Why Practice? Yoga and the Evolving Ego

We generally define yoga as a noun rather than a verb. But, it’s not a thing that can be bought and sold, not a commodity at all. When you pay for a yoga class, you aren’t paying for the yoga. You are merely paying for time to practice with that teacher. You can buy time in a yoga studio. You can buy yoga pants, yoga tea, yoga props. But you can’t buy yoga.

Yoga is an action, a way to be in the world. It’s not just the perfect alignment of Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)—should the back hip be forward or back? Instead, it’s aligning the heart and head. In fact, you can’t look at someone and tell if they’re doing yoga. It is an inner, personal experience until the ego evolves to understand the value of community. It’s not a thing, not an advanced asana or an adapted one—not even Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) or Sirsasana (Headstand Pose)! It’s the integration of all the different parts of ourselves into a larger whole.

Specifically, yoga is transcending the ego’s power trip, which keeps us lost and confused. Usually, I don’t know what part of my mind is ego and what is spirit. My mind is more like spin art, a mess of colors, images, and worries. But I do know what it feels like to not be in my ego: an active stillness that comes during Savasana (Relaxation Pose) or occasionally in meditation. It’s that lightness I feel after I practice.

Can Yoga Practice Increase Ego Identification?

Last year, I read a study from the University of Southampton that showed that yoga and meditation might actually increase our ego. It was the devastating outcome of an intriguing experiment, and unfortunately, it makes sense. The study was entitled, “Mind-Body Practices and the Self: Yoga and Meditation Do Not Quiet the Ego, but Instead Boost Self-enhancement.” The team of psychologists explained (1):

“Yoga and meditation are highly popular. Purportedly, they foster well-being by ‘quieting the ego’ or, more specifically, curtailing self-enhancement. However, this ego-quieting effect contradicts an apparent psychological universal, the self-centrality principle. According to this principle, practicing any skill renders it self-central, and self-centrality breeds self-enhancement.”

In other words, focusing too much on ourselves increases ego. In the end, it makes me wonder, have we stumbled on the real obstacles that Patanjali described so succinctly in his Yoga Sutras? In the second chapter, his teachings on how to practice yoga, Patanjali describes the obstacles to our enlightenment. He begins with ignorance—forgetting that we are spiritual beings and that the universal consciousness dwells within us, as us.

Woman practicing yoga paschimottanasana, seated forward fold.

Next, he explains that because of this forgetfulness, we have an ego that takes responsibility for things it’s not responsible for. In Sutra 2.6, he says, “Ego is (to consider) the nature of the seer and the nature of the instrumental power of seeing to be the same thing.” (See Bryant, Edward. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, North Point Press 2009, page 185)

I remember one night some years ago when my son was very young, and I let him help me cook dinner. He was very proud of himself when all he had done was make a big mess. I think I gave him a job like tearing up lettuce, while I was running around doing everything—and cleaning up after him! When dinner was served, he proudly announced, “I made dinner!” Our egos are like children, taking responsibility for things that we have no responsibility for.

“It is a confused state of consciousness, unsure of its true identity. Its intentions and actions are smeared with confusion. As asmita (ego) matures, its belief in its distorted understanding of itself also matures, until it altogether overshadows the experience of our true nature. This is how a new reality—asmita—emerges from avidya (ignorance).” (See: The Practice of the Yoga Sutra, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, page 34)

What’s the Goal of Yoga?

I recently watched a Lululemon commercial (they are the largest seller of yoga clothing—over a billion dollars a year!). It had the expected inspirational imagery with a relatively diverse group of people represented—although disabilities, large bodies, and seniors were not included. The ending message of the commercial was their commitment to “everybody reaching their potential.” The image that was associated with this phrase was someone proudly standing on a mountain top alone.

Something about this imagery didn’t sit well with me, and I wasn’t sure why. It finally dawned on me that the potential they were talking about is the potential to climb that mountain, to overcome physical, exercise-oriented obstacles: to stand on your head or touch your toes. Is that the goal of yoga, or is that self-enhancement, an orientation that leads to further confusion and deepens our ignorance?

Much of the history of yoga is a tradition of asceticism—of transcending the body through force. Hatha Yoga means “yoga with force.” But there is a subtler theme in the history of yoga — a theme of overcoming ego and selfishness through service and love. Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, Jnana Yoga, the yoga of wisdom, Karma Yoga, the yoga of service, all teach us another way. They teach that reaching our potential can only come when we transcend our selfishness and allow our lives to become a vehicle for the energy and wisdom of the universe to flow through. Can we allow yoga to help us transmute the energy of the ego into service, or are we too tangled in spandex?

Yoga and Community

Service can be a confusing concept because it’s often wrongly defined as volunteering. While I think all yoga teachers should be paid for their work (after all, we need to eat too), we can still offer our teaching as service. Service is really about seeing ourselves in others, and acting from a place of love and compassion.

Another way to understand service is to think of it as community. To focus on the collective is to raise our awareness above the ego/mind and to be with others. Some people are naturally service-oriented and nurturing, and often they’re not supported by a culture that values ego-driven success. To move against this cultural selfishness, it can be helpful to think of those people in your life who are focused on the collective and consider how you can support them.

Woman practicing yoga meditation with hands in prayer.

Community is one of the great revelations of yoga practice. It’s a dialectic. While yoga is an individual, inner practice, it’s also about community. The energy of the group inspires us and supports us. In a group setting meditation is contagious, and we can find a stillness that may be elusive when we’re on our own. The true healing power of yoga is unlocked in shared practice. Just as we have understood that the body is not separate from the mind, we need to learn that the individual is not separate from the collective. We know that isolation is deadly, and yoga brings us together.

Occasionally, it’s important to stop and ask yourself: why am I practicing? What is my goal? Then consider if your practice is taking you there. Of course, you can allow your “why” to evolve. If you started practicing for physical reasons—to reduce back pain, to get more flexible, or to get stronger—can you now allow yoga to excavate the truth of your ego? Can your practice reveal the part of your mind telling you to do more, get more, compete with others? Does the strength you find in a vinyasa flow translate into the power of discrimination between ego and spirit? Can you allow your yoga and your ego to evolve?

Lillah Schwartz, Lillah's course for Healthy Backs, YogaUOnline presenter, Yoga Teacher, Yoga practice tips



Reprinted with permission from the Accessible Yoga Blog.

Jivana Heyman is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings and supporting yoga teachers. He’s the author of the books: Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body; Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion; and a new book, The Teacher’s Guide to Accessible Yoga: Best Practices for Sharing Yoga with Every Body. His books, classes, and trainings offer support to yoga teachers and yoga therapists in finding ways to bring creativity and collaboration into their teaching while still respecting the ancient yoga tradition. More info at jivanaheyman.com

  1. https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/420273/   Gebauer, Jochen, Nehrlich, A.D., Stahlberg, D., Sedikides, Constantine, Hackenschmidt, D., Schick, D., Stegmaie, C.A., Windfelder, C.C., Bruk, A. and Mander, J.V. (2018) Mind-body practices and the self: yoga and meditation do not quiet the ego, but instead boost self-enhancement. Psychological Science, 1-22. (doi:10.1177/0956797618764621).

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