The last post on the site began as a general musing on the ego and quickly morphed into a commentary on social pressures primarily on women by media and social media as well as thoughts on pressures to show a lot of skin simply because I am a woman and also a commentary on how often yoga images also tend to . This second installation moves more specifically into the ego in the yoga world, where there is much discussion and emphasis on quelling the ego when it inevitably creeps into asana practice.
Both as a student of yoga and also as a teacher of yoga, I constantly work to balance fear of judgement, pressures to push further, and suppressing my mind’s reaction to successes within my practice.
When I am a student in a studio there is a human instinct to compete with others in the class as well as with the teacher. Competition many would agree, has no place in a yoga class, but it undoubtedly shows up. Another word for this is the ego. An example – in an intermediate class the teacher cues a challenging pose such as Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose.) My choice to use Pyramid pose as an example may have surprised some of you, thinking an even more difficult pose like Side Crow would be more of an obvious choice for a challenging pose (pesky ego,) but both poses are challenging for different reasons – Pyramid for flexibility and Side Crow for strength and flexibility.
An example, many students who attend yoga classes and many people who live in the modern world (ahem, all of us) have tight hamstrings, more so if the student is an athlete or physically active with running or biking, generally more so for men, but to the point, tight hamstrings is common.
Back to the scenario – the teacher cues Pyramid Pose (an intense forward fold) and you’re in a class full of students who seem to have hamstrings made of puddy, they’re folding forward, touching the ground with their hands, head to shin, the full works. A version of the classical pose. You however, have tight hamstrings and the floor seems miles away. But, the ego creeps in, and it’s loud. Your mind is illogically telling you that you’re just like them, you’ve been coming to class longer than thew new girl, therefore you should be able to do the same. If you act on this thought process a couple of things may occur:
1) you might reach for the floor without blocks and/or keeping a gentle bend in the knee and this could cause damage (tearing even) of the hamstrings at their connection points. 2) This is the much less severe reaction, which is that blocks may be used, the front leg may be safe form injury, but there may be a need to get the forehead to the shin in which case extreme rounding in the back will occur. This is not going to be an instantaneous injury and may never lead to an injury, but it may cause discomfort in the back and does not display integrity of the pose.
Now, I am a yoga teacher and have been a student of yoga for many years, so I hypothesized all of that in roughly 20 seconds. Some students however who do not have the same knowledge of yoga or the body, and not even the knowledge yet of their own body, will put their muscles and tendons in jeopardy in a matter of tenths of a second because they’re giving into the pressure of the ego and attempting to do what others are doing; teachers are by no means immune to this, let me be clear.
In fact this brings me to how the ego gives me trouble as a teacher. It happens every time I teach and I have been teaching for over six years, anxiety. Much less than when I was a new teacher, and dependent on the day, size of class, all sorts of factors. Somewhat negative thoughts run through my head before and during class, and they’re never the, “Man, I’m good” sort of thoughts. Never have my nerves or doubts been debilitating, but it’s also never not been there to some degree. Another teacher friend of mine who had more experience, and drew many students to her class confided that she also felt nerves before teaching every workshop. I’ve heard on Yogaland (podcast with Andrea Ferreti & Jason Crandell) that Jason Crandell did get nervous before teaching but no longer does (he’s been teaching for over 20 years.) This form of the ego is not as dangerous, maybe it’s even healthy, a sign that teacher’s are concerned with the job that they’re doing, and we can’t forget that teaching is a vulnerable position – to be in front of a a roomful of students, to be in front of a handful of people in general and to speak to them, guide them and teach them for over an hour would be nerve-wracking to pretty much anyone. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed by my nerves as a teacher, just another example of my ego and self doubt creeping around in my thoughts.
This leads me to my final thought on the ego (for now,) which is that for all of us in our practice there are big and small wins, poses that have been worked on for years and years and one day are achieved. When this happens the ego is inflated. There is celebration, Instagram posting, and sheer joy at the success. This ties into the last post, the ego is what pushes us to take and post the yoga picture (guilty as charged,) to show off our most advanced poses on social media, but this is also a lesson of the ego, another way for it to be managed. Kathryn Budig said in a Yogaglo class that she did a handstand for the first time years and years ago and she came out of the pose with a big smile in an obvious celebration, and her teacher came over to her and said something to the effect of, “Ok, good. Now let it go.” That story has stuck with me and comes to mind every time I have a small yoga success, I consciously let go of the ego inflation to not further feed the ego. It is a never ending balance to the management that I work on every day and in every single yoga practice.