Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Most of us usually start practicing yoga to become more grounded, to silence the mind, to connect with our own body and deepen into ourselves, to become more physically and mentally flexible, to become more physically and mentally strong, to stand tall during challenging times.... and the reasons go on. But what can we say about the relationship between yoga and the EGO? When are we connecting and letting go and when are we allowing our own EGO to run and define our practice for us? Can we tune into that? When we tune into that during our practice, how does it feel? How does it feel to realise that the EGO (separate from the self) is the one on the mat? When we confront it, does it fight back? First, we need to understand what spiritual Gurus define as "the EGO"
My definition based on what I have learned so far: The EGO is the story that has developed in our minds from the day we are born to this very moment that is hard at work, creating a bullet-proof identity card of the self, a strong belief of "this is I", triggered mostly by our external World, how we interact with it, presenting itself through energy, feelings, thoughts, emotions, actions, without the exclusion of sexual experiences, sexual behaviour, sexual arousal, sexual emotions and sexual sensations (extremely interesting just how massively our sex life is connected to our past experiences and beliefs about ourselves but that's another topic for another time)
Our EGO is an essential part of who we are and it is here to serve us. Having an EGO is so important for so many reasons (also another long topic for another time) but in modern life and with all the expectations and challenges it comes with, our EGO can get in the way and be completely counterproductive to our goals and desires. We need to outsmart our EGO if we are ambitious, goal driven and in search for higher purpose in life and this goes hand in hand with our yoga practice. Being on our mat is where we can truly learn how to identify and separate the two. The saying "how you do anything is how you do everything" stands true here too. How you behave on your mat is likely how you behave off your mat and yoga is an opportunity to slow the mind and listen. Are you willing to push beyond your boundaries in a pose just so you can look good in it? If you are a front-row yogi, what's the reason?
I am a front-row yogi and never gave it any thought until a practitioner came to one of my less challenging vinyasa flow classes. She pulled me aside before the class started and gently whispered "I have been practicing for a very long time so I will be in the back of the class as I wouldn't want to be a distraction". This stuck in my head for days and made me question why I have to get to a class early so that I can be in the front. I meditated on it, I quieted the EGO and took a real good look inside. Turns out I have always been a front-row student. At school, at seminars, at events and workshops, even at the cinema I need to be as close to the front row as I feel comfortable (some front rows are stiff-neck-inducing). This is because I like to pay very close attention to everything I engage in. What also came up is that I push myself harder when I am at the front of the class, which is the EGO creeping up and trying to take ownership of my practice. As I became aware of this, I decided that I am willing to give it a piece of the pie, as long as there is a strong element of respect that comes with it. As long as I am not focused on how I look in the pose but I am finding that loving and nurturing sweet spot that feels right in my body. As long as I manage to keep connected to my flowing breath and internalise the practice like if the class was empty, still aware of the reality that surrounds me but using the EGO as a tool to strengthen my body and mind rather than giving into it, allowing it to be in control then finding this balance with it, befriending it rather than labelling it as damaging and pushing it away, this is how I manage to keep my practice authentic to my current spiritual aspirations. And it will not always go smoothly, it can be smart and creep up behind me in surprising ways that confuse me and make me question my whole inner World, there can be conflict when temptation arises to "be good at it" (childhood pressures in exchange for some sort of approval from parents or others) for the sake of putting on a show for strangers (metaphor: parents or others) that are likely not even paying attention, some of which will never see me again. It is an interesting concept. If you resonate with my experience, we are giving in to the walls that the EGO is trained to put up, instead of allowing ourselves to let go, be vulnerable and learn to find peace in our heart
Then there are those who see yoga as exercise and that's about it. In this case, they are practicing the third limb of the eight limbs of yoga: Asana. They are not practicing yoga as a whole, they are just practicing yoga poses (which do have a spiritual effect on the mind and release tension from the body, of course). Goal-focused exercise is great for motivation. Motivation gets us up and moving. Anything goal-focused can be said to be EGO-driven and this is when, I believe, the EGO can serve us as long as we are doing it for the right reason. Loosing excess body fat and building muscle is good and healthy, but when the EGO gets overly attached to the aesthetic physical aspect of it then in some cases it can become extremely unhealthy, dangerous, mentally challenging, anxiety and stress-inducing and just not a great way to live our lives. Even if we are doing it for the purpose to influence others, our mental health can be taking a toll. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to look a certain way and for putting in the necessary work in order to achieve it, the problem appears when we overly identify with the illusionary story of how we are "meant to look" based on ego-driven ideologies that are not real. Another problem is when these ideas of how "we should look on the outside" aren't actually ours, but induced into our subconscious mind from social conditioning and the toxicity of the superficial World we are currently living in and so hugely influenced by. When the pressures of looking a certain way become too strong, that's when we need to drop the EGO and think about a more suitable story to feed our mind with. As a nutritionist, I get loads of clients who are already slim, they just can't figure out how to get skinny. So I ask them why they want to get skinny. They say "because it looks nicer". I ask "who told you that?" and other questions that challenge their psychological programming. We very quickly come to realise that they are attached to an unhealthy story the EGO made up based on what it has absorbed from its environment. We then go on to creating a new story. One that is based around the feeling of health, which may translate into gaining a little weight, which we make sure becomes muscle instead of excess fat. We reprogram the EGO into wanting a body that may be slightly fuller and "shapier" than the skinny stick figure they originally had in mind but feeling switched on, healthy and confident. This is how the EGO can serve us. This is how we become in control of it, rather than it controlling us as we blindly believe what it says and do as we are told
Some of the yoga classes I teach are purely just for exercise and fun, and this is because I had to adapt my teaching style to what works in the Western World, mainly UK where I live. Teaching yoga as a pathway to spiritual health requires consistency and you just cannot provide that journey when you get 60% regular students and 40% random drop ins
I therefore have smaller groups, completely independent from yoga studios. 100% of students are on board for the journey and show up to every single session. We get together, open our hearts, be vulnerable together, allow ourselves to truly feel the pains and pleasures of life, even those that we have been bottling down for years, learn how to silence the EGO and practice the 8 limbs of yoga. Not just Asana. Similar to how it is taught in India (if you'd like to know how you can join one of these groups, alone or with a group of your own, send me an email at email@example.com or DM me on instagram or Facebook)
A very short summary of the 8 limbs of yoga:
Yama (moral conduct): to not hurt or harm others, truthfulness, do not steal, continence, and non-covetousness
Niyama (religious observances): purity of body and mind, contentment in all circumstances, self-discipline, self-study (contemplation) and devotion to the higher intelligence and consciousness we are all a part of
Asana: physically performing yoga poses (the practice of posture)
Pranayama: control of prana, the subtle life currents in the body (awareness and control of the breath, conscious movement of energy within stillness of the body)
Pratyahara: interiorisation through the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses (releasing into the deeper sheaths of consciousness)
Dharana: focused concentration; holding the mind to one thought or object
Dhyana: intentional meditation and concentration
Samadhi: state of meditative absorption, attained by the practice of Dharana and Dhyana
In reality, the EGO gets a very unfair bad rap. Some practices even intend to dissolve the EGO completely and aim towards living in a human state of enlightenment and bliss which, very frankly, to me sounds a little unrealistic (not meaning to be judgemental) for most who are living in the civilised parts of the World. The creator of the Universe, this higher power of intelligence that created "all that is" will have given us an EGO for a very valid reason and trying to live a purely spiritual life in a physical body sounds to me like more of a search for Universal "truth" and connection to the source (which no doubt can be a beautiful experience) rather than a solution to human suffering. My view on this is that if not done properly and in the presence of a master, going on a journey like this can in some cases cause more harm than good and detach us from reality. Some can end up getting too fascinated and even obsessed by believing this is the answer to something they may be feeling inside without realising that it may be more productive to target the root cause before engaging in a journey of this nature. Sometimes it can be useful to take a step back and ask ourselves how we can live a life that's fun and fulfilling while practicing yoga (all eight limbs) and working together with our EGO, being in control of it rather than allowing it to be us completely and definitely rather than silencing it completely. Balance equals bliss. When everything is in balance, everything flows. Now despite sharing my honest thoughts (that may transform one day, as most things do) I am hugely appreciative to the Masters and Gurus who follow these deeply spiritual practices as they have discovered and experienced realities we can learn a lot from. Hugely appreciative of all they have shared and continue to share as they are our true teachers and influencers. Thanks to them, we have access to a wealth of spiritual knowledge and can choose to follow the path of their discoveries and wisdom whenever we feel a calling for this kind of experience
That being said, let's try to not confuse the meaning of EGO with Tapas. Growing a yoga practice as a form of self-care is not a thing of the EGO but instead has a lot to do with Tapas, which means discipline to confront disempowering thoughts that move us away from our goals on and off our mat. Tapas does not mean we need to practice the most challenging form of yoga we can find, it does not mean to push beyond our boundaries (this is EGO). Tapas is to be disciplined enough to show up, to meditate for a minute longer each day, to be consistent with whatever it is we are practicing. Tapas can also mean to be disciplined enough to not follow what the teacher suggests but to do what feels best in our body in the moment, even if this means resting in child's pose while the class goes ahead.
As my yoga practice started to get more advanced, I started questioning how much of it was EGO driven and how much was actually the practice of TAPAS. I thought deep down that one of the reasons I built such a strong practice is because of my EGO. I confused this with mental strength and resilience. While attending group classes, I felt there were times in which I stayed in the pose, shaking and wobbling, not wanting to be the first one who comes out of the pose, staying with that struggle while knowing that if nobody was watching I'd already be in Savasana, knowing that if I was doing this at home I'd already be in the kitchen having a snack and thought this was driven by my EGO and to some extent it very likely was but in reality, I just needed to work more on Tapas when I was not surrounded by people and I needed to worry less about how I wanted people to to see me, which was something I dragged along into my adulthood from when I was a child and no longer served me.
There can be a fine line between nurturing Tapas and nurturing our EGO though, so how can we learn to identify and separate the two? When do we identify ourselves with our practice? If I manage to get into a certain pose today but struggle tomorrow, does that define me or remove a part of my identity? does it confuse me because the EGO has lost its sense of "the self"? If I attempt pincha mayurasana over and over and even after two years of practice I still can't hold it, does that add to the story I tell myself I am, the story I identify myself with? does it change it? does it reinforce something I "already know" about myself? does it reinforce the negative self-talk of not being good enough? we can use these situations to change the story we tell ourselves about who we are meant to be because the EGO is imaginary, it is made up by us and this is the true power that it holds, this is how we can use it to behave in a way that serves us, we just have to change our story. Regular yoga practice forces us to look within and see things we usually wouldn't while we are distracted with life. Yoga is one of the best therapies we can use to transform our story and find ease and fulfilment with who we are, as long as we are present during our practice
Truth is, having a healthy amount of EGO can boost endorphins and soothe depression when managed well and not attached to negative outcomes. When approached with an open mind, having a healthy EGO can motivate us to exercise more and eat healthily. Self-care is driven by EGO too "I need to exercise" "I need to moisturise my skin" "I need to brush my teeth" and these are all thoughts that lead to actions that serve us. The same goes for gaining success in life. We feel good when we achieve things. This feeling leads to more similar actions that lead to more positive outcomes, leading to us feeling positive, happy and proud about ourselves, which is great as long as we don't allow the EGO to attach itself to and identify itself with these achievements. Celebrate the moments and then release them (Tapas). Approach each moment as a completely new experience, with no expectations. This is how we work together with our EGO and make sure it runs consciously instead of automatically
As we all know, the instagram World can sometimes be a little superficial with some innocent, subtle cries for attention reflecting through in certain posts and although this is how we are evolving to be, these public cries for attention are no different to the ones happening in certain yoga studios here in the western World. And don't get me wrong, some of these studios do offer the most wonderful classes and have the most experienced and creative teachers, though it's the kind of clientele that some of them tend to attract, that in a way, needs to be observed as the general vibe can be innocently reinforcing the wrong thing. What is happening here, is a direct reflection of modern life, the instagram kind of life that needs external approval in order to feel internal approval. Now just to be clear, I am not judging anyone. I am fully aware of how the EGO usually runs in automatic based on our human need to fit in and I believe this is why it is so important to at least consider practicing one or two of the remaining 7 limbs when living in the western World. This way, we can slow down and question our reasons for doing things the way we do them instead of getting innocently pulled in by our EGO, feeding it with the boost of dopamine that makes it grow.
On this side of the World, we need to remember that yoga has been commercialised, so what ends up happening is we take our deepest issues onto the mat with us and either work through them or reenforce them. Huge exception for restorative and yin yoga classes, which are slower practices that invite us to look within while we are on the mat. The main purpose of them is the one of true relaxation and to enter a state of restfulness (yin can be awakening and challenging but with a sense of surrender and a slow release into the pose). Nobody tends to pay much attention to anybody else during these kind of group classes
The whole purpose of a strong, vigorous, sweaty yoga practice is so that we can arrive in Savasana and practice a deeper pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), which is almost impossible unless we allow for at least 10 minutes. Traditional yoga practice is at least 90 minutes, which can allow for this, but the way we practice in the West is more in line with our busy lifestyle. Quick asana practice, quick savasana and back to the speed of life. 90 minute classes, not as easily found
Now here's the thing, if we allow ourselves the time to explore the EGO by entering different sheaths of consciousness and expanding our spiritual awareness we can learn to separate the EGO from the self. In today's World, when the EGO becomes dissatisfied with the appearance of the body, our job, our income, our relationship, we tend to believe that we are those feelings, as we have been identifying with them for our whole life. As the EGO becomes unhappy, we become unhappy too, which creates an unhappy life story for ourselves. A constant feeling of inevitable unhappiness. We even think or say "I am unhappy", which disempowers us completely. It blinds us, it becomes us so deeply we try to change but we don't, it's really hard because how could you possibly change the identity you have build up for yourself all these years? BUT, when we see the EGO as a separate identity, we no longer are that identity. The unhappiness no longer belongs to us, which then means we can take action that actually produces change in every possible way as there isn't an EGO to change or an identity that's holding us back
Our thoughts are an illusion, they are fabricated by our EGO based on the gathering of our life experiences. We go through life believing we are these thoughts that provoke these feelings and reactions that are deeply rooted and come out of "nowhere". There is much beauty in having an EGO, it's like there are two of us living in this body. One is our Warrior (EGO) and the other is pure consciousness (us). It's fun. It becomes even more fun when we arrive at a state of enhanced consciousness in which we can see through many of the tricks of the EGO and be so gracefully in control of whether to act on them or not
To have a big EGO does not necessarily mean that a person is overly confident or narcissistic. Someone with a big ego can be extremely insecure and self-criticise but mainly, it is how often we get caught in the storms of the mind and the over-attachment to "I, me and my". A person who uses these three words a lot can be considered to be ego-driven, so basically, most of us. We are only human, right?
So, how on Earth do we detach ourselves from our EGO?
It takes a lot of observation and practice but it can be done. The first step is to understand that we have a mind that can operate separately from the EGO. We are also logical beings. Acting from EGO is often liked to an emotion or feeling, however strong or slight it may be. Observing why these feelings all of a sudden bubble up can teach us about what deep learnings we have picked up through our life experiences that have shaped the way in which our EGO is operating
So, step one is to witness. Watching thoughts and emotional reactions as they happen. It is not at all easy to remember to actively watch the mind and our physical state, so trying to find something that can act as an anchor that will remind us to do so is a great little trick. For example, we can start with anchoring the emotion of feeling offended. When we get offended, how does that feel in our body? we can tell ourselves that whenever we feel that feeling, we need to stop and practice disentangling ourselves from our EGO. We can even go a little deeper and ask ourselves questions that may lead us to finding the answer to the root cause of this triggered feeling and work with that each time it comes up. Eventually, we will not feel offended anymore by our external World. This is one of the most transformational tools we have and it will feel hard at the start but doing this repeatedly will enforce irreversible change and profound spiritual growth. We can do this with thoughts that don't serve us. When we catch ourselves thinking that specific thought, can we stop, hold the thought and dive deeper? Disentangle it from our EGO a little more each time until "pooooof", it no longer appears. Do this with one repetitive negative thought at a time and be surprised at the experience of having days that feel longer, as there are less time-consuming thoughts in your mind
Bottom line: be aware of when your EGO is the one running your life and notice which whispers and behaviours of the EGO serve you and which don't. This will give you something to work with. Get reasonably good at doing this and then give yourself the power to override it with ideas, affirmations, beliefs and behaviours that serve you instead