Satya: Truth in Practice

Satya: Truth in Practice

Learning any new language can expand the limits of our experience by giving us different ways to articulate an idea or a feeling. What follows is a new set of pathways for relating to others, ourselves, and the world.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world. ::Ludwig Wittgenstein

Satya Defined

Sanskrit is an intrinsically vibrational language that aims not only to promote understanding and communication, but to awaken consciousness on all levels of being through sound that is inextricably connected to form. As we explore the definition of any Sanskrit term, we must acknowledge the inevitable deficiency that will result as we attempt to derive meaning from a single word, particularly a written word, used thousands of years ago. What we can do is study the language as a raw clay from which we shape a more intimate understanding. We can examine pieces of a whole and make a concerted effort to understand each one individually, building an awareness that is stronger than any definition we might glean from the amalgam alone. For example, an English to Sanskrit dictionary might yield the following for the word satya:

सत्य satya /suht-yaa/ adj. true; n. truth

This definition is sufficient if our interpretation of the English words “true” and “truth” come layered with the due richness of satya. The more likely scenario is, they do not. Instead, let us break it down one step further, satya comprises the root word sat and the activating suffix -ya.

सत् sat — true, pure, virtue, unchangeable, absolute, that which is, supreme consciousness य -ya — coming from, as a result of

What is revealed etymologically is that satya is more than a dualistic examination of something as merely true or false. Satya is the state of being that arises when we operate from our highest (pure) consciousness.

There is a concept in linguistics termed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which posits that the language we speak influences the way we think and in effect, the way we act. At the very least, a deeper study of the Sanskrit word satya will give us a new way of thinking and feeling about the truth, perhaps one that bypasses our tendency to intellectualize and instead resonates with our deepest, instinctual consciousness.

Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

For a practical example of satya, we can turn to nature. Consider a mountain, for instance. If possible, one that you are exposed to on a regular basis. In fact, any prominent geological feature will do, but let’s stick to the mountain for this example. You know this mountain exists because you have visual evidence. You have seen it from different angles. You know and understand its size and its shape. This evidence is confirmed externally by the fact that others have also seen this mountain and describe it in a similar way. Perhaps this mountain has a name and is used for directional guidance or maybe you have flown over it in an airplane. You may have even climbed this mountain and experienced it through your senses, validating its existence beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Then, one day, you wake up and there is a dense fog in the air. A fog so opaque, you can no longer see the mountain. You ask around for confirmation and find that no one else can see the mountain either. You might venture out to climb mountain again, but with the fog so thick, it is difficult to orient yourself and near impossible to confirm the presence of the mountain. Still, you know it is there. You have a memory of it and you can feel the incline of the earth beneath you. Despite confusion and what might even be considered evidence to the contrary, you have a deep knowing that the mountain still exists. The fog could linger for days or weeks, obscuring the mountain from immediate view. You may even forget about it, but the mountain never goes away. And on the next clear day, you might find yourself elated to see the mountain again. It will likely appear more magnificent than you remembered when the fog has lifted.

Satya works in the same way as the mountain. It is an inner knowing and experience of the truth, something believed beyond a shadow of a doubt. Whether a truth about ourselves or the universe, or simply an intuitive gut check that helps us make decisions, we each have a set of core values and beliefs that inform our thoughts and behaviors.

Be Kind

Satya is offered in the Yoga Sutras as the second of five yamas, which are often misguidedly referred to as restraints or “right living” rules. Nischala Joy Devi however, describes them as “reflections of our true nature” because our true nature is inherently good. The yamas can be thought of as behaviors that reflect our innermost essence.

To understand satya as one of the yamas, it is important to know that it comes after ahimsa by design. The yamas are not mutually exclusive, they are interdependent and there is an element of hierarchical balance between them. In that hierarchy, ahimsa (kindness) always comes first. This is particularly important to remember as we determine when and how to speak the truth.

Let your speech be true and sweet. ::Sri T. Krishnamacharya

The Four Gates of Speech

As a guide, the Four Gates of Speech, which evolved from the third action in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, offer a litmus test for delivering spoken words.

  1. Are they true? Beyond the factual verity of your words, they must be spoken with intention and clarity. A lie, no matter how trivial, disconnects us from higher consciousness and creates an entry point for self-doubt – if we know we are capable of lying, we lose the ability to trust ourselves and our instincts.
  2. Are they necessary? Consider whether your words add value to a given situation or whether it might be prudent to listen instead.
  3. Is it the right time? Take a moment to understand whether the person you are speaking to is ready to receive your words. Be patient if the timing isn’t right, your message will land most gently when it is.
  4. Are they kind? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be kind. Ahimsa is offered as the first yama to be observed above all others and the last gate of speech as a final checkpoint before we are cleared to speak. Words without kindness are unconstructive, even when engaging in challenging conversations. If your words cannot be delivered from a place of kindness, go back inside and evaluate how you might identify words that better reflect your true nature.

Satya only exists in the present

The past, by its very nature, is a memory, and memories are faulty at best. A memory is formed when a lived experience is subsequently stored in the intricate archives of the mind. During this process, the experience undergoes systematic alteration as a result of our implicit and explicit biases, our mental and emotional states, and how closely we are paying attention. Despite our best efforts to recall the truth, the output is inevitably flawed.

Similarly, the future only exists as a prayer, a plan, or an expectation. When dealing with the future, there is always some degree of uncertainty. It has not yet come to be and therefore cannot be true. Satya only exists in the present and the practice of satya is a gradual calibration of our awareness to the fullness of each passing moment.

Satya on the Mat

Truth in practice begins before we unroll. It is present when the call to practice arises and when we commit to showing up on the mat. Truth perpetually invites us to practice wisely, from invocation to savasana. And when we say yes, we step into satya. So, what exactly does that mean as a yoga practitioner?

Breath is Guru

I say this all the time, but to really believe and practice it, is an expression of satya in Yoga. Breath is the teacher and as the student, you are the one being breathed. This is a sacred relationship and the underpinning of sustainable practice. Develop an internal system of checks and balances for monitoring your breath (like counting, or ujjayi) and adjust accordingly throughout your practice.

Ditch the i-Maker

The i-maker, ahamkara, is the tendency to over-identify with fleeting thoughts and sensations. When left to its own devices, the i-maker, fueled by the ego, will use the mat as its own private playground.

For example, consider this inner dialogue, brought to you by the i-maker, “Wow, my balance is really off today…I can’t hold half-moon…why can’t I hold half-moon?…I always hold this pose…it’s probably because I missed class yesterday…I should have come to class…I was so lazy…everyone else is holding the pose…I am a terrible yogi…I am not even a yogi at all…why can’t we just move to the next pose?…I hate half-moon…I am so over this class…did he just say “inhale”…am I even breathing?…I have to hold this or I won’t get better…seriously why can’t I just stay in the pose!?”

Now, enjoy the same conversation, but with a tone of satya, the ultimate antidote to the i-maker, “Wow, balance is challenging today…that’s interesting…maybe I’ll try breathing into the wobbles…looking at the floor seems to help…I’ll do that…[ breathes ]…how did I know to do that?…[ breathes ]…is that Yoga?…[ breathes ]…[ breathes ]…it was hard to concentrate during the opening meditation too…[ breathes ]…I haven’t really slowed down at all today…[ breathes ]…[ breathes ]… I think I’ll rest instead… [ breathes ].”

Don’t Sacrifice the Person for the Pose

Yoga is a whole-body practice and the purest expression of each pose is designed to recruit all parts of ourselves. When we ignore or even violate any part of the whole for the sake of the pose, we have lost the integration, the union and the Yoga. Satya is absent. If the pose comes first, we might be inclined to ignore the subtle signals from the body and push beyond the intelligent edge. As a result, the body will signal more loudly in the form of pain or injury until we are unable to ignore it. Instead, treat the pose as a lens through which you can see something new inside the person. The shape provides a direction, not a destination.

Satya also means resting before we get tired. When we know we are tired and yet, we still complete another chaturanga in a way that compromises shoulders or spine, it is a physical untruth. When we continually override the body’s natural rhythm in this way, it becomes more difficult hear when it is asking for rest. Listen and surrender as needed.

Look No Further than the Four Corners of Your Mat

Satya arises from the inside out and seeking validation or comparison from any external source will inhibit honest expression in practice. We cannot change our internally experienced reality with externally directed attention. Everything we need to observe is happening within the four corners of the mat, our focus need not be elsewhere.

The True Meaning of Aparigraha

The True Meaning of Aparigraha

I turned the corner onto my street, the street I have called home for the past three years, the one my son took his first steps in, where my daughter spent her first night in the world, where Christmas trees have come up and down, meals savored, and where laughter and crying have echoed through the hallways at all hours of the day. There, standing in my front yard, was the erected “For Sale” sign, signaling to ourselves as much as to everyone else in our community that we were done, we were letting go, moving on.

My heart broke the minute I saw the tall white sign in front of our little house on Placer. Not because it came as a surprise, but because suddenly I knew we were making a mistake. In reality, my husband and I had been talking about moving – to a new home, something bigger with more room, an expansive backyard, a new zip code – for years. Actually, it seems like we spent more time in our home talking about a new home than we did actually enjoying the space we were creating for ourselves and our growing family. Bookmarking houses on Zillow had become an addiction.

In fact, I had become so addicted to the thought of something new that I was completely oblivious to the reality in front of me. Like any addict, I was living in an altered state, one that was preventing me from seeing clearly the love, magic, and beauty of exactly where I was. The technological drugs I consumed were clouding my mind, offering me a constant drip of distractions. It was seeing my house officially for sale, cleaning it to prepare for showings, that woke me up and knocked me back into the reality I had been missing. But was it too late?

Offers were being made on our home, jobs being accepted out of state, apartment leases signed, boxes packed, all while my heart was flooding with regret.

Emotionally off kilter, I fled to my yoga mat, the one place that has consistently brought me peace and grounding for the past decade. I turned to sage advice, poring through the hand-written notes I had taken in the margins of books spouting eternal knowledge, everything from Patanjali’s Sutras to the Bible and, my other bible, Tina Fey’s Bossypants. While the Bible offered me inspiration and Bossypants offered a much needed laugh, it was in the Sutras that I found solace in the Yamas, the internal disciplines of yoga, particularly that of Aparigraha, or the practice of non-grasping, non-attachment.

Okay, I thought, as the final box was moved out of our home and into my parents’ truck. This is a practice; this is letting go. I will be alright, I reminded myself as I slid into the front seat of our family’s car. I have my children, my husband – everything I really need, everything that is really important, is coming with me. So we moved. Our house was still officially on the market with offers being made, but in my mind it was sold, the decision made. I was taking what I needed. Aparigraha was my bitch – I was rocking it hard.

Or, at least, like any egotistical, self-righteous idiot, that’s what I thought. Because, within a week of our big move, I was depressed. Depressed and anxious. Depressed and anxious and grumpy.

The Reality of Practicing Aparigraha

I kept saying, “This is an adventure! Make the most of it!” But no matter how hard I tried to “Aparigraha” it, I couldn’t shake the dark cloud that had moved over me, laying claim to my thoughts day in and day out.

Because family was still back home and because our “back home” home was still technically ours, we spent many weekends out of our new apartment and on the road. Each trip was an emotional rollercoaster for me. I was happy to be home but confused about the future. Would this be the last time we could open the front door of our house? What if we backed out? Could we still back out? What would people think if we did? What would I think if we didn’t?

Bittersweet isn’t exactly how I would describe what I was feeling. Each time we visited home, only to leave a day later to drive eight hours north, the taste became more bitter, sour even. But I was stubborn, repeating the mantra “Let Go” over and over, hoping to eventually crack whatever it was that was making it difficult for me to really accept all of the changes that were taking place.

Why is Aparigraha So Hard to Practice?

Still unable to shake the depression and anxiety that had befriended me at the New Mexico-Colorado state border, I dove deep into trying to better understand what practicing Aparigraha really meant. Is it really just letting go, detaching yourself? Or is there more to it.

I read what Nicolai Bachman had to say about the Yama, that by practicing Aparigraha, we discover why we were born. Or, less esoterically, he also says that the more we accumulate things the more time we have to spend maintaining said things, which means less time for internal development. Got it.

I tried to focus on the feeling of freedom, thinking that by leaving our home and our community we were on a path of new beginnings. I meditated on feeling light, no longer bound by old habits. I worked to open my eyes to what was before me, trying to soak in each and every new experience.

I’ll admit that it helped. That my days were more enjoyable. That I found reasons to smile and laugh. But at the end of the day, as I laid down to sleep, the depression would creep back in. I was still crying myself to sleep most nights, muffling the sound from my husband and children so they wouldn’t know how much I was struggling with these changes.

One day, while at my new job in Boulder, I came across a yoga video by Mara Branscombe called Aparigraha for Freedom and Abundance. Still on my quest to better understand this yogic principle, I put on my headphones and turned my attention to what she was saying. She explained it simply, so simply in fact that I didn’t register how profound her words really were. I came back to the video the next day and really heard her as she said, “Aparigraha is taking only what we need… taking only what serves us… letting go when the time is right. Aparigraha allows us to become more present by letting go of expectations.” I scrambled to find something to write this down on:

Let go of expectations. Let go when the time is right.

I finished what I was doing, tore out this page from my journal, and walked to the park behind the office. I sat for a long time in silence, contemplating these two sentences. I dropped into a place of mental stillness that had been evading me for months. As I settled in, I began to see images, screenshots of everything that was important to me: my children laughing, my husband smiling, spending time in nature, having long conversations with friends, making memories with family, my home. Yes, my home with its red front door, its stucco courtyard, the garden in the back that my husband built, the picnic table by our waterfall, the lights hung over our bed, the fireplace in our living room. I began to cry. And then I called my husband.

In the next 48 hours we were making a pilgrimage back to our home. Not to pack or clean, but to enjoy it. We made fires in our chiminea, ate meals outside, walked with the kids to the neighborhood park, took in the mountain views from our backyard. Finally, we were present together in its walls. Neither of us talking about what we need to do or what we should do, just enjoying the here and now. We listened to our kids laughing as they played chef in their bedroom. We took time to visit with neighbors. We fell in love all over again.

Discovering the True Meaning of Aparigraha

That night, as we decided to not sell our home, I finally understood what I needed to do to let go, to really practice Aparigraha. You could say that I had an awakening when it comes to understanding Aparigraha. I let go of the expectations others had placed on my shoulders. I let go of the burden I had given to myself. Instead of letting go of the wrong things, the things that really mattered, I allowed myself to let go of what didn’t.

Aparigraha isn’t about letting go of all things – it’s about letting go of the right things at the right time.

The art of the practice is finding space to think clearly enough to discern what needs to be held closely and what needs to be let go. In my case, I needed to let go of my ego, of my expectations of the big move. As I did, I found that I was clinging to something that wasn’t important – this new life I had imagined for myself – instead of fighting for what I really needed right now – my home and the community that comes with it.

Maybe one day it will be the right time to let go of my casita on Placer Drive, but I trust that until that moment comes, I will let go of the desire to change what is already so good. I will give up the drugs of overthinking and options, replacing the habit with long, deep sips of appreciating the present moment.

How to Practice Aparigraha on the Mat

Your yoga mat is a beautiful place to practice the art of “letting go”. Using your practice as a place to explore and investigate what you cling to and why is one of the most beneficial tools I have received from my decade of practice. For so many of us, our yoga practice becomes something that we get attached to (how it looks, how it makes us feel, etc.), rather than letting it be something that is truly supportive.

There is nothing wrong with having goals and milestones in your yoga practice, but be mindful of why those are there. How are they serving your well-being and that of those around you? When you can begin to allow your yoga practice to evolve daily, to allow it to ebb and flow with you through seasons of highs and lows, you are discovering the heart of Aparigraha.

Anytime I feel myself clinging to my physical practice, I turn to a softer, gentler form – like Yin. In doing so, I give myself the space and freedom to get to the bottom of what is really going on in my life. At the end of the day, your yoga practice is truly the best way to see your reflection.

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