In my pre-yoga life, I envisioned myself as a strong person, someone who could overcome obstacles and take on tough challenges. Yoga helped me realize that this feeling of strength is in fact coming from ego. It is a distorted and unsteady strength measured in the quantum of achievements reached and difficulties surmounted, dependent on the praise or sympathy of others.
Yoga philosophy sees strength as the natural outcome of the progressive practice of the first three bhavas (attitudes, states of being). Practice of dharma (duty sense), gyan (self-awareness, knowledge) and vairagya (non-attachment, surrender) culminate in aishwarya (strength, self-reliance). Surrender and letting go of ego are prerequisites for achieving this calm and abiding strength that arises from within irrespective of external circumstances.
I had a chance to put my practice of bhavas to the test about a month ago when I had a minor dental surgery. I’m no stranger to surgery, having been through several before on various body parts. On one hand I know the drill, literally and figuratively. On the other, there’s a lot of baggage in those prior experiences — memories of procedures that didn’t go as planned, anger at not being heard by doctors, fears about all that might go awry.
I admit that I initially felt pretty good about how I was approaching the procedure. I steadied occasional moments of anxiety by connecting with my breath. I played a more positive narrative in my head to replace the old one focused on what had gone wrong in the past. It was a new me and a new experience. There was no reason to expect complications. It was a waste of energy to conjecture about all the bad things that might happen. The doctor was knowledgeable and kind. I was strong enough to handle whatever might come with grace.
What I had hoped was unwavering peace of mind was unraveled by the IV. Historically, IV’s and I don’t have a good relationship. When the nurse came in with the IV kit, a simple comment on prior difficulties would have been appropriate. But as my anxiety rose, I lost the ability to go with the flow and defaulted to summoning strength by being a know-it-all.
Ego rose to the fore with its insatiable need to be right (I know better than you nurse!), accompanied by its desire for validation (what a tough time I’ve had!) and sympathy (poor me!). With the mighty ego trumping the equanimity I’d tried so hard to cultivate, I went on to regale the unfortunate nurse with my IV war stories. I made her so nervous that she opted to put the IV in my hand, an easier but more painful placement.
I became aware of my self-sabotage when the doctor came in with all a mound of paperwork. I signed sheet after sheet, breathing through the stinging sensation from the IV in my right hand. Humbled, I tried to regroup. The rest of the procedure went as planned.
This experience (like many others) pushes me to keep practicing. I remind myself that achieving the power and self-confidence of aishwarya requires letting go of ego as well as old baggage and its associated negativity. It means not being defined by the past, but being present here and now instead. I remind myself that to truly be strong, I have to find strength in surrender rather than in old battle scars.