I recently had the privilege of spending a week practicing yoga in the rainforest in Costa Rica. I was struck by the beauty of nature, and the ways in which yoga is found in nature. One of the yoga teachings I found myself spotting time and time again, was that nature does not judge.
In nature, non-judgement is critical to survival. A howler monkey doesn’t spend its days criticizing itself or others, even when it sounds like it is howling off key. It simply spends its day being a howler monkey. While humans may share some genetic characteristics with monkeys, they seem to have many of us beat when it comes to this practice of non-judgment.
Aside from teaching an asana class, practicing pranayama, and sharing our knowledge of philosophical practices, how do we show up as yoga teachers in the world?
Each day we have an opportunity to lead by example as yoga teachers and as yoga students. To embody the principles and practices that yoga is rooted in. Non judgement is one of these practices.
The ability to observe without judgment or reaction is something humans can practice each day. To grow our skills as teachers and students, we must first develop the ability to observe. A scientist practices observation as they carry out experiments, and this is how they glean useful information and data. A monkey observes the forest and this is how it is able to survive and thrive. A yoga student observing a teacher may learn how to move through the world in a non-judgemental way.
As we teach, we keep the yamas and niyamas in mind. What about when we are not in our studio or classroom? Do we truly embody these ethical principles? Or do we find ourselves returning to a place of ego and judgement, of others and ourselves? As I observed the behavior and language of myself and fellow humans, I noticed there was often a return to a place of judgement or ego. To me, this means there is space to grow. This is a place to be aware of our tendencies to judge, and our habits of returning to an ego-based mindset.
Non-judgement is something I consider simple, not easy. The idea is simple, the consistent practice however is not always easy. With this knowledge, we can create a more accessible space for ourselves and our students to practice not judging. Understanding that this practice is something that is required both in and out of the studio is how we develop a more potent practice, and how we strengthen the neural pathways in our brains that lead us to a place of non-judgement.
When I first noticed the discrepancy between behavior in the studio and outside the studio in myself, I felt judgement. My initial response was to judge myself! I recognized this judgement of my lack of non-judgement, as precisely why the practice is so important. By creating space in my mind for observation, I am able to see judgement for what it truly is. Often it is fear, anger or grief, it often comes from a place of pain. Lucky for us, yoga can be an incredible tool for moving through pain and releasing it. Our task then becomes to create space for observation without judgement.
To be able to truly practice non-judgment of others, we must first practice non judgement of the self. We spend all day, every day, with our own mind. This makes it an ideal place to practice, and it truly is a lifelong practice. We may find moments of pure awareness without judgement, and it is these moments that help us continue our practice. The more we practice, the more naturally and easefully our minds start to exist in a space of non-judgement.
To develop a mindset rooted in non-judgement, I encourage students to begin with how they speak to themselves. Not to try and change it, but simply to observe it. From this space of observation, we then move into a space of analyzing the data. Would you speak to a loved one the way you speak to yourself? Would you speak to a young child this way? If the answer is no, we have found a space for experimentation.
Instead of allowing the mind to do and think whatever it wants, imagine you are caring for and teaching a young child. This approach helps us find a softer and kinder way of speaking and living in our mind. Instead of berating yourself for forgetting to complete a task, we can offer kindness and understanding. Life happens! Mistakes and failure are part of growth. In fact, they are an essential part of the growth process. However, growth is made significantly more difficult if we are in a hostile environment. When we practice the kindness and compassion that can often be a byproduct of non-judgement, we turn the environment of our mind into one that is optimal for growth.
While a howler monkey does not spend its day judging another howler monkey, they may judge a situation as good or bad. That tree looks like a good place to spend the day, that snake looks like a bad cuddle buddy. That type of judgement may help inform their survival. The ability to discern between productive judgement as it relates to our safety, productivity or evolution is part of what makes us different from our monkey friends. The development of our prefrontal cortex gives us the ability to think critically about judgement and the space it takes up in our life. When we are not spending time judging ourselves or others, we can use that magnificent portion of our brain to observe the ways we can make the world we live in a better place for the generations here now, and the generations to come.
Non-judgement allows us to truly develop the understanding that we are not the body, or the mind. We are all spiritual beings having a shared human experience. We are part of the ecosystem, and just as much part of nature as our friends the howler monkeys. It is up to us to remember the connection we have with nature, and with one another. Through non-judgment, we may find these connections become deeper, more joy-filled and more easeful. Then one morning, we may wake up to the sound of howler monkeys and forget to judge them at all for their off key morning song.