When I was a junior in high school, I had a wonderful English teacher named Mr. Concilio. One day, when discussing the art of criticism, he said, “While there are many good critics, there are only a few really great ones in the world who genuinely function from a place of objectivity.” The conversation that followed addressed the clarity inhibiting and bias nurturing influence of ego in criticism. As someone who soon continued on to art school, where formal critiques become old hat, this discourse invaluably helped me develop a useful filter when receiving feedback about my work. It also encouraged me to better discriminate when I was critiquing my colleagues’ projects from a place of truth or less tempered ego. To this day, the ability to constructively give and receive criticism is something I continue and will continue to work on, slowly but surely.
One of the most crucial factors in becoming a genuine critic of anything is developing the ability to lovingly turn the mirror inward and practice positive self-confrontation, a central part of the yogic practice and other Eastern disciplines. We evolve by objectively studying our relationship with self and, therefore, the world around us. Only by doing so, can we refine accordingly. In the science of yoga, the yama and niyama, or social and self-disciplines, outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, can provide indispensable structure as we do this inner work.
As a quick review, the five yama are:
- Ahimsa – Non-violence
- Satya – Truth
- Asteya – Non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – Energy conservation
- Aparigrahah – Non-possessiveness
The five niyama are:
- Sauca – Cleanliness
- Santosha – Contentment
- Tapah – Dedication and drive
- Svadhyaya – Self-study
- Isvara Pranidhanani – Reverence
Self-confrontation is easier said than done. When we look within, some things we’ll discover will be far from rosy. If we forget our inherent wholeness, our ability to have a genuinely constructive critical eye weakens. Positive self-empathy might then be overwhelmed with judgment and dislike about what we find. We can become too hard on ourselves and obstruct our own path. We might fall into that dark divide between “what I am” and “what I think I should be,” a place where a doubt-riddle echo resonates.
What’s empowering is that you and I already are whole. When we look within we’ll certainly find less desirable qualities about ourselves, but nothing is missing. Our awareness is fully there, but needs to be trained and positively disciplined. When we honor and exercise our ability to work with our awareness, we ground more and more into the present moment. Then, what we think we “should be,” or what Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein so articulately refers to as the “representational ego,” gradually loses its power. We can see more clearly and honor what we actually have versus getting hung up on what we lack. We begin to experience how understanding the forces that once seemed less desirable (such as fear, anger, unbridled imagination) can actually be advantageous. We become better equipped to help and empathize with others. Our skills in giving honest criticism, when asked, will also be benefitted.
This week, I invite you to realize your growth-bearing potential to be a constructive critic of self. I invite you to lovingly observe and begin to let go of any tendency you may have to be hard on yourself.
In my own efforts to do so as of late, calling the following Sanskrit mantra to mind has been very helpful:
This is whole/complete. That is whole/complete.
If we take away part of the whole/what is complete,
what remains is the whole/complete.
Yoga brings stability and calm into every discipline of Sophie Herbert's life. She is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student) and a Whole Living contributing editor. She graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art, where she nurtured her passion for documentary photography. It was during this time that she began her disciplined and diverse study of yoga in New York, Paris, and India.
Sophie has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India. She feels grateful to still visit and work regularly with the Deenabandhu Children's Home in Chamarajanagar, Karnataka. In November of 2010, she became an ambassador for Yoga Gives Back www.yogagivesback.org, a grass-roots nonprofit that helps destitute women and girls in India build more sustainable lives. Sophie has also shared her knowledge of yoga at the Prana Yoga Center in Astana, Kazakhstan. Currently, she teaches at the Park Slope Yoga Center www.parkslopeyoga.com in Brooklyn and privately. Sophie is also an avid cook.