I came to yoga from an athletic background (soccer, jiu jitsu, track and field!) and I thought yoga would help me meditate and calm my mind. I never thought it would be physically challenging or that I would have to “ease my way in”. Quite the opposite – I thought it would be a piece of cake! Read: I had a huge ego. My first yoga class was at the YogaWorks on Main St. in Santa Monica. They had a two-week special so I signed up and took the next class on the schedule. It was a “Vinyasa Flow 2/3”. I thought, “2 out of 3? Should be like... a medium-level class. I got this.” Twenty minutes into the class, I wanted to die. I looked around the class with disbelief that everyone else seemed fine. The thoughts on inside my head was probably being reflected on my face, because a girl took pity on me during handstands to give me some pointers and encouragement. I was so grateful for her support, as it made me feel a little less like a loser. Either way, my ego was totally bruised.
Now, I realize that there are dangers in bringing your ego onto the mat. Whether it's: expectations for yourself, stories you tell yourself about how something should look, or forcing yourself to power through every Chaturanga when you feel like you’re going to die - you’re not doing yourself any favors. And here are some reasons why.
1. Ego Keeps You Stagnant
Even though I was mentally cursing the teacher out during my entire first class, I kept going back to different classes (more appropriate Level 1, 1/2). I found that my ego actually needed a lot of humbling, and I was lucky to find a teacher who incorporates tough love into her teaching style – a style that fits perfectly with my big head. She always calls me out if I try something I'm not ready for, when I used to refuse to use props to help me access poses differently (don’t we all start yoga thinking we’re “too good” for props?), if and when I'm not being present, or when I simply need to be reminded that I am still a beginner (thanks Heather Seiniger!).
I realized quickly that ego gets in the way of our practice by telling us that we are already the best or that we know everything. What happens in that situation is that we tune our teachers and our guides out and blindly continue repeating habits that may not be working for us. In that regard, we remain stagnant instead of seeking the knowledge required for progress (because we incorrectly assume we already "know-it-all"). When a teacher offers the use of a prop (versus making in mandatory), often times students look around to see who else is using the prop to decide if they will use it, indulging their ego’s need to be at everyone else’s level or better. When I’m in class, I always use props when offered or I tune into my process to inform me where I’m at that day, versus looking around the room at others. What I’ve found is that now, I can actually inspire other students in class. By choosing what’s right for me regardless of what others are doing, I empower others to do the same and use props when they may not otherwise have.
2. Ego Makes Yoga Competitive
In a similar respect as the point above, ego leads us to become competitive with our practice. We see what others can do and assume we are less if we can’t do that, and we push ourselves to do those things. If we’re not physically ready for the pose we are forcing, we risk injury or we form bad habits. Practicing yoga in certain places (like in West Los Angeles) can feel like you’re in an acrobatic circus or with a room of competitive gymnasts versus a yoga class. You look around and people are doing handstands between Vinyasas as you're just trying to get through Chaturangas (which aren’t optional anymore in your mind and you don’t even consider child’s pose). You leave feeling like a loser.
The solution? Know you’re in the right place at the right time, and that you are doing the work necessary for your process. It’s okay to admire the practice of others, but know they have strengths and weaknesses too, just like you do (like we all do). Some people can learn how to do a handstand relatively easy and for others of us it takes years and years. On the contrary, handstand-folks probably can't do certain things as well as you can, or if they can - who cares! It’s all a journey, and seeing the capacity of others should inspire us to be our best self, to show up on the mat, to do the work in order to build the blocks to get to a certain level, rather than making us feel small, like we need to rush to get somewhere, or like we need to cut corners to be like others. The world knocks us down and beats us up enough on its own – let’s leave that behavior and those tendencies off the mat and learn to treat ourselves with love and kindness instead.
3. Ego Makes You Hurt Yourself
So, duh! I already mentioned it above but it’s worthwhile to give this point it’s own number. You’re gonna hurt yourself if you practice with your ego! Listening to our body and our intuition is the number one tool in yoga for staying safe, practicing with presence, and advancing in the practice. Ego overrides that and causes us to make emotional decisions in the moment versus ones that serve our highest Self. Imagine a scenario where you see someone else doing something you label as “cool” or “better-than-me”, like a bind, for example, so you yank our shoulder to accomplish it. The result is you end up in pain for a week, not able to do any yoga on that side, further setting yourself back and causing more harm that benefit. The person you see on the mat next to you doing a bind didn’t just show up one day and do it (most likely). They showed up on their mat day after day stretching and strengthening their back and shoulders in order to safely progress into it. And guess what? Some days, they probably can’t do it or it’s probably harder some times than others. Don’t let your ego write a check that your body can’t cash. Just chill, do the work, and know that the work of yoga resides in your reaction to the poses. It’s how you show up on the mat, not what you look like.
4. Ego Can be a Meanie
Egos can just be plain mean. It tends to tell us falsehoods about the world around us and leads us to see ourselves in either a heightened fashion or a negative fashion, but rarely does it lead us to a realistic perspective of where we are in life. I often say that the greatest benefit yoga offered me thus far in my life and practice is the ability to recognize my ego and to gently tuck it away on and off the mat. I’m not perfect by any means, but I do have an awareness now that when I use my intuition to think, feel, and act, versus the need to feed my ego, I find I’m a much happier and more pleasant individual overall.
Next time you get on your mat, consider closing your eyes for most of the practice, tuning inward to what your body and breath is telling you, and not giving a crap about what anyone else is doing or thinking. Make your practice loving and therapeutic for you. Stay present, listen to your teacher but also to your body and heart, and react calmly and compassionately towards yourself and others – then you might start to understand what a yoga practice is and the benefits it can provide for you off the mat.
Image: Werner Moser