The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali identify five obstacles to our ability to sail through life with an expansive and joyful consciousness. They are known as kleshas. Patanjali describes egoism as: “The identification of the power of the seer with that of the instrument of seeing.” In Yoga philosophy, the ego is considered an obstacle as long as it is in charge, rather than being used in service to the soul and to the divine. We think we are a particular body-mind and relate all our experiences to this inner center we call the ego. Psychologically speaking, the ego is an essential and necessary aspect of human development.
From a spiritual perspective, however, the ego is a mechanism by which we distort reality. We are meant to have a unique self-expression, however, if the consciousness of the separate ‘I’ dominates, we spend all our time indulging, defending, protecting and developing that separate identity exclusively, forgetting all about the soul. We become rooted in personal desires and attachments and ignore our innate Divinity, and the need to walk in the world as vehicles of its expression.
When our yoga practice focus on enhancing physical prowess through asana, bodily aesthetics and even competition with the person next to us, they are feeding the very obstacle the Yoga Sutras tell us to overcome. According to the Sutras, in order to eliminate ego through yoga, we have to practice yoga postures to make the body calm and steady so that when we approach meditation, we are working toward transcending material consciousness and an awareness of the higher, spiritual self.
It is possible to enjoy the practice of physical yoga without feeding the ego. We only need to inspect our body-mind a little more carefully to realize that this is so. For instance, our heart is pumping blood without our own doing. Our lungs are sucking in and expelling air of their own accord. Our stomach breaks down food and our intestines assimilate its nutrients without our doing anything. Our brain generates electric waves all by itself.
Similarly, thoughts pop in and out of our head whether we like it or not, as any meditator can readily verify. In the language of yoga, all these activities are simply nature (Prakriti) at work. Yet we persistently lay claim to the body and the mind and their numerous activities.
The spiritual traditions often speak of a process of involution by which we can traverse the evolutionary sequence in reverse order – going from complexity to ever greater simplicity until we are reestablished in the transcendental singularity (eka), which is the ultimate reality in itself.
Concretely speaking, this journey means simplifying our activities in the world; withdrawing our senses from the allurement of sense objects; focusing attention on the subtle level of existence, which is the mind;discovering ever deeper (more subtle) aspects of the mind in order to transcend them as well; and finding out where the I-sense originates, which is in the transcendental superconscious identity itself.
This ultimate being is called by various names. In yoga, the most common terms applied to it are atman (Self), Brahman (Absolute), purusha (Spirit), purushottama (Supreme Spirit), and purna (Whole). ‘Me,’ ‘my,’ and ‘mine’ label by which we mentally and emotionally separate ourselves from the rest of existence. What distinguishes this transcendental Ego from the human-size ego is its all-inclusiveness. No boundaries exist in the infinite Ego, the transcendental Self.
It is simply the essence of the entire universe – past, present, and future. Therefore it is the great reality lurking behind even our own limited self-sense. And this is indeed a saving grace. For without the omnipresence of the transcendental Self, we would never be able to overcome our insular existence, that is, our self-incarceration in a specific body-mind.
Yoga gives us this basic message: Our present ego-habituation is a state of suffering (dukkha) from which we can and indeed ought to extricate ourselves. Our true nature is, in fact, the omnipresent reality, call it Self, Spirit, God, or Emptiness. That is to say, at the bottom of our ego (ahamkara) is the Ego (ahamta). We just have to dig deep enough to locate it.
The sages of India have invented a range of methods by which we can go beyond the limited ego and realize the transcendental Self. The classical method of Jnana Yoga, for instance, is the neti-neti procedure; neti-neti means “not this, not that.” This procedure, which must be applied rigorously in meditation, allows us to progressively eliminate all our numerous misidentifications. “I am not my little finger.” “I am not my eyes.” “I am not my brain.” “I am not the body.” “I am not the mind.”
In our quest for happiness, freedom, and enlightenment, it is helpful to understand that the ordinary ego is simply a particularly ingrained habit. In his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali speaks of the sense of “I-am-ness” (asmita), while other yogic schools refer to the same experience as the “I-maker” (ahamkara). This term better expresses the fact that the ego is not merely a persistent structure but an activity.
The opposite of our common experience of self-contraction is expansion (vikasa) – not an expansion of the ego but of awareness. If the expansive transcendental Being-Consciousness-Bliss (sat-cid-ananda) were not our true identity, we would never be able to relieve ourselves of our limiting ego-sense. It is entirely a product of ignorance (avidya), which we can correct by taking to heart the wisdom and testimony of the masters of yoga.
The ego is a similar kind of grip. It is based on grasping or clinging. Therefore, to end our self-contraction, we must let go of the “consumer” habit. In yogic terms, we must cultivate the mood of inner renunciation. To put it another way, we have to value our true nature – the Self of all – more highly than any temporal or otherwise limited manifestation of it.
There are three ways you can work to eliminate ego from your yoga practice:
At the beginning of practice silently dedicate the time and effort you are about to spend. This could be your concept of a quality that you wish to cultivate such as compassion or peacefulness. You could even dedicate your practice to eliminating your ego.
Watch for all the ways the ego-focused self, tries to be important, in charge and on stage. For example, when you notice an impulse to move past your limit in a posture, assess why you feel the need to do this. Is it to impress the surrounding or to prove something to yourself? If ego is involved, restrain yourself and remember to honor the body, but do not identify the ego involved in it.
- Overcoming desires
Another way to reduce the ego through our physical practice is to cut back on desires, such as wanting to accomplish an advanced pose or looking to be recognized in some personal way. The ego feeds on desires, so this tactic helps lessen its domination of our experience. In this little way, we start to release ourselves from the grip of ego that acts as an obstacle to our progress.
Serious yoga practitioners are meant to shift identification from the separate self to the individualized expression, using the instruments of body and mind to communicate and interact with one another. By recognizing the divinity within us as the doer of all actions, we can offer all results to the same, thereby relinquishing the quest for personal validation. This practice puts the ego in its rightful, subservient place to the soul. As a result, we benefit from feeling far less fear and far more joy in our practice and in our lives.
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