PYS 2.26 viveka-khyātiḥ aviplavā-hāna-upāyaḥ
Meaning: Through the process of unwavering recognition of what is right and wrong, viveka (discrimination or right judgment), one can eliminate ignorance. -Austin Sanderson
PYS 2.30 ahiṃsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahāḥ yamāḥ
Meaning: Non-violation, Truthfulness, Non-stealing, Continence, Non-gripping. These are the five restraints. – Austin Sanderson, Urban Sadhu Yoga Chant Book
If you do a simple online search for “non-judgment and yoga” you get a plethora of articles with titles such as: How to Practice Non-Judgment in Yoga and Meditation, How Yoga Teaches Non-Judgment, No Judgment Yoga, or No Shame! 5 Ways to Stay in the Flow When Judgment Creeps In! It’s clear that articles proclaiming “non-judgment” in the yoga tradition are plentiful in “Yogaland” (the modern commodification of yoga through mass marketing). We hear all the time that “yogis are supposed to be non-judgmental” – but is this the case?
To be clear, I can’t actually think of any Yoga Shastra (manual) that prescribes non-judgment as a quality that a yogi should possess. When we dig deeper into the yoga texts we find that viveka (“discrimination” or “right judgment”) is required far more often than non-judgment is. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the term viveka appears six times, while the term asana (seat) appears only three times. Asana practice dominates the modern yoga landscape and yet viveka, the practice of “right judgment,” discussed twice as much in the Yoga Sutras, is inadvertently avoided and suppressed as a discipline.
Patanjali first mentions viveka three sutras before listing the five Yamas: non-violation (or non-violence), truthfulness, non-stealing, continence (restriction of sexual energy), and non-gripping (or non-greed). He is clear that the budding yogi must be able to judge, discriminate, and restrain (yama literally means to “restrict”) any of their thoughts, words, and actions that are harmful, untrue, dishonest, manipulative, or controlling to others. Patanjali is clear: a yogi must know the difference between right and wrong. This self-imposed internal practice of judgment is about moving inward by means of critical thinking and self-analysis. The text expects yogis to be a “good judge” of the many possible paths our actions can take in order to find the right one. Clearly, the text suggests there is a right and wrong path and a right and wrong way to live one’s life.
So how did non-judgment creep into yoga? In the Bible, both old and new testaments, non-judgment or restraint in judgment appears in at least 47 scriptures, if not more (to be honest, after 47 I grew weary of counting). Abrahamic theology (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) names God, Jesus Christ, or Allah as the ultimate and only judge, but yogic philosophy does not do this. Judgment and discrimination are a form of critical thinking and historically, Abrahamic religions have always discouraged individual critical thinking. Yoga takes the opposite approach: yoga expects the yoga practitioner to make rational judgment decisions about one’s personal actions and those of the people we interact with. In fact, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (God) tells Arjuna (a warrior prince) that it is Arjuna’s “job” (his Dharma) to lay out a path of judgment that condemns and ultimately defeats the “wicked” adversaries at the battlefield of Kurukshetra. We know that this is not an easy task for Arjuna, because the “wicked” ones happen to be Arjuna’s relatives. Krishna tells Arjuna that a human’s aim in life is to become a Sthitpragyan. In Sanskrit sthit means “steady or firm,” and pragyan means “judgment or reasoning,” so a Sthitpragyan is “a person of steady judgment,” one who has the ability to think critically and with equanimity of the mind in any given situation.
The stereotypical image of yogis as a bunch of hippies with low expectations, unwilling to make shrewd judgments out of fear of offending somebody, is a cliché created to make those who practice yoga look wishy-washy and flaky. It also comes out of the misunderstanding that viveka is about judging others; it is, more importantly, about judging ourselves. The kind of judgment required by viveka starts with yogis becoming the witness to our own thoughts, words, and actions, then analyzing them and setting higher standards of what is moral and immoral. And yes, yogis then start to evaluate the people and the situations that we are willing to be associated with outside of our internal practice. That is a natural part of the process; this outward judgment happens organically, without malicious intent. It is the result of the yogi starting to understand the laws of karma, which acknowledge guilt by association. It’s like the old saying: “if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas” -- you and the dog now both have fleas.
Let’s take a hypothetical situation: a guy I have known for years, my best friend from high school, is a womanizing toxic alpha male. Back in the day, I thought he was super cool. Then I started to practice yoga and go deeper into the teachings, learning about the Yamas, the law of karma, and other deep spiritual concepts that yogis live life by. Through the practice of viveka, I began to understand that his womanizing attitude was breaking several Yamas, and even worse, my thinking that he was so cool only enabled his bad behavior. Slowly, I started to understand that he is not as cool as I once thought he was. In fact, I started to see that he is an uncompassionate, harmful person to be around. I also started to realize that I was complicit in his behavior: by admiring him and overlooking his bad behavior I have also been harmful to others. I have been part of the harm, because I never confronted him about his abusive actions. I see now that my lack of discrimination and the karmic potential to affect and influence my yoga Sadhana in a very negative way will occur if I continue my friendship with him. What is the solution? Gradually and politely I have started to limit my interactions with my old friend. It’s not that I don’t love him or care about him, but through critical thinking and self-analysis I’m making a “right judgment” decision that is best for him, myself, and others. If there comes a time when he asks me why I am not engaging with him as I once did, Satya (truthfulness), the second Yama, informs me to be honest with him about his womanizing and its harmful effect on our relationship and the relationship he has with others. My honesty with him is an act of loving kindness.
It’s clear that if I choose the path of a non-judgmental, undiscriminating yogi I am causing much more harm than if I practice “right judgment.” Non-judgment is a type of apathy, a lack of interest or concern, or a juvenile fear of offending someone. Discrimination shows that I have the ability to separate right from wrong and act on the judgment. Yoga teacher T.K.V. Desikachar (the son of the pioneer of modern yoga Tirymalai Krishnamacharya) once stated “All (yoga) techniques are for viveka, as this is the means for freedom.” Without the ability to make “right judgment” we can’t distinguish the real from the unreal, truth from untruth, or finite from infinite. Without viveka, moksha (liberation) will always remain out of reach.
~ Austin Sanderson Urban Sadhu Yoga