Yoga - Avoiding the snares of ego
He, O Arjuna, who sees with equality everything, in the image of his own self, whether in pleasure or in pain, he is considered a perfect yogi.
—Bhagavad Gita, 6: 32
This expansiveness of oneness with all or atma-aupamya, according to Lord Krishna, is true yoga. A western teacher made a startling observation which jostled us students. She reminded us the most infamous demons in Indian mythology were all yogis par excellence. We forget this in our simplistic arraigning of good and evil, see evil as somehow weak. In fact, in religions the world over, evil is always portrayed almost as powerful (the devil from Genesis who still roams the world, not entirely quashed) as the good. In Indian mythology too, it is so, which is why oftentimes the gods cannot handle it, impeaching upon powers higher than themselves to descend as avatars on earth to tackle these egotistic manifestations.
Recall how Ravan’s tapas arms him with invincible, magical near-immortality? That is true also of Hiranyakashyap, whose searing tapas earns him near-eternity but for the fact that Vishnu finds an amazing manner in which to trip this. If you recall how Hanuman is amazed at Ravan’s lush and luxurious Lanka, as well as the loyality that he wields among his commanders you appreciate that Ravan may have been even a good ruler. He even behaves like
a gentleman, not killing Ram’s doot Hanuman on his brother’s advice. He again behaves like a gentleman, not molesting Sita, merely imploring her to change her mind. He dies a warrior’s death. But what makes him the evil genius, the perfect foil for good then, is his overweening ego. His inability to let go of another man’s wife, his need for personal gratification. His inability to appreciate that his entire clan will be decimated for a whim. All motivated by just one factor: Ego.
This you will find true of all those mythological demons who are metaphors for the individual ego-self. In Buddhist tales, the demon king Mara is a metaphor for our own alter egos, the lurking overweening egotism in each of us. When this ego, instead of prodding us towards achievements and expansiveness, ends up bloating on itself, it shuts us out from divinity.
Similarly, though yoga itself is a path towards ego-lessness, because it heightens our ability and our consciousness, there is always the danger of the ego overwhelming the original intention of egolessness, as did happen with all the mythological demons. Remember, originally they all pleased the gods with such intense yogic tapas that the gods were pleased to grant them boons. That is why, in personal practice, we must be hypervigilant towards this danger of bloating egos as we intensify our practice. There are so many instances of even perfected beings (Rishi Viswamitra who allowed himself to be seduced by Menaka and who too had an irascible temper as did sage Agastya) occasionally succumbing to the drag of the ego. Whenever our practice of yoga subsumes the original intention, it would pay to prod it gently back on the path.
Swami Sivananda repeatedly said that this yoga (of egolessness) is difficult to reach but so easy to lose. It is more slippery than mercury. The more you try the more difficult it is to hold on to. But only through this constant attempt does the individual consciousness stop being petty, to turn truly cosmic.
Most people fear this as a loss of the self. But would you rather not part with one-rupee to buy a lottery that is sure to win you a crore? Would you hang on to a seed even if you are assured that in it lies the promise not just of an entire teak but of a potentially lush forest?
Today too, when egos dictate our religious leanings we forget the spiritual message of all religious leaders, most of whom died at the altar of the ultimate sacrifice. In Hinduism, the perfect metaphor for egolessness is the picture that encapsulates the yoga of Gita: Krishna, the charioteer to Arjuna, keeping under control the team of frisky horses. Arjuna represents our individual ego self or atman; Krishna is the godhead or Brahman or all-pervasive divinity; the horses represent our emotions, our likes and dislikes (ragas and dveshas). The chariot represents our earthly body, which too needs to be healthy to put up with the horses’ temperament, the strength of the divine charioteer, or be able to meet the challenges of a warrior like Arjuna all represented by our personal goals and aspirations, individual strengths (which will crumble if the body is not healthy).
While Duryodhana greedily chooses Krishna’s army, Arjuna is glad to have Krishna. With the divinity in place, our chariot will run its course, will win the war of life for us. Imagine if one of the horses, or all of them, run amok instead of listening to the charioteer. Similar to what would happen if our atman’s individual foibles (like the ego) run amok. The chariot would smash to smithereens, throwing off the warrior. The charioteer too would be dislodged. That is what we do—rid ourselves of our divine charioteer, ruin our personal goals—every time we let our ego lead us.
Yoga Mudra or psychic union
Sit in the lotus pose. If this is difficult for you, sit in the half lotus or sukhasana. Place hands gently on the knee. Inhale. As you exhale, bend down, reaching forehead to the floor. Breathe for a few seconds normally in this pose of surrender. Inhaling, return to starting position. Now repeat the steps, but reaching for right knee. Repeat again for left knee. It may be tough to touch the floor or the knee initially, but regular practice will take you there.
Several people give up after feeling slightly ashamed at how far away their head is from the target. But that is precisely the reason to continue. For one, in yoga there is no ‘I-can-never-do-it’. Even such a seemingly innocuous and disparaging sentence, in yoga, highlights just how stuck up we can get in the ‘I’. The whole process of yoga is to erase this ‘I’, so what is the point when we harp about the ability or disability of this ‘I’? If you stop thinking of ‘I’, believe it or not, you will reach the target. For one, only then will you practise without wanting to achieve or prove a point. Then, sooner or later, you will reach deep into the pose.
Yoga mudra exemplifies the yogic observation of ishwarpranidhana or surrender to the higher will. It is a calming pose, precursor to meditation. Avoid in high BP (unless taught in a phased manner), severe backache, digestive disorders.
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