Why practice difficult asanas, if the practice of yoga is to be something other than an ego-driven, goal-oriented endeavor? Because in the act of doing something we don’t know how to do, we are forced to become more present in the moment, and gain an opportunity to break out of our habitual and unconscious patterns. However, the danger is that this worthwhile undertaking of increasing consciousness through the practice of new and challenging poses deteriorates into simply feeding our ego: We loose sight of the value of inquiry as a means to increase consciousness for the ego-gratification of accomplishment (or the ego-bashing of failure). But skirting the danger of succumbing to ego-gratification (or ego-bashing) presents an even more powerful opportunity: the opportunity to practice vanquishing the ego, which is most effectively done through the triggering of the ego.

This week we will explore unusual and challenging poses and variations with the firm intention of NOT trying to accomplish anything, of NOT comparing ourselves and our abilities or perceived lack thereof with others, but solely to engage deeply in the act of inquiry, to become more present in what we do, without goals, without attachments, without the desire for achievement.

Try it now: Sit quietly for a minute with your eyes closed, just observing your body and spreading your awareness. Then do a few cat/cow warm-ups and finally come into a downward dog, lengthening into the pose for 5 breaths or so. On an inhale, lift your right leg while keeping your hips level, then exhale and stack your right hip over your left hip while bending the lifted knee and pointing the lifted foot. This deep spinal twist is sometimes called scorpion dog. Notice how your left armpit collapses in the effort to stack your hips, and then lift through your left armpit to bring the shoulders back to level. Try to get the heel of your standing foot down on the floor by turning your toes OUT slightly.

Now comes the ego-triggering portion of the pose: Lift your left hand and place your fingertips on the floor just to the side of your mat, moving the hand about 15cm (6 inches) towards your left foot. Then very slowly, in 10 cm (4 inch) increments or so, keep moving your left hand towards your left foot, pausing and observing after each move. What triggers your ego in this pose is the knowledge that your left hand is “supposed” to reach your left ankle. I want you to notice your mind racing towards that eventuality and observe what happens. Depending on your level of flexibility, that knowledge may trigger a desire to rush ahead and grab the ankle right away, or it may trigger negative thoughts about your perceived lack of flexibility if grabbing the ankle is out of the question. Now listen carefully: Grabbing the ankle is NOT the point of this exercise. The point is observing how inquiry so easily deteriorates into an ego exercise (either ego gratification, or self-flagellation, depending on your flexibility, strength, and balance), and then to CHOOSE to stay simply with the inquiry and to refrain from getting your ego involved. Even if you can reach the ankle without falling out of the pose, I want you to NOT do that today, but to practice becoming fully present in whatever (imperfect) variation of the pose you find yourself. Notice how hard it is not to want to grab the ankle, but then turn your mind to the actual sensations of the shape that you are making, with the left hand on the floor, perhaps gradually moving towards the left foot, but never reaching it. And through your focus on the actual sensation of this moment, I want you to become fully present and to find joy in this moment through the letting go of the ego.

And if reaching your ankle with your hand is out of the question, I want you to observe your mind’s response to this realization. Can you let go of your habitual ego bashing, the endless refrain of “I am not good enough”? Knowing that you can’t reach the ankle, can you simply be at peace with wherever you are, finding joy in the sensations of the moment, finding joy in teetering on the edge of your balance, finding joy in turning your world upside down and placing yourself in a strange shape that requires your full awareness not to fall out of, finding joy in simply feeling your breath in this moment in time?

After a few breaths, slowly return the left hand to the front of the mat, and then lower the right leg to return to downward dog. Take a few smooth, deep breaths, and repeat on the other side.