There are some critical questions you should ask yourself in your Ashtanga yoga practice. Are you surrendering to the method, or are you working oppositely? If we take on the practice without a motivation to surrender and trust in the process, we could be unconsciously strengthening our ego instead of deconstructing it.
We’re all just really confused. That’s what Patanjali thinks, anyway. If his Yoga Sutras is a systematic roadmap for reaching enlightenment, our starting point is nothing less than utter ignorance and confusion. According to Patanjali, we don’t even know who we are. That’s why he’s written four chapters on how to get re-introduced to your Self.
He begins explaining this almost right from the get-go, informing us as early as 1.4 that we’ve all been making a gigantic mistake. The fluctuations of our minds (i.e., our thoughts) are not our true Selves. The Self, he’ll explain later, is a pure, eternal, universal consciousness. It is the Observer. Our thoughts are simply what it observes. Misidentifying this Self, he’ll go on to share in 2.4, is the root of all of our kleshas, or afflictions. Our avidya, or ignorance, of the nature of our true Selves, is the core of our suffering.
The Big Question – What is Our True Self?
All of this arises a big question (or, more likely, a few): If all we think of as ourselves isn’t our true Self, what is it?
Put, ego. While we often throw around this term to refer to someone’s less attractive qualities, their big headedness, over-confidence, or cockiness, “ego” is nothing more than individuality. It is our identifiers’ total, the ways we define ourselves, from profession to musical preference to political ideology. It is our “I-ness.”
All of that, in itself, is not a bad thing. Our humanity, both physical and mental, allows us to interact with the world. The ego becomes problematic when we forget that it is only a temporary state. Like all things in nature, it is transient. The transcendental Self is eternal, unchanging – and the core of every one of us. It is through getting in touch with our universality that we achieve samadhi.
When we cling to our ego-personalities, we lose our chance to come in contact with our true Selves.
The Yoga Practice Helps Us Become Aware
That’s the idea, anyway. It’s no small feat, this Self-realization thing. There’s a reason it’s assumed we have multiple lifetimes to achieve it. Patanjali provides a route to follow, offering us a guidebook for the journey in his Yoga Sutras. The various practices we use to make the trip are merely different cars on the same road. They are the means to the end rather than the end in itself.
This includes yoga asana practice. While to an outside eye, yoga practice may seem to be an impressive series of circus tricks, it’s meant as a place for burning away the trappings of ego. By forcing us to look at our reactions and observe our minds at work, the challenging poses of the Ashtanga yoga asana tradition make us aware of the transient nature of our thoughts. The seemingly endless progression of the six series eventually removes any achievement-based motivation. There is no finish line, and so learning how to act without endgame or ego becomes necessary if you intend to continue. Asana practice becomes an exercise in ego-less action.
Deconstructing or Building The Ego
As any good chemist knows. However, an experiment’s results depend just as much on what you put in the crucible as the catalyst itself. Yoga practice, like anything else, can become an identifier if we let it. Creating our sense of Self around being “Ashtangis” and our accomplishments are easy to end up building the ego, rather than deconstructing it.
It’s also very human. Preventing it requires integrity and accountability, from both inside and out. A good yoga teacher can be indispensable for keeping us in check. So is an attitude of surrender, in particular surrender to the method. Yoga gives us a gift through its structure and systemization. It doesn’t allow room for choice or creativity. In surrendering to this method, we protect ourselves from the possessive temptations of ego.
Your True Motivation in Your Ashtanga Yoga Practice
The most important tool, however, is our awareness. By teaching us to watch our thoughts, yoga practice also guides us towards being cognizant of our relationship with the asana practice. We begin to notice if we base our self-worth on our “success” at asana, basing our self-esteem on whether or not we achieve that next impressive posture or transition. Comparative thinking no longer goes unrecognized to one in the practice of watching their thoughts. When we compare ourselves to others, we can assess the productivity of our thinking.
This essential awareness is the first step towards cultivating the right action and the right attitude towards practice. It helps us group our thoughts and actions by their conduciveness to our growth and the path to Self-realization. All we have to do is watch.
Next time you post that yoga selfie or beat yourself up for “bad” practice, ask yourself: What are these thoughts? Where do my intention and motivation lie? Are they helping to deconstruct my ego? Or are they simply building it up?