Yoga for truth and honesty
Honesty is at the heart of being a yogi. Here, we walk the eight-limbed path of yoga and find out how to embody the qualities of truth.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
If you are interested in yoga and bringing more peace into your life, you will need an intimate relationship with the Sanskrit word sat or truth. More potently, sat is often defined as “true essence” or “that which is unchangeable”. Sat is the kind of reality you can’t find on TV, Google or Siri. It’s the reality of who and what you are, beyond your body and mind, and it can only be experienced through yogic practice. It requires you to pay attention, and to be patient and present.
Sadhakas are those following sadhana or conscious spiritual practice. It is said that sadhakas have a goal-oriented practice. For the student of yoga, the goal of practice is to reveal ultimate truth: ultimate reality. They are students seeking more sat in their lives.
In Master Patanjali’s chapter on sadhana in The Yoga Sutra, he outlines the ashtanga or eight-limbed path. It is said that although the eight limbs all work interchangeably at once, there is a method to the process. Step by step, it is often said. Or as my teacher Manorama D’Alvia says, “Pade, pade”. We can practise the first five limbs. For the last three, we can facilitate the experiences, but ultimately grace must step in.
Catching yourself in the process of being dishonest, noticing when you are unable to practise satya and contemplating why is much of the work.
The eight limbs ask us to get on the mat and practice asana, to observe, control and free the breath through pranayama practice; to learn to pull our awareness internally, withdrawing the senses from the external world, and instead direct all that energy to connect with the internal landscape. They suggest we learn to concentrate, and over time the ability to concentrate will lead us to a state of meditation. The rest is up to grace. But first and foremost, before any of that, Master Patanjali says, focus on your ethics through the yama (restraints) and niyama (observances). These first two limbs speak to how we are in the world, our behaviour towards others and ourselves. Satya, or honesty, is the second yama. If you desire a state of yoga, learn to be honest. The only thing more important than the practice of honesty, according to The Yoga Sutra, is ahimsa: non-harming, kindness and compassion. Kindness is king in the kingdom of yoga, and honesty is the queen.
Satya is translated by BKS Iyengar in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as “real, genuine, honest, virtuous and truthful.”
So how does one embody these qualities?
Always tell the truth
To start with, we can make it a practice to always tell the truth. Seems pretty simple, right? But if we really pay attention, when we really try to honour this practice it is very challenging, because we are not just talking about the big, harmful lies, the ones that break people’s hearts and destroy relationships, business, families.
To say what you mean and mean what you say takes immense vulnerability.
Think of all the little white lies, mistruths or the concealing humans do every day. The practice in satya is to observe your own tendencies and behaviour. Understanding where your lies come from is very valuable self-knowledge. You can start by always checking in with yourself: is what I am thinking or about to say the truth? If not, why not? Catching yourself in the process of being dishonest, noticing when you are unable to practise satya and contemplating why is much of the work.
In the awareness and contemplation is the self-knowledge. There may be a reason why you are not being honest. Examining that is part of the process. Perhaps the truth is unkind and unnecessary. Or maybe it’s so uncomfortable and painful that you avoid it. If you’re a people-pleaser, you may spend a lifetime not saying what you mean in order to keep the peace. The work, in my case, has been to get very clear about what I believe in and then develop the courage to stand up for it, regardless of how I will be perceived by others. Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati said, “What others think of you is none of your business.” He also said, “Mind your own business.” And when I contemplate that, I realise I’ve got enough business of my own to mind.
Contemplate what is really true
Another way to work with satya is to contemplate what is really “true”. Anaïs Nin says, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” Master Patanjali explains that the mind is constantly turning things around the wrong way. As humans, we don’t see things as they are, we see them through the vrittis or whirlings of the mind. It’s like we are constantly looking through the lenses of smudge-print-covered glasses. Yoga practice helps us clean our glasses.
It’s been proven that no two people remember the same event in the same way. There’s even a phenomenon called “the Mandela Effect”, where in large groups no two people remember exactly the same thing. Have you ever had the experience that you knew for sure something was so true, only to discover sometime later you were wrong? We must acknowledge that every person’s version of truth is going to be different. So here are some practical ways you can work with this.
- Accept that you see the world from your own perspective, so always stay curious about someone else’s experience for it’s true for them.
- See people and experiences in their many-faceted selves. Humans are complex beings.
- Let things and people be as they are, not how you do or do not want them to be.
- Notice where we get your information from; what and who are the sources, whether it’s a news service or your inner landscape. Does it come from a place of integrity or from fear, shame, pain or ego? Or is it true? Patanjali says in the first pada, even when it comes from wise, trusted, reliable sources — it isn’t truth.
- My friend and teacher Noelle Connolly always says, “When you think you ‘know’, look again!” … always check in with yourself. Is it really true?
Peel back the layers
To say what you mean and mean what you say takes immense vulnerability. Beginning to peel back the layers that hold you back from speaking your truth takes self-study and courage. To do this, you need to get very real about what the truth is for you.
“Honesty is not found in revealing the truth, but in understanding how deeply afraid of it we are. To become honest is in effect to become fully and robustly incarnated into powerlessness.” ~ David Whyte
So what is the truth for you? It’s not what you’ve been taught or brought up to believe. Not what you’ve heard from a friend, read on the news or on social media. Instead, your truth is what you’ve spent time processing with curiosity, compassion and clarity.
In Yoga Sutra 2:36, Patanjali explains that when we become established in the practice of satya, when we are honest with ourselves and others, we will succeed in all we do. To add to this, the more genuine you are with your thoughts, communication and actions, the more those around you will be truthful in return and trust you. As you build trust in yourself and start to live your truth, you become incredibly powerful. Watching someone connected to their truth and speak it, no matter how challenging it is, has the ability to change the world. Think of all the great modern yogis who did this such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
“If you make it a way of life always to tell the truth, then anything you undertake will have a successful result.” ~ Yoga Sutra 2:36, translated by Geshe Michael Roche
From a yoga physiology perspective, visshuddha chakra, centred in the throat space and neck, is the seat of honest communication. The practice below is centred around this chakra, while also opening the heart (anahata chakra because it always comes back to ahimsa) and keeping stability in the lower chakras to give you steadiness, strength and clarity of purpose.
Sit with a tall spine, hands resting where comfortable, palms up or down. Close the eyes. Watch the breath. Place one of your palms just in front of your mouth about five centimetres away. Take a slow steady inhale thorough the nose and on the exhale breathe on to your hand as though you’re fogging up a mirror. Feel the warm air on your palm. On the next breath, move the hand slightly further away and repeat, seeing if you can still feel breath on the palm. Place the hands back on your lap. And now try the same breath, but this time with the mouth closed. Add a silent, internal count of four on the inhale and exhale as you lengthen the breath so it becomes equal.
Sit with legs extended in dandasana. Bend knees and take feet hip width apart. Place hands on the ground a few inches behind the hips, with fingers pointing forward. As you lift hips, wrists are set under shoulders. Knees over ankles. Firm the hands and feet down. If it’s comfortable extend the neck, opening throat, moving crown of head back towards earth. Take five conscious breaths and then lower buttocks back down.
Standing heart opener
Stand with feet hip width apart, or a little wider. Place the hands on the sacrum, fingers pointing up or down depending on the mobility of wrists. On the inhale, climb the centre of the sternum up as you broaden collar bones, and maybe lengthen the throat and neck back if they follow naturally. Avoid compressing the neck, so keep the back of the neck long as you open the throat. Take three to five equal ratio ujjayi breaths. On the inhale come back up to centre. On the exhale, slide hands down backs of thighs as you fold forward to counter-pose.
With feet hip width apart, catch hold of the inside edge of big toes with middle finger and index finger. Bend knees if needed. On the inhale, lengthen the spine and move shoulders away from the ears, on the exhale, fold a little deeper, bend elbows out to the side to deepen and gently lengthen the neck. Focus on five ujjayi breaths.
Lie on the back, bend knees, take soles of feet together and open knees out to the side. Recline with arms either side of body, palms facing up, or one hand on heart and one on belly. Stay here and take five ujjayi breaths or use blocks to deepen.
… your truth is what you’ve spent time processing with curiosity, compassion and clarity.
Option with blocks: Place one block on medium setting under the upper back, around where the bra strap or base of shoulder blades are. Place one block on high or medium setting under head. Close the eyes and stay or deepen by removing block from under head and placing crown of head on earth behind you. Only if the neck is well, and you can completely connect crown of head to earth. Otherwise place block back under head. Take five ujjayi breaths.
Viparita karani/Supported bridge
Lie on back, feet hip width apart. Lift the hips up and place blocks stacked under the sacrum and rest the lower back onto the blocks. Stay here or extend the legs straight up over head. Point the toes or flex the feet as you set heels directly over hips. Take five ujjayi breaths.
Lie on back, with legs extended. Feet together, point toes or flex feet but active legs. Walk hands towards feet as you move shoulders away from ears. On the inhale press forearms down into the earth as you lift the chest up. Stay here or lengthen neck and throat back taking crown of head to the earth. Again, only take head back if the crown of head is connected to the earth. Otherwise, keep head up, gazing down tip of nose. Five ujjayi breaths and come down lying on back in savasana for a minute or two.