The Yoga Sutras identify five obstacles to our ability to sail through life with an expansive and joyful consciousness. They are known as the kleshas. Ironically enough, many yoga classes today actually encourage the development of one of these obstacles in particular — the ego.
Our ego (or asmita in Sanskrit) is formed when the soul enters the body and identifies itself with the physical vehicle. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes egoism as: "The identification of the power of the Seer with that of the instrument of seeing." Think of this like someone wearing glasses, believing that they are their glasses! Can you see why this would be a problem?
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 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 yoga classes 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, we are meant 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 physical yoga classes without feeding the ego, although you may have to ignore some teachers' comments if they are focused too strongly on the outer factors.
Here are three ways you can work to eliminate ego from your yoga practice:
1. Make a dedication.
Start at the beginning of your practice by silently dedicating the time and effort you are about to spend, to something greater than yourself. This could be your concept of a Deity, Higher Power or simply to a soul-like quality that you wish to cultivate such as compassion or peacefulness. You could even dedicate your practice to eliminating your ego.
2. Practice mindfulness on the mat.
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 teacher or another student? Is it to prove something to yourself? If ego is involved, back off and remember to honor the body, but not identify with it.
3. Overcome your desires.
Another way to reduce the ego through our physical practice is to cut back on desires, such as hoping the teacher will offer certain postures over others, 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 way, we start to chip away at the ego that acts as an obstacle to our spiritual progress.
As yogis, we are meant to shift identification from the separate self to the individualized soul expression of Spirit, using the instruments of body and mind to communicate and interact with one another.
By recognizing the Divine 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 into 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.