Satya or ‘truthfulness’ is the second of the Yamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
All aspects of our life can benefit from applying the teachings of Satya, and as we’ll learn – it means a whole lot more than ‘not telling lies’.
The word ‘sat’ literally translates as ‘true essence’ or ‘true nature’. Sanskrit is a vibrational language and so each word is so much more than a label – it literally holds the very essence of the word. Because of this, ‘sat’ also holds the meanings; ‘unchangeable’, ‘that which has no distortion’, ‘that which is beyond distinctions of time, space and person’, and ‘reality’. Many Sanskrit words use the prefix ‘sat’ such as ‘satsang’ meaning ‘true company’ and ‘sattva’ meaning ‘pure’, which leads us to understand that ‘sat’ really means more than ‘truth’, it’s something that is unchanged and pure.
When looking at the word ‘truth’ from this perspective, it’s easy to then understand how so much of our time is spent not actually seeing the truth or reality in any of our life situations….
Our thoughts, emotions and moods are extremely interchangeable, yet these are the things that create our own truth and our whole life experience. If ‘sat’ means ‘unchangeable’, then this can make us aware that much of our experience of life is brought about by paying more attention to that which changes, rather than the unchanging truth.
Satya towards ourselves
The Yamas and Niyamas provide ways in which we can not only build a better relationship with the world around us, but with ourselves too… And if we can’t be honest with ourselves first, we cannot really be honest in any other part of life.
We often identify completely with our emotions and irrational thoughts; ‘I am a bad person because of this….’ or ‘I’m not good enough because of that….’
And it is exactly these vrittis or fluctuations of the mind which we look to still through a yoga practice according to the sutras.
Battling with identifying solely with emotions isn’t surprising, as the emotional part of our brain evolved long before the ‘thinking’ part. But when we let our mind run away with us, we define ourselves by how we feel at that very moment instead of seeing things how they really are.
Complete honesty with ourselves requires us to create a little bit of space, stillness or at least some slowing-down of the mind. When we react instantly to situations on a purely primitive and emotional level, we’re often not seeing the truth and are acting from a place of fear and conditioning. Expert meditators such as the Dalai Llama have actually been able to slow down the response to stimuli within our primitive brain, and create a fraction more time to process situations. This has allowed the more evolved part of the brain - the cerebral cortex - actually consider things before the emotional brain takes over, so there is more time to see situations clearly and truthfully than reacting blindly to the stimulus.
Once we know we are not our thoughts, there’s a little sigh of relief as a bigger gap is created between who we think we are sometimes (the ego), and who we really are (the atman).
A daily practice we can use to help us un-identify with irrational thoughts, is to simply take some time observing each thought as it arises, watching it as it passes without getting caught up in it. Don’t worry if this seems difficult at first, it’s called a practice for a reason. Learning and accepting that all emotions and situations come and go and are in fact not unchangeable or true, helps us come to terms with the fact that life isn’t as complicated as it might seem sometimes….
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras says:“To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient”, which ultimately means that by continuing to practise honesty, our life experiences become the results of this honesty and truth, and no longer based on fear or ignorance.
Satya on the yoga mat
As we all know, there’s nowhere to hide when it’s just us and the yoga mat, and this is often the place we get to take a good look at ourselves, our habits, and our state of mind….
Practising asana with Satya in mind can be very similar to applying the first Yama ahimsa to our physical practice. How many times have you ignored or pushed past an injury or limitation just to get into that yoga posture? Even if it’s only staying in a challenging pose a few breaths more than our bodies really needed to, it’s this dishonesty with ourselves that can often cause physical pain….
Our yoga practice is here to serve our bodies and minds, not harm our joints and ligaments – so each time we get on the mat it’s important to have complete honesty with what we actually need in that very moment. On a physical and emotional level, we change all the time, so fixating upon one way of practising isn’t always going to work out. When we can get the ego-mind out of the way (you know, the one that tells us we should be able to do headstand, or we should be able to meditate without getting distracted….) this offers us a way to see past our conditioned, ever-changing and un-true ways of thinking, and uncover a more pure and beneficial way of practising and treating ourselves on all levels.
One very simple way of observing truth in our practice is by paying closer attention to the breath. The breath is such an important factor in asana practice, but one of the most important aspects is that it tells us when to back off…. If the breath is strained or shallow, it’s likely that the body isn’t happy with what it’s being asked to do - so even though it might hurt our ego a little bit, honesty requires listening to the breath in every moment and working with it. As Nichi Green says “The breath is the boss”.
Our practice grows as we grow, and going to the edge safely in our asana practice is all about being honest with ourselves in every moment.
Satya in relationships
Being honest with ourselves is difficult, but being completely honest with those we love can be equally as challenging at times….
Honesty is the foundation of any strong relationship, whether it be romantic, plutonic or within our families, but letting our ego get in the way of our heart can often stop us from forming meaningful relationships with others. Being truthful is something appreciated by everyone, and when others know we are honest towards them, we’ll build a trusting relationship where others know they can look to us for honesty.
There is a balance though; acting with compassion for others is also important. The Yoga Sutras advise that if being honest in that moment is likely to cause harm to another, then it is best not to say or do anything at all…. Indian philosophy is contextual – meaning the Indians actually often change their standpoints and morals according to each situation, which can be very confusing – so if the situation calls for it, remember the saying ‘sometimes it is better to be kind than to be right’.
Observing the motives behind our actions – ‘will it truly serve the other person, or am I doing this because of a need to prove something or gain something?’ is a useful tool to help us apply both Satya and Ahimsa to our situations.
Each situation we come across offers us the opportunity to see the truth if we are open to it. A daily practice of slowing down, taking a couple of deep breaths and observing things as they really are can help us move closer towards a state of peace and stillness in the mind.
The Asato Maa mantra from the Upanishads is used by many practitioners as a daily acknowledgment of moving towards truth:
Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya
“Lead me from the unreal to the real
From darkness (ignorance) to light (knowledge)
From death to immortality”
Further reading on the Yamas:
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