How to Practice Satya - find your Truth
Satya, truthfulness, is the second of the five Yamas.
Patanjali describes Satya as a restraint from falsehood in our physical self (our actions and body), what we say, (our words, speech, writing) and our mind, (our feelings and thoughts).
In his words, “the cause of all suffering is the inability to distinguish between the truth and what appears to be the truth.”
That this observation is 1700 years old is just further evidence that humans haven’t changed much.
But I digress…
There is a caveat.
Satya isn’t about judging the truthfulness of others. We (humans) already do this a lot, we don’t need much practice assessing the truth and honesty of others.
If you look around at the commentary that everybody makes on everything, this tendency is clear. Humans forcibly assert what we see as truth and pass judgment on others. And we are not very good at it.
We have a tendency to assess truth based not on what is true but whom we like and who we dislike – we make excuses for those we like and hold those we don't like accountable for every ill. Just look at politics as an example: if you are my party, you are right, if you are another party you are wrong.
You likely do this all the time, without even realizing it.
The practice of Satya is different.
Practicing Satya is determining the truth in ourselves and practicing truthful restraint toward others.
That practice is a practice of restraint – Satya is not a tool to be wielded against others it is a restraint we practice internally toward others. It is more about what we refrain from doing.
It is so much easier to look outside and accuse others of being untruthful. It is easier to demand they change.
It is harder to look internally and be honest with ourselves - to define what is true and to hold back.
We know when we step beyond what we know to be true. Satya requires us to recognize this and align our thoughts, words, and actions to that truth.
Satya is also layered with Ahimsa so that we act truthfully and in a way that is non-harming. So if the truth you are expressing can be harmful: your work is not good, that dress doesmake you look fat, your Warrior 1 looks wrong, we find a way to express these truths with compassion.
On this, I have seen some writing that suggests that we should hold back rather than express the truth at all – but I believe it is ultimately more harmful to say nothing and that saying nothing is a form of lying anyway.
So, the restraint, I think, is both in what we say and do and the way we say and do it.
Satya requires self-awareness, the truth is often a judgment.
Take my examples above: your work is not good, the dress makes you look fat, and your warrior 1 is wrong. Each is true based on my measure of truthfulness, based on what I believe, and the expression conveys that judgment.
If you are submitting work to me, for me to say that it isn’t good places a blanket judgment on the work and makes you the cause of what is wrong. The real truth is that the work doesn’t meet MY expectation. It may be beautiful work, but it isn’t what I want it to be.
This draws the attention back to the work and my expectations (which themselves may be flawed) rather than the judgment of the person and work submitted.
When we practice Satya, we practice this self-awareness and restraint – expressing truth but without judgment. What we say and do may be our truth, but that doesn't make them universal.
Yes, that dress makes you look fat
I realize that this is a cliché, but I guarantee any man married to a woman has been asked that question.
And not all dresses look good on all bodies.
So, what is the right answer?
I think this is an interesting dilemma because there is so much tied up in it. We are always taught to say no, you look great. But if she doesn't isn't that harmful? Of course, what does it mean to look “fat” anyway – who defines that? What is “looking great” and who is the arbiter of these things?
The truthful answer to that question requires the restraint of non-judgment and recognition that the question involves the dress, the person and the criterion. So that the answer isn't a blanket “you look great” or a painful “you look fat” but something that aligns with what is really being asked.
If the dress doesn’t look great recognize that it doesn’t look great to you. Your definition of greatness is ultimately arbitrary so you must express that while also expressing your assessment. You can only answer from your perspective or guess at her perspective – so be open about that.
So, what is the right answer? There is no correct answer. When my wife puts on something that doesn’t look right to me, I tell her. I tell her why and I tell her what criteria I am using. I make it about the dress, not about her. And when she disagrees, I support her decision – her standards, ultimately, are her own.
A note on this dress thing: I thought this through as a man talking to a woman. Mostly because in my experience this comes up all the time and I write from experience. But the scenario goes the other way too: more than once my wife has told me that a shirt now looks terrible or that clothes, I am buying don’t look good.
This also isn't just about clothes and looking good, this applies to any situation where we are assessing another or askedto pass judgment.
Not practicing Satya can lead to physical suffering.
Bringing this back to yoga teaching, how do we practice this through asanas?
Satya is a restraint, something practiced toward others, but I think we can learn a lot from how we practice Satya toward ourselves.
A while back I was practicing asana in a new studio, and the teacher cued a pose that I knew would be tough for me. I knew that I should not push so hard.
I wanted to look right. I wanted to keep up. I wanted to impress. I am a teacher of asana – I wanted this teacher to see the teacher in me.
So, I stretched in a way I knew I couldn’t and tore my hamstring. As a result, couldn’t forward fold for 8 months.
Which, of course, means that I demonstrated precisely the opposite of what my ego wanted to show. If I had been following the teachings of yoga, if I had been practicing satya and ahimsa, I wouldn’t have injured myself.
I also experience times when I am tempted not to put much effort into my practice. My laziness and inertia take over. I could do more, but I don't. That is also not being truthful.
The first lesson, therefore, is to find truth in your practice, both regarding what you can do and what you can't.
Satya in teaching
One of my most instructive experiences in Satya was in teacher training. When I did my 200 hours one of my teachers was very judgmental. At one point she hurt herself while I was cuing, and she not only blamed me for her injury but also brought it up every time we met in class for weeks.
She had an internal guide to how I should have handled the situation that I didn’t understand and didn’t share. She didn’t explain her criteria, we didn’t discuss them and yet she held me to them and judged me for not meeting them.
This was not fun, but it was a spectacular lesson. As yoga teachers, we must guide without judgment. We should be true and honest but also be clear about the criteria and ensure that we have the best interests of the student at heart rather than our own ego.
Whether the warrior one is right or not depends as much on the student as the pose, and we must be mindful of that.
So, practice finding your truth.
If you practice yoga poses, be honest in your posture, find the place in your body where you are honestly striving but also honestly not hurting yourself.
If your physical practice is running, or rock climbing or bicycle riding it is the same thing. There is that point where you are pushing but not overreaching.
Find it. Be there. Practice that.
Then take it into life.
Be honest in your convictions, be clear about who you are, and align what you know to be true with your actions and thoughts. And recognize the arbitrary nature of your judgments.
The yogis teach that through practicing this alignment we deepen our understanding of what is right, we deepen our convictions and our actions gain strength. Power comes from a deeper understanding of ourselves and our truth.
What about everybody else?
First, the truth is, you can’t change anybody else.
But secondly, most people know when they are being dishonest. The challenge isn’t that others need to be corrected or taught the truth; instead, it is for everybody to practice Satya.
That practice can only start with ourselves.
The more we practice, the less untruthfulness can take hold and the more contagious the practice grows. So if we really want to change the world, the place to start is with ourselves.