The first thing we learn as yoga students is to leave the trappings of daily life when we enter the studio. We put aside our bags, shoes, phones, and watches.
Yet we often carry the heaviest baggage into the studio — our ego.
Ego has different layers of meaning, from “pride” to “sense of self”. They all signify the same thing, though: Ego is the part of us that makes us feel different from others. It can be expressed as arrogance, insecurity, anxiety, dominance, or a hundred other shades of emotion but it always comes back to the sense that we are separate from those around us.
Separation is the antithesis of yoga, which means “unity”. We come to the studio to break down the barriers between mind and body, between action and thought, between ourselves and each other. Bringing our egos into the studio creates conflict. Instead of advancing in our practice we compare or compete. We may advance in our physical practice with this attitude, but the ego holds back the cultivation of true unity.
How do we leave our ego at the door? At first it may feel like trying to peel off our skin. After all, our ego has been with us since we were born, and our hectic, competitive culture is especially good at stoking and rewarding the ego.
There is no single answer. Like yoga, learning to detach from our ego is a practice. Here are three tips to help us begin:
Listen to your mind, don’t control it: The first thing to do is be aware of your thoughts. When are are in the studio, tune in to the chatter in your head. Is it saying: “look how much better X is at that posture?” or is it making a shopping list? Whatever your mind is doing, listen with detachment instead of trying to control it. The more you try to not think about something, the more your mind will go that direction. Just observe. Notice the thoughts that arise from ego — feelings of superiority, inferiority, anxiety, smugness, whatever. Stay with the breath and let these thoughts drift away.
Don’t believe the first thing your ego tells you: As you develop the practice of observing your thoughts, pay close attention when an ego message flashes up. If a work colleague gets a promotion, or your partner is busy with a new hobby, or your child wants you to drop them off around the corner because you’re old and embarrassing, your ego will likely flare up. The emotion may come out as anger, irritation, disgust, or a feeling of moral superiority. Don’t accept that this emotion is a true reflection of the situation. Take a few minutes to breathe deeply. Consider the situation from the other person’s point of view. Think about the bigger picture. Does a colleague advancing make your work any less important? No. Gradually, as you question your knee-jerk ego responses you will be able to see the world in a more detached way.
More love, less ego: The quickest and maybe hardest way to leave our ego is to acknowledge the egos of other. There is a lovely quote from a Yoga Journal article that sums up this idea:
Swami Muktananda, used to say that our real ego problem is that our egos aren’t big enough. He said that we identify with our limited self when what we should really identify with is the pure awareness, power, and love that live at the heart of everything. A young actor once said to him, “I feel guilty because I always want to be special.” Muktananda replied, “You are special.” Then, as the actor smiled in pleasure, Muktananda added, “Everybody’s special. Everybody is God.”
Understanding that we are fundamentally connected to all other humans (even the ones we don’t like) is a profound realisation. It allows us to see things not as “me vs them” but “us”. Instead of competing in the studio, we can understand that everyone’s practice is a part of our collective energy and experience. Instead of feeling better or worse than other people, we can identify our common loves and fears.
Yoga is a drive to unity, and unity is a path to happiness and peace. The more we practice and cultivate compassion, the faster we advance towards wholeness of mind and body.
What’s your biggest ego trap? How would you like to change? Share in the comments.