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Stop Being Judgy and Unyogic! — How Discernment Got Lost in 21st-Century Yoga

in YD News, Yogitorials

viveka-yoga-judgment-sutra-2.5by 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 and Yoga 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.



35 comments… add one
  • TKV Desikachar was known to say: “You don’t check someone’s poses, you check their discernment.” Cheers.

    • I love this. I’ve heard Judith Lasater say (and I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t want someone to write on my gravestone, ‘Judith did amazing backbends.’ I hope someone writes, ‘Judith was honest, kind and wise.’”

  • I’ve been called judgmental, a hater, unyogic, and more because of what I’ve written in my blog. which means I must be doing something right! 😀

    • Yep. It’s not so simple as dismissing any criticism, no matter how reasoned, as being unyogic and judgmental. It seems as if it’s a stage that lots of people go through as they begin to discover yoga. Not being judgmental (in this confused definition) is seen as being loving and open. But most of the time it kills the messenger while it justifies selfish, harmful behavior.

  • maitri

    This lack of discernment between the two [lol] is also a product of the current PC mindset-not just in yogic culture. There appears to be a growing and pervasive mindset that thinking in nuance means judgement. Yet, alchemy and its by product of enlightenment [along with any number of phenomena such as compassion, kindness, intelligence, etc] rely on discernment and even discrimination. The logic faculties have gotten a bad rep through misuse and are now all but ignored if not dissuaded by new age ‘be in the heart’ speak, along with the rush to cry oppression without using critical thinking skills. The result is that many allow ‘other’ to think for them, whether this other is a philosophical or cultural tradition, or popular media. Yet, systems cannot do our work for us. The heart and emptiness are not thoughtless, though they may be free of thought. Intellect is part of Intelligence.

    • Thanks for your cogent explanation of some of the underlying causes for the case against discernment. Decades ago, I remember hearing a discourse by Osho where he expounded upon the idea that the right brain—logic, intellect—is “ugly” and the left brain—creativity, heart—is “beautiful.” My immediate reaction was to think that balance is beautiful. The two wings of the Buddhadharma are wisdom and compassion, qualities of intelligence and heart. They balance each other.

  • S.

    Very timely! If I saw a student in Salamba Sarvangasana trying too look around at other students, I would immediately correct them and tell them why this is dangerous. Does that mean I am judging them? Yes! I am teaching them correct action. In today’s yoga climate, that correction would be interpreted as “you are imposing your male, privileged values on my expression of the pose.” In reality, I am practicing Ahimsa by not allowing the student to proceed further until they have understood the instruction. By saying “I can practice however I want because all is good” you are allowing the weeds of poor discernment to shape your practice. Yoga is a discipline. Discipline is hard work and changes you. Many people who use the “you are judging me” card cannot tolerate discipline, then use “you are judging me” as a defense mechanism to do whatever they want and not learn the lesson.

    • Thanks for this! I so agree that yoga is a discipline. It is unfortunate that the word “discipline” has such a negative connotation. Its root is from the Latin verb meaning “to learn.” Yoga is not just whatever someone decides it should be. The established framework challenges us to think and act differently—to explore what is not comfortable. Of course, we need to adapt some parts of it to fit into our lives as Western householders, but the framework (especially the Eight Limbs) is broad enough and non-specific enough that we can do that.

  • I have the same problem as a newby to yoga! Also check out this story that has been really inspiring to me and got me started on this path of meditation! http://jasongarner.com/

    • Thanks for the link. Congratulations on your journey into meditation. I will read Jason’s blog.

  • Kadag Drolma

    “The two wings of the Buddhadharma are wisdom and compassion, qualities of intelligence and heart. They balance each other.”

    Charlotte – regarding this quote – over the years I have so frequently noticed that when HH Dalai Lama refers to “mind” he doesn’t point to his head, he touches his heart. I have wondered so often what our culture (and myself) could be if mind and heart were conceptualized as same. What could my world be if I think with my heart – I’m working on it.

    Thank you, as always, for your wise and thoughtful writing.

    • Thanks, Kadag! I agree that as a culture we tend to overthink things and leave our hearts out of the process. But I also see a pervasive misunderstanding of what living in the heart means in yoga culture. Too often it’s about “it’s all good” and if you’re not feeling that you’re obviously not “spiritual.” Heart wisdom includes discrimination and the understanding that in fact, it’s okay to acknowledge the suffering as well as the happiness.

      • Kadag Drolma

        In complete agreement – didn’t mean to imply otherwise. And, from my personal observations, the more we avoid acknowledgement of suffering, the more suffering we’re creating. And the more we play the “it’s all good” game the more disconnected we become from what is truly there.

        Further personal observations – if I am able to stay present and acknowledge whatever sufferings may be in any moment the more opportunities I have to bring discernment to each situation, which leads to the capacity to generate more compassion for self and other. If I am ever to have any hope of dissolving the self-imposed illusory boundaries of self/other, I believe it will follow along those lines of presence, discernment, compassion…………..

  • A very helpful contribution to the debate. Thanks.

  • E.

    I am with you on the “It’s all good” phenomenon. It is most definitely not all good.
    Having a basic sense of right and wrong is a life necessity, and not just for people who say they are on a spiritual path. Hopefully most of us can make good choices using good judgment. This is the kind of judgment that it is indeed a fine idea to hang onto.

    But the word viveka, which you seem to use to refer to this rudimentary ability to make reasoned decisions, means something more specialized in the yoga literature—

    “discrimination between these two—the Self and the not-Self” ~Vivekachudamani, verse 47

    —in other words, between ultimate reality and our projections thereupon, between the permanent and the impermanent, between Spirit and mind. In his commentary on Sutra II.26, Satchidananda says:

    “Discrimination does not mean to discriminate what is salt and what is sugar. That is just ordinary understanding. The real discrimination is to tell the original basic Truth from the ever-changing names and forms it assumes.”

    This really isn’t the same thing as what you are talking about in your piece.

    I understand that you went through a difficult time when you let these terms get tangled together—judgment (good judgment, basic understanding, as above); judgment (of other people’s morality/actions), and spiritual discernment. But we can exercise good judgment without being “judgy”—keep our good judgment but let go of judgment as condemnation.

    To refrain from labeling, shaming or blaming does not mean we have to sit back and say, “It’s all good . . .” It does not mean we have to condone hurtful behavior that we experience or witness. We can see other people making questionable choices, as it were (people in the yoga world or not), and have opinions about it and speak them, and make our own choice to distance ourselves from such behavior.

    But I don’t think that is viveka.

    As I understand it, every mention of the concept of viveka in the Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vivekachudamani, and in secondary sources like Feuerstein refers to one’s own life and choices. Nowhere is there a suggestion that we appoint ourselves to the bench and make any “discernments” at all about others. Svhadyaya is self-study and study of scripture. Not study of what everyone else is doing.

    Perhaps this understanding is, as you suggest in one of your comments, a rookie mistake on my part. I have not practiced yoga as long as you have . . .

    You began your post with a story about noticing your mind’s tendency to judge its own actions during meditation. You lost me when you made the leap to judging other people’s actions, and claiming that the yoga literature told you to.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate your understanding of viveka. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. I think that we are quite in agreement about viveka, but we are coming to it from different angles.

      Actually, when I was back in my anti-judging days, I hadn’t read any yoga literature at all. I got the message that judging was not okay from yoga culture. The cult of positivity was present even back then in yoga/new age culture. The leap I made that judging others’ actions was not okay was based on the people I was hanging out with, not on yogic texts.

      In quoting Sutras 2.3-2.5 and 2.25, I was making a leap of sorts when I left out some of the important sutras in between that further explain ignorance and the development of discernment. In quoting Sutra 2.5 I hoped to make the connection about ignorance—as the opposite of discernment—being the “inability to distinguish between the permanent and the impermanent, the pure and the impure, bliss and suffering, the Self and the non-Self.” I considered going into what these distinctions mean, but made an editorial decision to keep the post a bit more down to earth. So thanks for expounding on that in your comment!

      I agree that discernment is not about appointing ourselves to the bench to make judgments about others. Discernment is more about where questioning someone’s behavior comes from. Discernment allows us to understand that harmful behaviors are neither inherently good nor bad, but that they are based in the illusion of a separate self and therefore, rooted in ignorance, and will likely lead to suffering. The choice comes from understanding the causes and consequences rather than from an opinion about what is good or bad. So if you are making a statement about someone’s behavior based on the understanding of what is truth and what is illusory, the motivation to join the conversation is likely to be about preventing further suffering. This is not the same as judgment, snark, etc. Does this make sense?

      • E.

        Thank you for your reply; I said a bit of a mouthful. Yes, it does make sense. But I think when one is making a statement about someone [else]’s behavior based on one’s understanding of what is truth and what is illusory, tone is everything. The recent Yoga Truck Controversy brought back unfortunate memories of some of the yogier-than-thou attitude I experienced while in New York. It is particularly dismaying to hear teachers and more advanced practitioners than me gossiping in ways that sound mean-spirited. If the intention is to prevent suffering, it is important to speak compassionate words from a compassionate heart lest the intention be lost in the message.

        • Yes, absolutely. Gossip is not right speech. But expressing concern for the bigger-picture reasons that someone’s actions might be unskillful is not the same thing. Yes, there’s plenty of yogier-than-thou attitude to go around. Discernment is not gossip or snark, as you point out. There’s a big difference. Thanks again for contributing to the conversation!

  • Vision_Quest2

    While we are on the subject of thinking with your heart/head … what if it took age, infirmity and discernment, for a person to learn to consciously think with their whole body as a system … taking the lessons yoga taught them about how the body reacts on that cellular level … to the battles against the mind or in the quest to transcend your mind …

  • paul

    there is a lot of name calling, snark, and expressions of cultural neuroses from those who question yoga (unskillful behavior and otherwise), and many words justifying the name calling and snark, why questioning the questioners is wrong, and clique bashing (which was the common of critique of friend and bikram before the allegations, and something “it’s all good” seeks to remedy, in its efficient and naive way). Articles like this that discuss in more depth, and do not name call etc. are rare; the pushback against questioning would be lighter were they more common, definitely not lost.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree that the pushback would be less if there was less snark and name calling. It’s so easy to bash anonymously on the internet. I’ve made it a policy never to comment anonymously, so that I have to be accountable for what I say. It keeps me on a respectful track.

      I grew up in a family that used snark for humor so I’m very good at it. But I don’t think it’s productive; it seems just to beget even more snark. I’ve been consciously practicing right speech for the past dozen or so years and it’s very tricky and subtle, and I’m certainly not always successful, but it’s been a very valuable exploration.

      • Vision_Quest2

        You mean to say that your controlling of your “tongue” is a willful act?

        For my part, I many many times have to resort to “Focusing” techniques (per the Eugene T. Gendlin book – I know I give away my pushing-60 age by drawing on this old school source), IRL, of course – otherwise I would act out a lot more frequently than I do. I have to go deep, deep inside and draw upon my mind/WHOLE-body wisdom through calling upon my felt sense, in his parlance …

        But then it’s easy for me … except for about a 2 year hiatus, I had meditated for hours at a time, for years … I KNOW the drill …

      • paul

        anonymity is abused, but there are many people proud to put their name to cruel words, yoga or no. american culture in general is sarcastic; i think the main appeal of yoga selfies (and positivity culture generally) is that it isn’t sarcastic, offering an experience of a pure relaxed tension, and manufactured though the image/experience may be it is something difficult to dispute, let alone using derisive language or accusations of narcissism. were questioners making efforts to avoid the pitfalls of sarcasm, as you do so well (it’s always amazing to me how difficult it is), i think discussing the basics of viveka would not be anomalous.

        • Vision_Quest2

          American culture is not sarcastic, so much as it is cynical to a degree … and the cynicism snowballs. One person does it anonymously or not; so then well, looks ok to do–so others pile on. It is a catharsis to pile on (like mobbing used to do …) until you realize whatever you’re criticizing goes on their merry way, perhaps shifting ever so slightly at best–either raking in the cash, getting brownie points, or just losing interest after a while (there are some who go real deep – maybe a manic streak – but then they are really all upon some other activity or issue ..)

  • Thanks for your thoughts. Right speech is definitely a willful act! I may be wrong, but I don’t believe I have to think about it as much as I used to. It’s become a bit more automatic. But as you say, meditation is key. If you aren’t aware of your intentions when you speak or write, it’s pretty easy to say something you later wish you hadn’t!

  • Vision_Quest2

    Well, the truth is that you could say the SAME EXACT THING, no holds barred; but in a different tone. You could choose to say it without backing it up with threatening physical gestures. Either way, they remember you … at least for something. At least for a second.

    Maybe they even fear you next time. Or maybe it was just a temporary act.

    But, they don’t change … sometimes even if what they do bites them in the a$$ … they just regroup and move on to the other marks … there seems to be a plentiful supply 😉

    Focusing allows you to choose to distance yourself from troubling situations … to choose to say “No” and mean it. Without saying a word. It is what The Silva Method calls, “the subjective method” (I think). And it casts your subjective vote, that could be felt psychically by the people in that situation, even if not communicated to them …

    Gendlin did not study any yoga. The founder of Silva Method dabbled in it. There are things that yoga cannot do that are much more powerful than using your will to communicate better.

  • Kadag Drolma

    I came upon this quote while studying this morning – from Thupten Jinpa, HHDalaiLama’s primary translator.

    “People tend to immediately think of meditation as someone sitting quietly, emptying their mind. But if you look at original Sanskrit term, bhāvanā, and the Tibetan term, gom, from which this term meditation is kind of being used now as a translation. Bhāvanā has the connotation of cultivation. It’s like cultivating a field. So there is this connotation of cultivation, and the Tibetan term gom has the connotation of familiarity, a process of familiarity. Meditation can be, as His Holiness often points out, analytic where it’s not simply sitting down and quieting your mind, but it can actually be a process where you use kind of discernment and move from stages and stages to, in some sense, uncovering layers and layers to get to a point.”

    My attention was caught by the use of the word “discernment” and his description of meditation as a cultivation process to get to a “point”. Although yoga and Buddhism aren’t the same thing, they certainly teach similar processes of cultivation and discernment to “get to” a similar point. Certainly, in this case, Jinpa’s use of the word ‘discernment’ isn’t intended to mean ‘judgy’. Discernment means judgment from a wise and skillful place. So how might our culture arrive to an understanding that the point of yogic practices, the point of meditation pratices, could be more meaningful than self promotion of my kick ass abs in expensive clothing while wearing high heels?……………. And that such an understanding, and practicing from that understanding, is far more fulfilling to the individual than practicing with an end goal of self promotion and pride in a hard body? And that those who use a discerning heart/mind are coming from a place of cultivated skillful wisdom and not kneejerk reaction? I don’t have the answers but these are questions that certainly seem quite alive for us now – a crossroads of some sort. And I value the conversation as I work my way through it all on my mat and on my cushion and try to stay in discernming mind while dismantling my own seemingly innate judgy mind.

    Thanks for setting me off on new contemplations Charlotte – quite thought provoking and interesting to watch what else arises. If nothing else at least the conversation provides more fuel for my own self exploration and self awareness.

  • Whitebeads

    Thanks for this. Both the yoga and meditation communities have had to grow up about this issue. I’ve practice meditation and retreats since 1990. and even the teachers, even then, were caught up in this confusion. I’m hearing much more wise teachings now.
    As to the messes with John Friend et all and their apologists — there is also a particular dynamic at work regarding abuse, charismatic figures. cult leaders and mob mentalities. Perpetrators of various kinds and severities are often surrounded by apologists and enablers. Many of them are, unfortunately, women. They’re drawn by the power of a dominant, charismatic guy, displace their own power onto him, and then will turn vicious on anyone who would “judge” or criticize. They’re protecting their own positions in the hierarchy. It’s the height of ignorant behavior. (Yes, I know there are female perps/bad leaders, and male enablers, but this culture being what it is, the majority of cases run along traditional gendered lines.) Yes, many of us have been over this dynamic ad infinitum, but the problems are so disastrous we need to keep those dynamics in mind, always.
    Learn from it. What you want to call discernment, I, as a humanities prof drawing from western traditions of rationalism and empiricism, call “using your judgment faculties.” It’s the same. Use your head. Use your skepticism. Don’t just “follow your bliss.” Use your conscience.

    • Whitebeads

      PS — please excuse the typos! Ha!

  • The baseline nirodha state can be jarring to integrate for especially as it relates to judgement. Pure experience without thought could be mistaken for “anything goes”. In fact the world seems to confirm that anything goes! I mean just watch your lovely cat eat a rabbit literally alive in front of you then come to purr at your side. Ahh life. So full of seeming contradictions.

    That being said, I really enjoy this article and it helps because Conscioussness as experienced in my form seems a bit “too flexible” to contain karmic action…. if that makes any sense.

    What I hear you saying here in my head boils down to navigation of the moment rather than fixed enforcement of “samskaric” norms as enforced by our previous habitual actions… Can you get behind that or would you add something.

    I’d also be interested in how you see merging with Isvara Pranidhana plays into Viveka. I.e when yoked (to whatever degree you can muster/disappear to be here) is it your personal viveka , or do you also get the sense that it’s really just one giant filter that we all are experiencing to various degrees of pleasure pain or whatever.

    PSA for this convo:
    caution – the mind can even appropriate viveka just like a glimpse of samadhi. so viveka your viveka… ooo geez.

    Love you all and that you for this. I needed it this morning

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