Yoga philosophy teaches that the mind has four parts or functions: ahamkara, which is the ego mind; buddhi, which is our intellect and wisdom; manas, which is our sensory and perceiving mind; and chitta, which is our memory. The default mode of consciousness for most humans is the ahamkara, which causes much of our negativity, suffering, and discontent in life. When we practice yoga, we focus on cultivating and strengthening buddhi—the seat of wisdom, intuition, compassion, and insight. Residing in this “higher mind” helps us transcend the illusions created by our egos and live a fuller, happier life. Yoga provides the keys to self-knowledge is to understand the nature of the mind and to be free from the bondage and suffering of the ego mind.
What is ahamkara?
Ahamkara is a Sanskrit word meaning “I-maker.” Its root word aham translates as “self” and kara (from kri) means “doing” or “acting.” Thus, ahamkara is the self that is doing or the personality associated with this individual body. It refers to the sense of being an individual separate from everything else. In modern psychology, this is similar to the concept of ego. In Yoga psychology, the ahamkara is what creates our personality structure and individuated existence.
We build our identity on the pillar called “I am.” It is the belief that there is something inside us that makes us who we are. This “something” is our ahamkara, which has been programmed by our past experiences, beliefs, and emotions. Our ego mind believes that it is separate from everything else, including ourselves. It is sometimes referenced as “the instrument of the spirit” as it is the vehicle through which we experience ourselves and the world.
The positive aspects of ahamkara
A healthy and balanced ahamkara allows us to skillfully meet all of our needs to survive and grow. Our ego mind is best utilized as a source of willpower, commitment, and determination for achieving goals and attaining success in our worldly pursuits. We can harness the power of ahamkara as a tool for personal growth, to take responsibility for our own lives, and to create a sense of purpose and direction.
When our ego mind functions correctly, it protects us from danger and helps us to live an enjoyable life. Ahamkara is responsible for making decisions, taking actions, and controlling our behavior. Ahamkara is the place where we make decisions about what we will eat, drink, wear, say, think, feel, believe, and do. When we have a healthy sense of self-awareness, we know when we need to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and financially. We also understand when we need to put others first, and when we need to put our own desires aside. This is the function of ahamkara that can lead to health, happiness, and fulfillment.
The negative aspects of ahamkara
Unfortunately, our I-maker can often become unhealthy and distorted by thought patterns, colored impressions, and false beliefs that lead to feelings of separation, pain, and suffering. It can create false identities and false perceptions of who we are. The ego mind creates a sense of separateness from other people, places, things, and ideas. When this feeling of separation is too strong, it can cause us to feel isolated, lonely, and disconnected from the world around us. It can cause us not to trust others and to fear them.
Ahamkara causes us to suffer because it is attached to things, people, places, ideas, and concepts. It is the source behind our sense of I and me and mine. This attachment leads to greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, pride, arrogance, selfishness, and control. These emotions become inflamed when we do not get what we want. Strong emotions and selfishness further reinforce our emotional attachments and the colorings of the ego mind.
Ahamkara, samsara and karma
Our sense of identity is built on the pillars of our samskaric imprints and our past karma. A sensory impression that is coloured by ahamkara (attraction/repulsion) is stored in the chitta mind as a samskara. These become conditioned habits, which color and influence our current thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The functioning of ahamkara also creates new karmas and strengthens our existing samsaras.
The cyclical interactions of ahamkara, samsara and karma further alter our perception of reality and create reactive and unstable emotional states. If left unchecked, these karmas and samskaras will have more and more influence on how we perceive the world and how we interact with others.
Fortunately, we can harness the will of ahamkara to change our karma and dissolve our samskaras. As we learn to use ahamkara as an instrument of transformation, we begin to see through the illusions created by our thoughts and emotions. When we stop identifying with them, we begin to see ourselves differently. Our sense of who we are changes.
Yoga to balance and dissolve ahamkara
One of the main goals of yoga practice is to overcome the false identity of the I-maker and instead abide in our true identity. Yoga practice provides the keys to experience self-realization and the freedom from ahamkara’s illusion of separateness. The practices of yoga help us understand the nature of consciousness and the different aspects and functions of our mind. Mindfulness, meditation and inner awareness can enrich our understanding of what colors the mind and how to remove these distortions. Each path of yoga provides specific tools to letting go of the attachments of the ego mind, subdue the ahamkara, and cultivate the wisdom, intuition, compassion of the buddhi mind. All yoga paths lead to the same place, but they take different routes to get there.
Jnana yoga practitioners subdue their ahamkara through the practice of meditation, self-inquiry, and non-attachment. They practice to discern the difference between what is real and what is unreal. They learn to identify themself as pure consciousness, and they strive to realize that there is no separate “self” or “I”. This realization frees Jnana yogis from attachment to their own thoughts and feelings, and allows them to see things clearly without the distortions and coloring of the ego mind.
Bhakti yoga practitioners subdue their ahamkara through self-surrender and devotion. When we practice bhakti, we begin to understand that we are not separate from the Divine; rather, we are part of its creation. This understanding allows us to let go of any sense of separation from others. It also helps us to let go of the need to control things around us. Instead, we become aware of the interconnectedness of all beings.
Karma yoga practitioners subdue their ahamkara through self-sacrifice, kindness, and selfless service. When we dedicate our lives to service, we give up our own desires and needs in order to serve others. Selflessness and kindness become the foundation for our actions. We do not seek personal gain, but instead work towards the benefit of all. In this way, we free ourselves from selfish motives, greed, egoistic motivations and desire. Karma yoga cultivates generosity, compassion, kindness, humility, and love, which are natural antidotes for an overactive ahamkara.
Hatha yoga practitioners subdue their ahamkara through physical discipline. They learn how to move energy throughout the body using breath, alignment, awareness, and movement. By cultivating a strong connection with the subtle body, they gain access and control to the different levels of the mind. Through this process, they learn to focus on being present in each moment and to cultivate the calmness, concentration and wisdom of the buddhi mind.
Tantra yoga practitioners subdue their ahamkara through spiritual and energetic awakening. Through tantric practices, they awaken blissful states of love, joy, and ecstasy. The devotional practices of mantra, yantra, and puja are used to strengthen the spiritual body, activate the chakras (energy centers) and to access the higher dimensions of consciousness. These techniques are used to cleanse the ego mind and mind to break the knots that bind us to our physical existence. As we increase our connection to the divine energy of the universe, we begin to see the world as one interconnected web of life.