What about your Ego?

Yoga is martial arts

The ego is such an interesting thing in every human. Most people wish they didn’t have it, or think they don’t have it. But unconsciously our ego directs a lot of our thoughts and actions. And ultimately it decides if we feel good or bad about ourselves.

The reason why I find the ego so interesting is because it is an identity we have constructed ourselves, an identity, which is false, and not connected to the Self. We believe that our personality, talents, abilities and skills are the self, but in fact it is all artificial, it is created in the mind.

The ego is an active and very dynamic part of our personality and it just loves to create drama in our lives. It blurs our vision about who we really are and what we are really capable of. It always compares you with others and at times it will create a feeling of superiority, it will tell you that you are better, more beautiful, more successful, smarter, etc than the other person. Other times it will create feelings of insecurity, jealousy, not being enough, etc. It blames you for not giving it the attention it needs.

How I like to see the ego is like a little child. It needs constant care, if you don’t feed it, it will cry, if you don’t give it love, it will turn into a needy kid, if you don’t discipline it, it will become arrogant.

Lately I have become more and more aware of my ‘battle’ or encounters with my own ego. Teaching yoga has shown me the needs of my ego more clearly. When people are satisfied, I am happy, I feel good about myself. But when people do not return, walked off quickly or left class early, I start doubting myself, wondering if it is something I did or didn’t do.

Even though these feelings are the most normal thing to occur, it is also a habit pattern. Something that happens because you just don’t know any better. Because your whole life you have measured yourself to others, praised yourself based on that and created a feeling of self in correspondence to this.

The easy thing to say is: let it go. Don’t doubt yourself, stay close to yourself and all will fall into place. But how do you put that into practice? How do you avoid these feelings entering your mind, heart and being? One explanation that has helped me a lot comes from my beloved yoga teacher Kate Holcombe. She explained that the mind (read ego) is the blind man. He is strong, fit, healthy, but blind. The Self is lame, it can’t walk on its own, but it can see. The mind (ego) and the Self need each other and so the Self rides piggy back on the mind. Because of this, the mind now has the ability to see, and therefore forgets it is the Self who sees, not him. He beliefs he doesn’t need the Self and takes over, so he bumps into things, runs around without clear vision and creates suffering along the way.

So that blind man needs to be trained with discipline, via meditation, breathing and any other way you know to focus the mind. Because in the end, the mind (the blind man) is in a mortal body, it will lose strength, its health and consciousness. And therefore in yoga we focus on the immortal, the Self. So we try to see the two separate while learning how to use both in their own way. Don’t detach from the mind/ ego, become aware of its needs, understand how to control it and be learn to recognize when the ego takes over control. Because when you can let the one who rides piggy back (the Self) steer the body, you can let the Self decide where you go, what you do and what comes to you. That way you might be able to reduce the suffering caused by the ego and create space and freedom to connect to who you really are: the Self.

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How to set my intention for a class?

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When you go to a yoga class teachers often start with: “Now please set your intention for today’s practice. Setting this intention has been a long struggle of mine: what does it mean? What is my intention for today? I usually just drew a blank: no clue at all. So I started setting intentions like: “Today I will hold this pose for 5 breaths, because last time I did 4”. Or “I want to give a full 100% in class, if necessary even more”.

Only until recently, after having a conversation about this with one of my teachers, I learned that what I was doing was setting a goal, not an intention. So how does it work?

How to set your intention?
Setting your intention is an individual exercise that helps you deepen your practice and yoga experience. It is something you need to practice at that very moment on your mat. It can be connected to your emotions, so if you feel anger practice forgiveness, if you feel sadness practice joy, if you feel fear practice comfort, and so on.

It helps to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I practicing yoga?
  • What do I hope to create or gain?
  • What do I need to get rid off / what habit is not helping me anymore?

Setting intentions versus goals
Refrain from setting a goal, which is connected and directed to a future outcome; for example “my goal is to hold a pose for 5 breaths”. An intention focuses on what is most important and valuable to you at that very moment. Something that is important to you in the now. It is formulated with positive words, an example: My state right now is of instability. So my intention is to practice balance. Or I notice that I have been judging myself over a work related issue. So my intention is to accept where I am right now without judgment.

How to practice on the mat?
Taking what you need at that very moment to your mat, means that you have to translate your situation to your practice. When you are practicing to accept where you are without judgment, you practice to refrain from telling yourself that others in class are better then you, or that you could have held the pose longer and therefore your practice has not been optimal, or that your mind is racing with thoughts and you can’t still it, so you are not a good student. When thoughts like these come to your mind, you stop them by telling them your intention as a mantra: I accept where I am right now and I am not judging. Put your thought aside and go back into your body, feel what the pose does to you. Focus on feeling the tips of your toes, the top of the head and all the other little and large parts of your own body.

Help of the teacher
Very often teachers work with a theme. They have set up the routine around this theme. This can help you to set your intention if you don’t know what you need at that exact moment. Take the theme and make it as personal as possible. One day you will know what you need, so use this guidance until you can set the intention by yourself.

The benefits of setting an intention
Setting an intention is extremely helpful to focus. You can focus on your body and what is going on in your mind, instead of how cool your neighbors yoga pants are, that you forgot to buy something with your groceries and that you have 3 meetings at work tomorrow and you don’t feel prepared.

It also helps you to work with your daily struggles and find ways to make it easier to deal with them. As soon as these situations are starting to pop-up again in real life, you will slowly see the progress you are making.

End of the class
So besides just practicing your poses, deepen your practice as a whole and set your intentions for the needs you have. Revise your intention at the end of the class by taking some time to go over it. Learn from how you’ve dealt with your intention on your mat to take these lessons into your daily life.

And the cool thing is, setting intentions doesn’t only apply to yoga, it applies to all you do in life. So going forward, I am going to try to set an intention instead of a goal. And apply this to day-to-day tasks, my own practice and my yoga teachings.