Stop Being Judgy and Unyogic! — How Discernment Got Lost in 21st-Century Yoga
by Charlotte Bell
In 1988, I attended my first silent Insight Meditation retreat. I noticed one thing right off—how incredibly out-of-control my mind is. But as my mind began to quiet a little, I started to notice something more subversive: that my mind judged everything. If I stayed focused for an entire breath, I’d label it “good” meditation. If I caught my mind spinning out in thoughts, I’d label that “bad” meditation. As time passed and my awareness got more subtle, I saw myself judging my judgments. “Oops! I just judged that last breath as ‘bad.’ I must be bad. Auggghhh! I’m judging again!” On and on it went.
I was shocked at how pervasive my judging habit was. I realized that my judgments of everything were not reality; they were completely subjective and not intrinsic to the truth of the moment. Plus, the negative judgments didn’t feel good. They felt ugly.
This insight sent me into a period of being completely anti-judgment. I thought that any less-than-glowing evaluation of another person’s actions was judging, and therefore, bad—Oops! Judging again. Each person has his/her own dharma, I thought. We’re all following our own truth. Who am I to judge?
In a lot of ways, this made life easier. I could “follow my bliss” and if someone else happened to take it wrong, well, they were just being judgmental. My truth just happened to clash with theirs. If they had a judgment about it, that was their problem.
I made some poor choices during that period in my life. Living in what we now call the “cult of positivity,” averse to what I thought was “unyogic” judgment, I caused considerable hurt to a person that was very dear to me. This was just one of a series of unwise choices that resulted in the loss of a treasured relationship and a longtime job. Pursuing what I thought was non-judgmental “yogic” bliss—everything’s yoga, so anything goes, right?—I ended up making a chaotic mess of my life, culminating in a year of immense suffering as I reckoned with the choices I’d made and committed to rebuilding my life in a much more conscious way.
It was then that I began to understand that not all evaluations can be classified as damaging judgments. Wise discrimination is actually an essential part of the yogic path. If the purpose of yoga is “the settling of the mind into silence” (from Sutra 1.2), wise discrimination is crucial to that end. Our minds cannot settle into silence when we’re continually making unwise choices. Tossing all evaluations out the window in the pursuit of being judgment free is antithetical to the settling of the mind.
Having traveled the relentlessly positive, anti-judgment path and having experienced the damage it wrought, I have a visceral response to the inevitable labels of “judgy” and “unyogic” that get applied to the questioning of unskillful behaviors by (mostly) famous yoga teachers.
Remember the outing of John Friend’s, Bikram’s and Kausthaub Desikachar’s damaging behaviors, and the many apologists who rushed to their defense in the interest of not judging? Those same judgment-averse commentors ended up inflicting a lot of judgment on those who dared to question hurtful behaviors, no matter how thoughtful and reasoned their arguments. Many times it has seemed as if “judging” was deemed a much bigger crime than the exploitive behaviors that triggered the conversation.
It’s true that judging can be damaging. It’s also true that judging, the automatic labeling of something as “good” or “bad,” is often the result of a shallow understanding of a situation. It is culturally-based judgments about our own bodies or our own abilities that cause many of the injuries that happen in asana practice. And of course, the mindstuff that we encounter on the mat is quite likely a microcosm of what’s going on in our minds in the rest of our lives. It pays to be aware of the worlds our minds create.
But there is a difference between judgment and discernment. Discernment is the faculty that asks us to consider the yamas, the foundation of the system of yoga, when we are faced with a perplexing choice. Discernment asks us to consider the potential consequences of our behavior.
Vivekachudamani—meaning “Crest Jewel of Discrimination”—is a 580-verse poem that describes the quality of viveka, wise discrimination or discernment. The text describes the development of viveka as the central task on the yogic journey, and calls discrimination the “crown jewel” of the qualities we need to develop in order to reach enlightenment. Definitions abound, but to my mind, viveka is the ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is impermanent, what is real and what is unreal, the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering.
The Yoga Sutras list the five causes of suffering: ignorance of our real nature, egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of death. Sutra 2.4 states that ignorance of our real nature is the source of the other four causes. Sutra 2.5 goes on to define ignorance as “the failure to discriminate between the permanent and the impermanent, the pure and the impure, bliss and suffering, the Self and the non-Self.” Sutra 2.25 states: “When ignorance is destroyed, the Self is liberated from its identification with the world. This liberation is Enlightenment.”
So according to Patanjali, discrimination is the antidote to ignorance, the root cause of all our suffering. The uprooting of ignorance leads to freedom. Our freedom is not limited by our loyalty to conscious, ethical behavior; it is dependent on it.
Discernment allows us to see beyond the unconscious, relentless pursuit of temporary bliss, which keeps us on the hamster wheel of samsara. Viveka is dependent on mindfulness, our ability to discern in each moment’s experience whether our choices will lead to happiness or to suffering. Viveka allows us to look deeply into each situation and make choices according to the truth of the moment. While judgment looks at a situation and labels it good or bad based on our beliefs, viveka evaluates whether our or another person’s actions lead to lasting happiness or to suffering. Big difference.
Viveka is not name calling. It is not snark. Viveka is not petty judgment based on jealousy or just being an old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t want yoga to be fun—characterizations the judgment police level at those who question unskillful behavior. Viveka is, in fact, essential in discovering lasting happiness, the happiness that is not dependent on our external circumstances or those things that will necessarily change—which is everything in our experience.
I don’t doubt that John Friend’s teachings created some happiness during Anusara’s 15-year run. I also know that his private actions caused a lot of chaos and suffering for a whole lot of people in the Anusara community. Many people claim the benefits of Bikram yoga, yet Bikram’s alleged rape of his students, if true, has undoubtedly caused profound damage, as rape always does. To dismiss these men’s critics as judgmental and “unyogic” is to diminish the suffering these kinds of actions can cause.
When those of us who have been practicing yoga for many years flinch at some of the ways practice is presented these days, it is not simply judgment or fuddy-duddiness at work. It is discernment based on the understanding that the way yoga is often presented to the world—whether it’s misbehavior of famous teachers or the barrage of fancy-pose selfies—diminishes its power and makes yoga yet another expression of the cultural neuroses from which it is meant to free us.
Yoga has tremendous power to heal not only our personal lives, but also the world around us. When we begin to experience our interconnectedness with everything and everyone around us, we become much more conscious of the power of our actions. We are more likely to act in ways that heal our world, rather than in ways that simply prop us up as individuals. It is viveka that teaches us the difference.
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. In 2013, she founded Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. She’s grateful to have enjoyed the support of her meditation teachers, Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, and her main asana teachers, Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater, along the way. Charlotte writes a monthly column for Catalyst Magazine, and the blog for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products, and is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life andYoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and in the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose documentary won two Emmy awards in 2010. Find more at her website: charlottebellyoga.com.