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Yoga vs. Ego

“Yogin: Yoga vs. Ego” by John Hanrahan. Visit: johntheanimator.com

How Ego can Sabotage Your Yoga Practice and Your Life
by Tricia White, Ananda Yoga Teacher

It’s a comfortably warm day, not so hot that you’d suffer if you were outside, which in Palm Springs is a blessing. This is the time of year when triple-digit temperatures are as common as cactus. An afternoon graced with scattered clouds, blue skies and warm breezes is something to be savored.

I have a rare afternoon off, so I head over to the coffee shop at Barnes & Noble. I don’t drink coffee but I’m a sucker for coffee shops. I love watching the baristas skillfully filling orders behind the counter; the sweet aroma of a caramel latte; students huddled around a table crowded with books and laptops, chatting about everything from Miley’s escapades in twerking to Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. I inch through the line, grab a hot tea and a muffin and quickly snag a table.

The magazine section at B&N is sensibly placed right next to the coffee shop. I leave my table briefly, scanning the displays for all things yoga. I grab a few magazines, sprint back to my table and settle in for a relaxing read.

“Yoga for Sexy Arms!” The headline blares at me in large yellow letters. I flip through the pages, find the article and scan the first paragraph. “If you want long, lean muscles to flaunt at the beach, it’s time to learn yoga arm balances. Arm balances are an incredible way to achieve ridiculous definition in your upper limbs.”

The article proceeds to list asanas to perform to achieve that “ridiculous definition”: Kumbhakasana (Forearm Plank); Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose); Lolasana (Pendant Pose); and Bakasana (Crow Pose). After a brief instruction on how to accomplish each posture, the article ends with “Do 5 repetitions. Rest. Repeat again.”

This simple one-page article illustrates one of the fundamental problems in the way yoga is presented and marketed in our culture.

There is nothing wrong with wanting or having a lean body. Many of us are acutely aware that obesity rates have tripled in our country, with more than 1/3 U.S. adults categorized as obese (source: Centers for Disease Control). As a purely physical endeavor, yoga — particularly athletic disciplines like Ashtanga — can increase stamina, flexibility and promote weight loss. Watching an accomplished yogi navigate the more challenging postures of an Ashtanga practice with strength and ease is deserving of our attention and admiration. Yet many articles stop there and never explore or even suggest there is anything more. And yoga is so much more.

Yoga in our society has fallen victim to the trap of what I call “ego marketing”. Hyped for its ability to “help burn calories and get a better body“, yoga is seen as a purely physical endeavor no different than aerobics or Zumba. This results-oriented focus takes us away from our enjoyment of the present moment. We don’t appreciate our bodies as they are. We don’t honor what they’re able to do right now. Instead, we relinquish that happiness to the belief that life will be so much more fulfilling once we’ve achieved “long, lean muscles to flaunt at the beach“.

Yoga centered on aesthetics alone feeds the ego, not the soul. Feeding the ego makes us vulnerable. With ego pushing us to do more, get more, be more, we lose our calm center. We ignore what we truly need in the race to pacify the ego’s desires. We work against ourselves, resulting in a profound imbalance. This imbalance — which yoga by its very nature is designed to help us understand and correct — affects every aspect of our lives, from work to our social and personal relationships.

Now before you go all Ninja Turtles on me, let’s clarify: There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ego. The optimum word here is “healthy”. Your healthy ego helps you land your dream job or gives you the guts to stand up for yourself when you feel wronged. It’s that inner “Yes I can” that motivates you when everything on the outside says “No, you can’t”. Ego silences naysayers and results in new discoveries every day. That’s the healthy side of ego.

The not-so-healthy side tips the scales into arrogance, ignorance and pride. It is the antithesis of santosha, one of the niyamas in the Eightfold Path of Yoga. Santosha means “contentment”. It directs us to cultivate contentment and tranquility by finding happiness with what we have and who we are, seeking happiness in the moment.

When we give ourselves over to ego’s demands we lose touch with the quality of mindfulness inherent in our yoga practice. The voice of the unhealthy ego disrupts our serenity on the mat, pushing us to do more than our bodies are ready to do. When this leads to injury (as often happens), ego steps in. No longer able to recognize our own willing participation we lay blame for our misfortune on the practice, on the teacher — anyplace “outside” of where it truly belongs.

This is precisely why yoga, practiced with the intent to unify body, mind and spirit, is so important. Yoga strips away false pretenses, bringing clarity to our intentions and opening our eyes to the light of our authentic selves. Removing yoga’s spiritual aspects is like removing the roots from a tree. The trunk and branches may survive, but they cease to thrive. There is no new growth, only a decaying sameness.

I encourage each person who comes to the mat to do so with a willingness and openness to embrace the parts of yoga that transcend mere physical appearance. Let the principals of ahimsa (non-harming), mindfulness and being present in the moment guide your practice. Allow yoga to still the voice of unhealthy ego and bring you to the richness of a deeper experience, both in your practice and in your life. Namaste.

atha yoga anushasanam
(ah-ta yo-gah ahh-new-shaw-sah-num)

Trans: “Now, at this auspicious time, and after having done previous preparation, begins the study and practice of yoga.”
Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, 1.1

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