Managing the Ego, Part II

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.
Teaching Beach Yoga

Sunset Yoga at Gwangan.

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.

Managing the Ego

Initially this was going to be a single post, but as I began writing I realized that there was no way that it was all going to fit into one. There is a lot to say as a woman and as a yoga student and teacher about managing the ego. Mindfulness through my practice has made me more and more aware of how the ego permeates my life every single day.

It’s a constant job, managing the ego, one that I have become more acutely aware of thanks to my yoga practice. As a teacher it is a reoccurring theme in classes that I teach. As a female it is a lifelong struggle, not to say that it isn’t for our counterparts, men, trans, etc., because of course it is, but I believe it becomes a permeating issue for young girls much earlier than it does for boys. Specifically I am referring to body image issues.

Young girls and women are bombarded with sexualized images of women in fashion magazines, on TV and movies, in music videos, commercials and advertisements. There’s a cultural pressure to be “pretty”, to wear makeup and expose skin. Although it may not be realized by those that it effects, there is a never ending expectation on American women and women world wide, that leads to low self esteem, eating disorders, and in some cultures, such as Korea where I lived for five years, a massive beauty products industry and even thriving plastic surgery industry.

Think about it for yourself, imagine the last pop culture/mainstream entertainment that you last saw. Ask yourself how the women and girls were portrayed. Men as well can be portrayed with shirts off for example, but it is far less common. Red carpets are a prime example of the disparity. Fashion is something that I enjoy, so after big events I like to look at images of what people wore. The women’s dresses tend to have ridiculously plunging necklines (a-la J-Lo’s green dress at the 2000 grammys), very short skirts, cut outs or sheer fabrics over nothing more than what may as well be underwear. And what do men wear to these events? Three piece suits. They literally could not be covered up more unless they wore gloves and scarves.

The yoga world is unfortunately not immune to this norm. Google the word yoga, select images, and scroll. Most of the images will be of fit, thin, muscular women, some of whom are not wearing shirts, majority of the images will be of white women.

I have to pause and have a brief interlude to say that I somewhat hypocritically, and contrary to the main theme of this writing, believe that if you work hard on your physical fitness and are proud of your body and it’s capabilities through whatever means of your choice, yoga, running, cycling, zumba, and you want to show off your hard work and are a confident, proud adult, then please by all means practice yoga in your sports bra and short shorts. In fact this is the Ashtanga way and even B.K.S. Iyengar wore little shorts while doing yoga his whole life and I completely respect him for that. What I am arguing here is that marketing relies on sex selling which leads to a cultural pressure to be what is seen everywhere and I do not believe that it is healthy or necessary.

Iyengar

Although yoga clothing is often sold with images of women in their bras and leggings, or exposing more skin in their bras and short shorts, there are some brands that do better than others of purposefully having more realistically sized models and plus sized models, that should be recognized, but it certainly is not the case for all brands. In fact, in writing this I looked up one of the  biggest names in yoga gear and surprisingly discovered that the line that they’re featuring on their website at the moment of winter 2020 is actually quite modest full of long sleeves, turtlenecks, and drapes of excess fabric.

I had an experience at a studio in a tropical location in which the teacher taught in just her bra and leggings. I don’t want to sound overly puritanical, but I believe that to do so as a teacher is distracting to our students and will more than likely lead them into negative self talk because that is our default as people and primarily as women. As I said before, practicing yoga in little clothing is in some lineages traditional, and I think that women should have the ability to practice in a hot yoga studio or hot climate without a shirt on the same as men, but for a teacher in a place of authority and power I believe that it is not the most responsible decision that we could make.

It is for this larger cultural reason that I purposefully do not often post pictures of myself in my sports bra doing yoga or in my bikini (I only practice so scantily clad at home when very hot in the summer, to my best knowledge there are a handful of shots on my Instagram feed, it is certainly not a common way that I post.) For many young women there is a pressure to post sexy Instagram posts, to get more likes and because that is what the broader culture glorifies.

In a similar manner, Instagram posts of beautiful women performing difficult yoga poses in however many levels of yoga hype up the ego in yoga practice, making many of us feel less than for the inability to do the same. The next post will delve more into the work of the ego in wanting to achieve the perfect pose and how that mindset can in fact be detrimental.