Satya: Truthfulness and Integrity by Dr. Melissa West

by Melissa West on May 17, 2010

This week in yoga class I am asking my students to cultivate satya. Satya is the second of the yamas, or moral principles as outlined by Patanjali in the yoga sutras. I decided to start class with a short “skit” which is all at once beautiful, sad and profound. 

When They Revolutionize Cocktail Parties

By Marilyn Sandberg (from Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open)

“Hello, what are you afraid of?”


“Me too.”

“When you hear a Mahler Symphony?”

“No, when I wake up in the night.”

“Me too.”

“Nice meeting you.”

“Same here.”

I think the reason why this short exchange is so profound is because it cuts right to the chase in an incredibly honest way. Can you recall a time, ever, when you had a conversation like that? Have you even ever been that honest with yourself? To cultivate satya means to bring our thoughts words and actions into alignment with one another. How many times have you had a conversation when what is true in your mind is not actually what gets communicated through your speech? Lets look at how that conversation normally goes. 

“Hi, how are you today?”

“I’m fine.” (in your mind – totally stressed out, exhausted and at the end of my rope)

“How are the kids?”

“Great!” (Billy’s flunking third grade, Mary was sent to the principles office yesterday and Johnny cries himself to sleep at night)

“How’s work?”

“Oh, good.” (they’re laying off, you’re doing the work of 2 people, and you’re miserable.)

“Great talking to you.”

“You too.”

When are thoughts words and actions are consistent with one another we will be living a life of truth. 

    My own experience of cultivating satya in my life taught me that satya is always in service to ahimsa. Satya, is indeed second to ahimsa and needs to be practiced accordingly. There is a relationship and interconnectivity between the yamas and the niyamas. Truth does not exist in a vacuum. During my own personal experience of practicing satya, the invitation to become honestly self-reflective had turned into an summons to be self-obsessive. The tendency for me to be self critical had been such a natural state that I hardly notice it happening. Yet, being self-depricating isn’t very loving or non-violent. Satya as a license to be honest is not a license to be really hard on yourself. 

    During my own practice of satya, I realized that I had turned “satya” into a false God, something that had a lot of power over me to judge and criticize. In response, I began to play with this idea that there is not just one truth, but that there are many truths. Opening up to my shadow side was only one aspect of my truth. There are a lot of other aspects of my truth as well. I’m thinking one tree, many branches and all rivers lead to the ocean here. A loving God would also point out my good points. If I was going to make satya into a false God, at least I could do so in a way that exposed all my truth, not just the negative aspects of it. The shadow side of honoring and respecting truth for me and in my life was that it seemed to invite in the inner critic and judge in a big way. 

    Later, it was through a dharma talk by Ram Das that I learned that we can be aware of the truth but we don’t have to be entrapped by it. Ram Das said that we don’t need to deny it, or push it away or wish it wasn’t there, but we don’t need to be entrapped by it. I finally had some languaging around the grippiness I had been feeling from practicing satya. I was being entrapped by it. It was Ram Das’s humorous explanation that we live in the prison cells of our mind and mostly what we do it rearrange the furniture in that cell. All I had been doing is rearranging the furniture of self-criticism and calling my new decorating scheme “satya”. Ram Dass explained that thoughts in our mind seduce us into believing they’re real. A thought comes along and says, “Hey, psss, I’m real, think me.” And, there you have it, that is how we confuse a thought with “the” truth. A thought isn’t always true. So many of our thoughts are harsh judgments which are both unloving and violent. This is why it is so important to practice satya (truthfulness) alongside ahimsa (compassion). 

    In yoga, on the mat, cultivating satya can mean getting really clear about your intention, bringing mindful awareness to each edge you encounter and honestly assessing the effect your yoga is having asana by asana, breath by breath. As I mentioned, when practicing satya it is crucially important to pair it with ahimsa (noinviolence), in face satya is second in command to ahimsa. We need to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves when we start to look honestly at our yoga practices and our lives. 

    I think cultivating satya can begin honestly assessing why we are even practicing yoga. The other day I heard a yoga student ask her teacher, “When will I get results from practicing yoga?” At first this question made my blood boil. How could she not be aware of the “results” she was getting from yoga? As she began to discuss this further with her teacher it became clear that she didn’t think she was getting results, because they weren’t the results she was looking for. This students wanted a tight, toned body. Because her awareness was focussed on the desire to lose weight, she was perhaps unaware of some of the other physical results of her practice from greater flexibility to ease of movement, let alone the effects on her mind, emotions, breath and spirit. 

    This conversation highlights another  aspect of truthfulness. In her mind, this student wanted a slim body, she was even saying that she wanted a thin body. In fact two out of the three elements of satya (thoughts and speech) were in alignment. The question is, were her actions in alignment with her desire?  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people say to me, I eat exactly the same as you and I’m still overweight. My response is always, really? I can’t believe it either! If their actions were the same as mine, I do find it hard to believe that their reality would be different than mine. It is a question of satya, of mental-verbal-actual alignment. 

    Satya continues within the context of a yoga class by assessing how you come to your edge in asana. Edge is that place where there is enough sensation in your body to hold your attention, but not so little that your mind wanders. I’ve observed people working with their edge dishonestly, or without cultivating satya, in two different ways. The first camp of people rarely actually come to an edge, their intention in entering the posture is to find the most easy and relaxed position that doesn’t create any sensation in the body. The second group of people work way beyond their edge, forcing their bodies to go beyond the limits of what is safe. Both fail to cultivate satya in the context of asana practice. There is a saying, “As on the mat, so in life.” The people in the first camp probably avoid any kind of “edge” or discomfort in their life, preferring to back off and escape uneasiness. The second group of people avoid the truth of reality at all costs pushing beyond all human edges to do more, achieve more and be more. As Buddha says, there is the middle way, of honestly assessing where we are in each present moment and responding with sincerity and kindness. 

    I think Rumi’s famous poem “The Guest House” is a perfect example of embodying satya in our lives. 

This being human is a guest house

Every morning a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meaness

Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor

Welcome and entertain them all

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture. 

Still, treat each guest honorably

He may be clearing you out for some new delight

The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door, laughing, and invite them in

Be grateful for whoever comes, 

Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

    As you tune into your body take a moment to assess what honestly is happening, with kindness and without judgment. I think many times when we tune into our body there are guests banging at the door, begging to be let in. Is there pain in your body that you would rather ignore and pretend is not there? What would it be like to open the door to the messages that the discomfort brings? Again, on the other spectrum of the polar opposite of satya we can become too attached to the stories of our bodies. For example, perhaps you have an ongoing story about pain in your neck. This time, as you tune in, is it true? Is it actually the same as yesterday? What about, instead of assuming that you know the story of who is knocking at the door, you actually open the door for the first time and see what is truly happening in your body. 

    Each time I teach meditation, students complain about the incessant thoughts that run through their mind. I think we spend a lot of time avoiding these thoughts. Its as if we are trying to push the door shut to our thoughts. In meditation this past week we finished with a wondering. What is we actually gave space to those thoughts? In the words of Rumi, what if we invited them in as a guide from beyond?  Perhaps by giving space and voice to our thoughts there might be more spaciousness in the mind. 

    I think Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, is even more pertinent when it comes to our emotions. How often are we honest with ourselves about our emotional ambience. Certainly, there are guests we love to invite in! Laughter and joy make for great company! What about sadness, anger, frustration? Do we close the door to these emotions? Do we prefer not to be the kind of people that experience these emotions? This being human is a guest house, each morning a new arrival. What would it be like to stop resisting the current emotional environment and genuinely tune in to your emotions?

    The breath is a fantastic barometer of the body, mind and emotions. It rarely lies about what is happening in our body. It offers a clear and honest appraisal of what is happening now. It will be tight and high in the body if you are anxious or experiencing pain and it will be full and expansive when you are happy and at ease. Tuning into the breath can be an excellent satya valuation. 

    Of course, beyond our human and ego-ic experience of body, mind, thoughts, and emotions is where the true, truth lies. It is satya uncensored. Mark Whitwell describes it this way:

The ancient wisdom of yoga teaches that Life is already given to you, you are completely loved, you are here now. It teaches that we are not separate, cannot be separate from nature, which sustains us in a vast interdependence with everything. The universe comes perfectly, and is awesome in its integration and infinite existence. This union is our natural state, this union is Yoga.

The truth is that we are fully loved, we are fully able, and we are perfectly capable the way we are. The truth, as Marian Williamson describes it is that we are not afraid of our shortcomings, but our greatness. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.” Mark Whitwell reminds us that the assumption that truth is somehow abesent and needs to be found is a culturally ingrained fallacy. 

    There comes a time when we must disentangle our consciouness from this false sense of identification that keeps us in bondage and prevents us from experiencing freedom, truth. Mountain pose, tadasana, allows us to stand in our truth, strong and unmoveable, embodied by the majesty of our truth. Sometimes we will be asked to move forward from the truth of our anger like fierce spiritual warriors. Think of all the spiritual activists who stand up for the truth of animal rights as sentient beings. What about the mothers against drunk drivers? They welcomed in the anger and grief that came from losing their children and used it as fuel to fight the fight against drinking and driving. There will come a time when you must stand in your truth. You’ll know it, you’ve probably already been there. 

    In yoga class this week, we practiced kapala bhati breath, skull shining breath as a way to clear away the cob webs from our ability to see the world as it actually is. To experience satya. There is an analogy in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open, which speaks perfectly to this. It is about a woman who begins to see the world through the eyes of satya, as it truly is. She says, “I felt the hand of God changing the way I thought about everything; as if God was a waitress, I was the wine glass she was drying, holding me by the stem of my heart, turning me around, and around cleansing the film of my vision, so I might see the world as she does.” 

    May you be blessed with a clear and compassionate heart to fully experience satya. May your thoughts words and actions align so you may realize Truth. 

Sat Nam (I am Truth). 



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