Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; for it becomes your destiny. -Upanishads
Satya is generally translated at “truthfulness” – which can place it in the realm of Platonic like ideals – high, mighty, absolute, inviolable, and noble. All of which easily run contrary to the work attempted in yoga. It creates the truth as something solid, unchanging, and universal. While that may or may not describe truth as in the Sanskrit term Sat – it does not describe what we’re trying to embody when we practice satya.
Michael Stone offers the translation of “honesty” – and I believe this to be a much better way to work with this sutra. Of course, people hear honesty and initially think:
But satya follows ahimsa – so the yogic idea of honesty is not brutal honesty to others. For one reason, this is because what we think of as honesty is all too often our opinion (as in the case of the above) or a feeling (as in “You make me so angry” or even “I’m angry”). When we allow opinions and feelings to be labeled truth – we wind up causing harm quite quickly.
For another, nonharming has primacy of practice above all others within the Yoga Sutra tradition. It would never be appropriate to be honest if it caused direct harm to another.
Additionally – honesty is something that changes. Satya is the practice of being 100% honest with yourself, in this moment, about this moment. Once every single cell of your body is resonating the same – it’s honest. From there you can share with others.
Which is a challenging practice – because it opens up each moment to change – the “groundless ground”. It is intimidating to approach each situation and ask ourselves – where am I, honestly? If we can be 100% dedicated to that question – satya arises naturally. As the Upanishads say – it becomes our destiny. If we shut out that question, or don’t allow that question to shine on all aspects of the moment – that too becomes our destiny.
It’s practicing asana – and in each pose asking “Where am I?” And honestly answering.
I recently practiced at home, and pigeon was included in the sequence. My mind was going through the teacher checks it often does when I home practice – Is there anything new arising that could help students? Where is the energy moving? How is my breath? That thought would make a great dharma talk… etc. When a part of my awareness noticed that if a student was in the pose as I was – hips skewed – I would adjust their pose or add props. I saw this, and it didn’t even enter my full awareness. Even though I had been traveling and my hips were slightly tighter as a result, my normal awareness operates on the “truth” that had been established – that my foot is in a particular place, and I don’t use props. I was just going on that – not even questioning it. And no one – not even my inner teacher voice – was going to tell me different. And as soon as I really paid attention to this dialogue that had been going on in the background, I just started to laugh at myself. Who was I trying to impress? Who was I practicing for, if not myself, alone in my apartment? And yet I wasn’t practicing for myself at all, I was practicing this “truth” that had been long ago established. So I moved my foot.
We all have so many truths like this – in asana, and especially in life – that we long ago established, and just run on. Satya, then, like ahimsa, is something that must be decided on in each moment. Every moment we enter, we ask – Where am I, honestly?