Letting Go of Self-Judgment (An Ashtanga Yoga Story)

"Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances." ~ Wayne Dyer

I was feeling this burning desire to mix up my yoga practice so I settled on trying Ashtanga for the first time. I was giddy to try something new and challenging.

When I arrived at class, I assessed the room and took a quick mental note -- I was the only newbie. Everyone else carried on effortless conversations as if they were old friends. I watched as they unfurled their colorful mats, stretched and readied themselves for the practice. Feeling a little out of place, my eyes started to wander nervously around the room – careful not to let others catch my gaze – as I acknowledged (and envied) their lean yogi bodies.

This was not my first yoga class. And I hadn’t felt inadequate in a room full of yogis since I took up the practice in 2005. But this was Ashtanga, a form of yoga that’s especially vigorous and daunting – both physically and, as I found, mentally.

The class started with a chant in Sanskrit, and I did my best to lip-sync along. The sequences moved faster, in unfamiliar directions, and I struggled to keep up. As the poses progressively become more advanced, my mind became noisier and more cluttered; my breath, choppier; and sweat started seeping profusely. I sensed a quiet rush of panic rise inside me. My confidence was waning.

My mind started to fill with fury – at myself. I secretly cursed at my body for not being more limber. I blamed myself for not memorizing the poses in Sanskrit or learning more about it, for showing up unprepared. The impulse to compare myself to others was palpable!

Everyone else looked so calm and centered, whereas I was falling apart inside. I felt completely out of my element: insecure, envious, critical, discouraged, and annoyed. But I won a great victory that day – greater than if I had been the best student in the class. My victory was this: I didn’t walk out.

Over the next 75 minutes, I powered through the poses, fought through every frazzled breath and shaky stance, while consumed with loathing self-judgment.

After that grueling class, I sat panting on my mat, when suddenly my neighbor offered a simple praise: “You did a great job tonight!” In that moment, I realized my mistake – I was letting self-judgment rob me of the experience. I didn’t let myself enjoy or learn from the class. I was too busy judging myself.

I wondered: Why do we talk so cruelly to ourselves, sometimes mocking and bullying? Imagine the kind of people we would have in our lives if we allowed them to treat us the way we do with ourselves! I know I wouldn’t stand for it – for letting others treat me in any harsh light. So why do we tolerate it from ourselves?

Self-judgment happens to all of us, especially from situations when we feel uneasy and anxious. In Ashtanga, I realized it wasn’t about my body not being as flexible, or not as well built, or that I couldn’t speak Sanskrit; it was that I lacked compassion for myself when things got a little unnerving. I had allowed false perception to cloud my judgment by comparing myself to others. My ego was bruised because the reality of my current state was not jiving with what I “thought” it should be.

To prevent self-judgment from becoming a debilitating habit, we must learn to let go of it in 3 steps:

  1. Awareness. Acknowledge that you are self-judging.
  2. Mindfulness. Recite to yourself that it’s okay (see bullets below).
  3. Practice. We must repeat, over and over if necessary, positive thoughts to replace the self-judgments.

Now, when the impulse to self-judge arises, be mindful of these things:

  • It’s okay that I am not perfect.
  • It’s okay to be different from others.
  • It’s okay to feel scared and cautious.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes.
  • It’s okay to give myself a break.

Our minds can be a powerful tool. If used properly, we can control and evoke a positive shift in our perception of self and translate our thoughts into something more productive and purposeful. But all too often, we allow our thoughts to be destructive; convincing ourselves we just aren’t good enough. We have to learn to use the power of our minds to better ourselves, to uplift our spirits.

I went back to Ashtanga for a second try but this time with a better sense and awareness of my mind, and with a kinder, more compassionate gesture towards myself. When my hips felt tighter, I acknowledged it and let it go; and when I felt like I was about to topple over from a shaky stance, I hung on… and just laughed it off.

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