The klesha of asmita, of Egoism, is the tendency to identify wholly with one’s individual self.
Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutra, identifies 5 kleshas or afflictions which entrap us. The first is avidya, or ignorance, which refers to absorption in the material experience, believing that there is nothing beyond our sense experience. The second is asmita, which is a form of avidya. Whereas avidya comprises the whole material (physical) experience within and without. Asmita is a specific dimension of avidya. It refers to the tendency to completely identify with our bodies and personalities, ignoring the spiritual dimension of the ourselves.
Some of the best examples of transcending egoism exist in the stories of the great “Jivanmuktas” or liberated ones of India. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a Jivanmukta is their ability to demonstrate that they are not bound by form. In one story told of Anandamayi Ma, a “saint” widely recognized as being fully liberated, she refused to eat. The pure fast went on for some time, weeks or months. She was never alone, and her devotees never saw her eat a thing. Her devotes were concerned and attempted to force feed her. One day, unexpectedly, she called the devotees, and she begin to eat without ceasing in a single sitting until they ran out of food in the ashram. She just kept eating and demanding more. Finally she stopped and suggested to them that they could never fill her as she was as vast as the universe. It did not matter to her one way or another if she ate or not. She knew herself as pure consciousness so she was not changed by food or lack of food.
Need Karoli Baba was known to appear in places where he could not have been. He would be seen in two different places at the same time. After his apparent death, he has continued to appear to people all over the world. Not just a few….thousands and thousands. He appears to people before they know of him. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a medieval text written by Swami Muktabodananda it says that the liberated ones roam the universe. Free as it were from the limitations of body and mind.
Liberation from asmita to this degree is always possible, but for most of us it assumes a more mundane form. A common example is those described as “handicapped” who transcend their physical limitations and achieve greatness. Helen Keller, blind and deaf since early childhood, lived an abundant, enriched wise public life. But it also could something as mundane as physical changes to the body (weight loss or gain, aging, physical debilities) do not interfere with your sense of who you are. Healing from incurable disease, which is more common than we think, also would be a resolution of this klesha.
Liberation from asmita or Egosim also occurs when we are called upon to let go of elements of our personalities in order to adapt to a change in the roles we play in our lives, jobs, family roles, positions in community.
A powerful means to work with this klesha is to pay attention when you are dwelling in it. Stop and listen to your self talk and note what kinds of ideas are floating through your mind with the sense of “I-am” attached to them: I am skinny or fat or smart or stupid.
I once had a student who was given yoga classes as a gift by her husband. She attended my class in a small ballet school in New Jersey. She was exceptionally large and round of body and was very absorbed in her perception of herself as a body. Often, she would stop in a posture and say, “I can’t do it”. I encouraged her to let go of that idea, over and over again. Finally one day she said “Okay, if you say so, and she took a perfect crescent moon poster. More even and circular and expansive than I had ever done or ever seen. It was perfect.
Such is the power of releasing the programmed limitations by which we have come to define ourselves. The beauty of this is that it is not always a grandiose transformation, sometimes little victories are the fuel which changes a life. In a single moment of transcending asmita, we enter a realm of choice. In the moment in which we are trapped by our egos we see only a finite number of options. When that shift occurs to a larger vision, our options expand as well, and our sense of being agents of our own lives begins to grow within us. It is empowering in the deepest sense of the word. We are not empowered by someone giving us power, but by accessing our own portal to the infinite source of all power by remembering that we are one with it. The practices of yoga are designed to soften the bondage of our afflictions freeing us lead more fulfilling and authentic lives.
How to resolve asmita? Consistency in practice is the key to resolving all of the afflictions. Choose your practice and commit to it. I’ve been practicing simple standing everyday as my consistency practice in the morning. The posture is called Tadasana, and I do it every day, hopefully for ten minutes. I haven’t made it there yet. Sometimes the power of simple standing is so profound I question whether I am needed as a yoga teacher at all! This is a resolution of asmita.