Understanding the Concept of Ego in Yoga

As I outlined in the post Why We Should Not Feel Intimidated By Yoga Philosophy, there are many ways to practice yoga. What these different paths all have in common is a desire to rise above the ordinary human condition and go beyond the predictable habits and patterns of human life. In order to achieve this we must attain knowledge and understanding of our true self, setting out on a journey of self-discovery to know and experience directly who we really are. This process involves shedding the ego, by stripping away the layers of our outer identity to reveal our true, inner self. This process may be harder for some than others.

In yoga, ego is defined as the individual’s sense of who they are – their thoughts, desires and personality, as shaped by the mind. It is sometimes referred to as the “false self,” because it is coloured only by our world view or our perceptions and is not in touch with who we really are. We look at ourselves through a lens or through the lenses of others that distorts who we really are.

The ego can be a positive image of oneself or a negative one. Usually, it includes both positive and negative aspects. The ego contains the individual’s sense of self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem. It has desires – such as wealth, prestige and success. The ego becomes easily dissatisfied, either with the appearance of the body, the possessions we have, the relationship we are in etc. If we identify with only the ego, then when the ego is unhappy, we become unhappy too. The ego is often unhappy as it feeds on the vibrations of fear and insecurity. When we are living though ego, we feel small and alone, and so we seek out ways to make us feel more powerful by becoming preoccupied by job, status, relationships, money, material possessions and sensory experiences.  When we are in our ego mind, we will be dominated by the emotions of envy, jealousy, guilt, anger, resentment, as well as loneliness. The ego mind is needy and does not want to lose anything, so it clings to people, places and situations. 

We may also experience feel-good emotions in our ego state, such as excitement, elation and ecstasy, but these are short-lived and when these feelings disappear, which they inevitably do, we again feel lonely, afraid and insecure. We, therefore, seek out more quick fixes to make us feel good again and experience an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs. 

The ego also worries about what other people think of us and acts from an outside point of view as opposed to being self-directed, and just as it fears judgment, it also judges others, creating separation, loneliness and isolation.

We can easily be tricked by the ego mind, it convinces us that that our judgments of others are realistic, that our greed is a healthy desire and that vanity is an expression of beauty. The ego mind gets overly attached to outcomes and to expectations, and can feel angry or disappointed when things don’t turn out as expected or hoped for. It fills our mind with random inner dialogue, a lot of it negative, and much of it pointless.

Yoga can lead us to a state where we are no longer under the control of the ego and its base desires. It can enable us to rise above the ordinary human condition, above the limitations of our ego and the perceptions that the ego forces upon us. It allows us to see life how it really is, to be at peace with ourselves, with others and with everything around us.