"Your Ego is Not Your Amigo " - if you're at all familiar with popular yoga culture, chances are you've probably heard this phrase before or even see it splashed across a yoga top somewhere. Personally, I've always found it kind of cheesy. Yet it holds a lot of truth. It also raises some questions, such as what do we really mean by ego? Why does it hurt us, and how can we put it in its proper place?
Ego denotes the idea of a prescribed self-identity – “This is me, I am different.” To some degree, this self-identity or “I-shape” is absolutely necessary. Singularity of body requires singularity of mind, so our ego functions as an identifier which allows us to act in our physical form. Modern psychology even talks about the importance of maintaining a “healthy ego” and suggests that people suffer when their ego is hurt or diminished.
From a yogic perspective, this suggestion also holds true. Yet instead of ascribing the cause of our pain to some external event, it's believed that the ego itself, this fixed identity that we have given ourselves, is what causes pain.
We have a tendency to take everything that happens personally. It is only when we let go of ego that we realize that in fact, most of life is not personal at all. Whether it's a driver who cuts us off in traffic, a friend who lies to us, or a rude server at a restaurant, these situations are usually a reflection of the other person's internal workings. The driver who is rushing through traffic is probably stressed out. It doesn't matter to him who he cuts off, it just happens to be us. Yet we often take such situations very personally – “how could they do this to me ME?!” In general, frequent use of the "I" and "me" pronouns is a good indication of ego. However, once we start taking situations less personally, we can start to gain control over negative emotions and stop them from running away with us.
Our ego restricts us as we involuntarily filter everything through this fixed identity. Thus it determines not only the way we see ourselves, but also the way we see and perceive others. As a result, we often react in a hostile manner towards things, people and circumstances that do not fit with or challenge our self-prescribed identity. When reality doesn't conform to our views, we begin to struggle and try to rearrange it. In this way, ego clouds our judgment and leads to ignorance (in Yogic philsophy, known as avidya).
Ego is one of the five obstacles which hold us back and prevent us from being truly free. The others are pride, attachment, aversion and fear. However, once we start to overcome the first misperception, whereby we mistake a part of us, our ego, for the whole of our being, we will automatically begin to overcome the other four. They are all offshoots of this original ignorance.
An intensive yoga teacher training would probably cause many people's egos to crumble. As your practice has progressed, you may have developed this sense of yourself as being “good at yoga.” Maybe you’ve thought of yourself as particularly strong or flexible, now you're suddenly surrounded by people with very strong practices. What's more, you are suddenly asked to undo and relearn everything from the start. Misalignment and other shortcomings are laid bare. If you let ego be in charge, you're likely to react with umbrage and damaged pride. But if you can surrender and remain open to this new information, then it's an incredible learning experience which will leave you completely transformed, not only physically but also mentally.
Even outside the intense experience of a yoga teacher training, the mat is an ideal place to observe, confront and begin to surrender our fixed self-identity. Ego normally bubbles up pretty quickly during practice, and it can take many different guises: jealous glances to the person next to us, the insistence on always taking the hardest variation of a pose or to do every vinyasa. Sometimes it even feels like the entire practice is driven by the head, pushing and pulling the body to force it into poses it doesn't want to go into. But once we've become aware of ego’s presence, we can surrender it. By bringing our attention back to our body, our breath and this present moment, we can begin to soften into a state of being, rather than thinking.
We cling to ego because it seems to provide us with the certainty and order that we long for in our lives. Yet the security is a false one. It does not exist. Life itself is inherently uncertain. No one can escape what Pema Chödrön calls “the fundamental ambiguity of being human.” All we can do is learn to live with it.
This being said, while ego is not our friend, it's certainly not our enemy either. In this world we need a sense of ego, an “I-maker”, in order to be able to differentiate, to know what is us. So it's not about breaking up with our ego completely, which is impossible, but rather about putting it in its proper place, assuring that we are in charge of it rather than the other way around. On the journey of life, we certainly don't want the ego in the driver’s seat, but that doesn't mean that we have to kick it out of the car completely.