaves the room. In the Mysore class setting there is a strong but soft energy with light and strength, a sense of “oneness” as everyone takes practice alone but together. Ego simply dissipates while support, inspiration, and oneness arises.
My final reply to Hayley’s last response above was, “You are impeding your progress. Don’t worry about the end goal, work on the transition. This is how you will learn and grow stronger! (maybe I said in some nice form put your Ego aside??)” And so Hayley had a revelation (not that she didn’t know this already, right? Because she did, she just chose Ego over the journey!) that Ego was impeding her ability to progress both physically, and spiritually, during her sacred time on the yoga mat. And while it may take more time to eventually always leave Ego at the door (he may come and go on the mat for weeks at a time), this is simply part of the journey. Seek out teachers that can guide you with love and compassion and without their own Ego in the way. Remind yourself of why you take practice. If it’s because you want to lose weight or get more muscular, great, that’s awesome, but just remember you have a long way to go on your journey to self-realization, and that’s okay. If it’s because you want to grow spiritually, remember, you will stumble and fall and have set backs and frustrations and you will fight tooth and nail with Ego, but at least you are on your journey to self-realization.
“….the ego gropes in darkness, while the Self lives in light….”
-The Katha Upanishad