Asmita: Ego, Yoga Teachers, and Social Media
I recently alluded on Instagram to something that's been percolating in the back of my mind for the past few months. Apparently, it struck a chord with quite a few people and it seems to be something that a lot of us have been thinking about.
There's a lot of posturing and humble-bragging on social media in general, but particularly so within the world of yoga teachers. It takes many forms: a picture of some really fancy new accessory thanking some trendy company for the free swag they sent; a photo of a really challenging asana that is picture-perfect, accompanied by a caption about how much work the person still has left to do on that pose; participation in asana "challenges" online; statements about how packed one's classes are and how "blessed" a teacher feels to teach "MY" students; announcements that retreats, workshops, etc are sold out and #OMGTHANKYOUALLSOMUCHFORYOURENTHUSIASMIDBENOTHINGWITHOUTYOU.
This beast has many faces, but it all boils down to the same thing: ego. Lots and lots and lots of ego. In yoga, we call ego "asmita." We are all plastering yoga (and regular) selfies of ourselves all over the internet, proclaiming how successful and busy our classes are, advertising every single thing we do, and much of it seems to be a thinly veiled effort to stroke and elevate our own egos. To a certain extent, self-promotion is a necessary part of being a self-employed freelancer of any kind. Our ability to pay the rent and regularly pour spirulina-enriched green smoothies and soya flat whites down our gullets is completely dependent upon us filling classes, workshops, and retreats. It's hard to detach from this, and I certainly see the benefits of online self-promotion. But it seems like many of us are repeatedly crossing the potentially fine line between acceptable levels of self-promotion and vomit-inducing and dangerous ego trips.
As Patanajali discusses in the Yoga Sutras, yoga is meant to be a practice that dissolves the ego. Maya, or the veil of illusion that the path of yoga aims to liberate us from, is rooted in a disconnect between our true Self and our perception of self (Sutras II.21 and II.22 especially); and misguided self-perception is just another expression of ego. Patanjali also highlights the ways that ego can destroy and impede the path of yoga in Sutras II.3-11 when noting that ego (asmita) is the second of the five obstacles (kleshas) on our path towards liberation and enlightenment. To Patanjali, the true Self is unchanging, steady, and stable. However, the "non-self," or the impression of the Self (the ego), is what we attach to. Because the non-self is always changing, we struggle to calm the ego and we attach too much importance to these impressions. We become overly-interested in the labels we ascribe to ourselves, on the external appearance of ourselves, on our physical bodies, all while remaining ignorant to the truth of WHO we are beyond the superficial labels that we continually plaster upon ourselves and project to the world around us.
So we take photos of ourselves and our accessories (coffee cups, green smoothies, raw vegan lunches, fancy yoga clothes, expensive trainers) as a way of declaring to the world (and to ourselves) WHAT we are. We snap pictures of ourselves in fancy asanas on exotic beaches because we have become overly attached to the outcome of asana practice as a marker of the depth of our yoga practice. And we declare the popularity of our classes over and over again, as loudly as we can to anyone who will listen, because we need an external marker of our self worth, all the while still struggling to understand who we are beneath the veil of illusions that we continually shroud ourselves within.
And I say "we" here very consciously: I'm not necessarily doing a better job at breaking this wall of illusion than anyone else. But as a yoga teacher, it's necessary to continually watch yourself, in all of your actions and habits and choices, and ask how these behaviours are an extension and expression of one's true yoga practice. And as a yoga student, it's worth recognising that your yoga teacher is very imperfect, and very much on their own path of exploration and liberation from ego. And a yoga teacher's social media output might, unintentionally, actually offer us all a window into their own practice of svadhyaya (self-study.)