We frequently hear our yoga teachers tell us to “leave the ego at the door”. But what does that really mean? Is it possible to keep our ego out of the yoga practice while still building self-esteem? How do we prevent our ego from taking over our yoga practice—or our life? What is the difference between inflating our ego and building self-esteem? These are questions that all serious yoga students grapple with at one time or another.
The “ego” is often called the “false self”; it represents how we see ourselves and how we define ourselves as reflected through the eyes of others. In psychotherapy, the ego is the division of the psyche that is conscious, that most immediately controls thought and behavior, and is believed to be most in touch with external reality. But often times the self that we identify with may not really jibe with reality. We see ourselves reflected through the eyes of others as opposed to seeing our authentic selves from within.
Too much ego can give us an exaggerated sense of how we perceive ourselves. A yoga teacher with an inflated ego may be more concerned with how many students are in class than with the quality of the teaching. A yoga student with an inflated ego might always attempt to emulate a mental image of a posture rather than staying in tune with where the body is taking him or her.
Self-esteem, on the other hand, is the window through which we see what we are capable of. If we have a strong self-esteem, we trust that we know what is right for us at any given time. We are in touch with our authentic self, with our Sat Nam. A healthy self-esteem allows us to know when to back off and take a break in our yoga practice. It allows us to learn to speak in peace and to avoid negativity, without feeling threatened or competitive. Strengthening our self-esteem is also important in our interactions with others, as it allows us to hold our place in a group and thereby strengthen the group as a whole.
Kundalini Yoga provides us with many tools to build our self-esteem while leaving our ego off the mat. One of the easiest steps to take is to close the eyes in practice. Not only does closing the eyes immediately quiet the mind, but it also prevents us from comparing ourselves to the others in the room. We can turn inward and become aware of our authentic self; not the false images that the ego generates but rather the true self that lives life from place of peace and strength.
Next time you’re on the mat, check in with the ego and see if it’s in control. Close the eyes, take a few long deep breaths, and see what your body is telling you. Acknowledge to yourself that you will do the best you can to keep up, but always remember that yoga is not competitive. Then check in with the heart center to give yourself gratitude for showing up and extend that gratitude to the others in the room for sharing the practice with you.
Here are a few tools you may want to build into your yoga practice to help boost your self-esteem as opposed to your ego:
Kriya: “Balancing the Three Psyches” in the manual Reaching Me in Me
Ego Eradicator is an exercise using breath of fire that helps control stress, open the heart, and tune into the authentic self.
Editor’s Note: Ramdesh Kaur’s article on the mantra for ego, Aakhan Jor, may also be helpful.