by Jeff McMahon
You roll out of savasana feeling at peace, open-hearted, one with everything and everyone, and then someone on the next mat says, “I didn’t like that class.”
Or maybe something more subtle—”What was up with that playlist?” or “How does she expect us to get into trikonasana that way?”
Sometimes even “What’d you think?” is enough to harsh your mellow and bring you back to monkeymind. You’ve just been working for 60 or 75 or 90 minutes to stop thinking, and here you are being asked to think.
Teachers often remind us not to judge ourselves or the yogis around us. Here’s a classic example of that reminder from Aida Beilkus of Boston’s Health Yoga Life studio:
Picture this: You are on your yoga mat in Warrior II and you look over to the mat next to yours. Seeing that student, you check out their posture, and almost subconsciously, you hear a voice judging that person next to you. That voice is your internal one. That voice is judgmental. The judgment could be negative: ‘Wow, that man has a major beer belly!’ Or even more complicated is being positive toward someone else and negative toward yourself: ‘Gosh, she is so good at this and I am horrible at it!’
When you are in that moment of judgment not only are you judging, but more importantly you are not practicing yoga. Yoga and judgment are like oil and water – they never mix.Yoga and judgment are mutually exclusive; you cannot truly be practicing yoga and judging people.
If we’ve been practicing for a while we’ve gotten this message: we should not be judging other students or ourselves.
But who among us does not judge the teacher?
Her classes are too hot/her classes are too cold/she goes too fast/she goes too slow/she’s hurting my back/she’s trying to kill us….
As Aida says, yoga and judgment do not mix. If we’re judging the teacher, we’re not practicing yoga. So if we’re not practicing yoga, what are we judging, exactly? A workout, a performance, our own personal experience?
And what sense does it make to attach such judgments to a yoga teacher?
Patanjali probably had a good reason for emphasizing the yamas as the first limb of yoga and ahimsa as the first of the yamas.
“The name of the first limb of the eighfold path, yama, originally meant bridle or rein,” Aadil Palkhivala tells us. “Patanjali used it to describe a restraint that we willingly and joyfully place on ourselves to focus our efforts, the way a rein allows a rider to guide his horse in the direction he would like to go. In this sense, self-restraint can be a positive force in our lives, the necessary self-discipline that allows us to head toward the fulfillment of our dharma, or life purpose.”
The yamas are not just moral imperatives, they are practical steps to clear our minds for yoga. Ahimsa—non harming—encompasses not only non-violence but also non-judgment. In Patanjali’s yoga, ahimsa is Step One.
To practice yoga, first we must halt the judging mind.
But non-judgment gets complex when it comes to teachers, because some evaluation is necessary for selecting and training teachers, for keeping students safe. When the system works, that evaluation is conducted by master teachers so students don’t have to do it themselves. But even master teachers acknowledge that students have to be selective:
“Before actually taking someone as a spiritual master it is important to examine him or her, ask others about that person, and examine yourself,” writes Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in his book The Way to Freedom. “You should analyze his or her words and actions.”
Close analysis of a teacher will lead to “deep admiration,” the Dalai Lama predicts, and then, he says, it’s necessary to drop judgment of the teacher in order to receive the teaching.
“Listeners should not be spending time reflecting upon the faults of the master…. The Buddha said that one should not rely upon the person of the master but rather rely upon the teaching, the substance of his or her teaching, the message of the Buddha. It is very important to respect the teacher from the viewpoint of the sacredness of the teaching itself.”
The Dalai Lama regards the student as an empty vase, ready to collect wisdom. “If the vase is upside down, though the gods might rain down nectar, it would merely drain down the sides of the vase.”
The practice of ahimsa brings the mind closer to yoga’s destination, that serenity where there is no judgment, no anger, no jealousy, because there is no separation between us. It keeps the vase rightside-up. Aida Bielkus:
In yoga we come into the present moment by yoking movement with conscious breath. We consciously observe and release feelings and fears of the past and future. The internal voice quiets and only is replaced with an inner guru. In this space you are able to observe yourself, neutrally acknowledge and accept what is, thereby coming into balance. In the silence of the present moment we find a deep appreciation for all that is. Our heart smiles from within. Within this joy there is no room for judgment.
But what about those classes that just don’t work for us? The teacher’s voice bothers us or her cueing or her music or another student’s moaning or snoring or the damn heat drives us to distraction, and we find ourselves unable to settle the mind.
First, says Pema Chödrön, consider whether the right response is to attach our frustration to something, like the teacher, that’s outside of ourselves:
This lousy world, these lousy people, this lousy government, this lousy everything. Lousy weather, lousy blah blah blah blah. Pissed off, you know, it’s too hot in here, it’s too cold, I don’t like the smell, and the person is too tall in front, and too fat next to me, and they’re wearing perfume, and I’m allergic, and just — unnnh!
The analogy is that you’re barefooted, it’s like being barefooted and walking across blazing-hot sand or across cut glass. Or in a field with thorns. And your feet are bare, and you say, this is just, you know, it’s really hurting, it’s terrible, it’s too sharp, it’s too painful, it’s too hot.
Do I have a great idea! I am just going to cover the whole world, everywhere I go, I’m going to cover it with leather. And then it won’t hurt my feet anymore.
We can locate our frustration externally, in teacher or studio or fellow students, or we can locate it in the only place where it actually exists, the only place where we can alleviate it: in our own mind.
My teacher Kent Bond suggests that when a class just isn’t working, we can always transform it by working on uddiyana bandha. Turn any class into an uddiyana-bandha class! And when I have had the discipline, Kent’s suggestion has worked for me. When I don’t have the discipline, it’s not the teacher’s fault.
How else can we transform classes? By focusing on the breath, on relaxation, on loving-kindness, on ahimsa…
What if our judgment of a teacher is positive? Remember that ahimsa prohibits harm, not gratitude. And if we experience bliss in a yoga class, we’re probably not experiencing it through the judging mind anyway. Next time you get blissed, notice: doesn’t the bliss come first, and then the mind seek reasons for it? her sequence! her pace! her alignment cues! that magical assist!
If we find that a teacher’s particular style brings us to bliss again and again, what’s the harm in seeking that teacher again and again, in experiencing or expressing gratitude and appreciation?
And finally, whether a class works for us or not, it can always help to remember why the teacher is in the studio.
She’s probably not teaching yoga to become wealthy. Something in her life, something in her being, has inspired her to harness her whole self—body, mind, and spirit—to bring health, peace, and happiness to others.
“The gift of dharma exceeds all gifts,” the Buddha says.
She’s offering us her gift.
This article also appeared in elephant journal.
Teachers and Teachings:
Sivandanda on Ahimsa (text)
Kent Bond, Willow Glen Yoga (site)
- Cultivating Peace through Ahimsa and Pratipaksha Bhavanam (lotusrayshealing.wordpress.com)