Does Ego Affect Your Workout?


When we hear an instructor tell us to “check our egos at the door,” we tend to think that what he/she is saying is don’t be a show-off. But the ego is more than just the desire to show off – a whole lot more.

I use the word “ego” the same way it’s used in the classical yoga – as interchangeable with self-identity. Sometimes that self-identity tells us something different than what our intelligence tells us and that’s when we can run into trouble.

For example, attempting to do a handstand.

Our ego may tell us that we don’t want to be the only one in the room shying away from doing a handstand while our intelligence is telling us that no, we shouldn’t be doing it because we are not ready to try it.  Who do you listen to?

If you listen to your ego and your body really isn’t ready for handstand, you could get yourself into a big problem – like a serious fall.

Athletes win competitions because they work hard and are persistent. Some of us carry identities of athletes because that’s what we’d like to be seen as but we don’t work like an athlete. Instead of persistence, we use force. That’s ego, too. And it’s going to result in pain at some point.

What about the person who pushes through pain? Pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong and needs to be paid attention to. Yet for so many of us, pain is considered a test of one’s mettle, one’s “inner warrior,” and evidence that they are tough. Pain and aches are seen as some kind of badge of honor when in actuality they are signs that your body is breaking down. I read a story in Sports Illustrated recently about runners who will never run again because they’ve totally destroyed the cartilage in their knees. That level of degradation did not come overnight nor was it silent. The body called out but they ignored it – why? My guess is that their self-identity as a racer was so important to them that they ignored their body’s intelligence.

Following the directive of the ego will almost always have a negative result. This is just as true in Yoga and Pilates as it is in running or bootcamping. Yoga and Pilates should be about the self-care and empowerment of the individual yet so many classes include tricks that, frankly, most people should not be doing. Yes, these asanas or exercises are challenging but do you know what the original intent of these exercises was?

In yoga, asanas were not gravitated to because they provided the yogi with a kind of P90X-type challenge. It was because an asana had become “empty” of sensation. There was no challenge mentally and so the yogi sought to push his edge to reach a new level of disturbance – in this way, he would learn to find the sweetness and steadiness of the pose in this new place, thus expanding his experience of centeredness in a bigger environment of chaos.

Pilates as originally crafted by Joseph Pilates should be done for the health and wellness of the individual’s body. Unlike other exercise forms where the health of the body is often sacrificed for the achievement of a ideal (dance is one example of an athletic activity where certain lines of the body can be achieved only with the sacrifice of a healthy spine, knees or hips), in Classical/Authentic Pilates the body is not encouraged to be out of a healthy alignment during execution of the exercises. Pilates is essentially maintenance; it is a strengthening and lengthening system that should be applied appropriately to the individual.

It is truly unfortunate to see exercises that Joe crafted for circus performers being attempted by the average exerciser in a desire to do tricks. It is even sadder to consider that there are instructors actually teaching Pilates this way.

Yet this is how ego has wormed its way into both yoga and Pilates. By the way, there are already yoga “competitions” and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Pilates “competitions” one day. In a nod to ego-worship, our crazy fitness culture has taken away the foundational value in the pursuit of the superficial allure.

Does this mean that someone should stay away from learning tricks or advanced movements? Not at all. But if those tricks or advanced movements come with a price tag of nagging pain or injury, perhaps you should stay away from them until you are ready and prepared. A good teacher – plus practice practice practice – will have you well-prepared for those advanced poses!

Learn to tune in to your intelligence. Sometimes it may tell you that you’re not quite ready to take on a new task. It may tell you that you need to take it easy for one day or maybe even rest. Learn the difference between taking care of your body and pushing it toward new challenge – both are fine but not always right depending on the day – listen to your inner intelligence guide you as to how you should workout today.

Learn to listen to your inner guide and you may never have to give up the physical activities you love.