Satya & Asteya: Being Truthful and Not Stealing
Updated: Sep 4, 2020
My dear friend and teacher, Judith Rose, said to me the other day, “Falling in love with the truth is not for sissies!”
The second Yama in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, Satya, means commitment to the truth. The third, Asteya, means not-stealing. I’ve chosen to do Satya and Asteya together because I feel they’re very much inter-related.
When we lie to someone we literally steal the truth from them which can lead to very painful and messy outcomes. What happens in our bodies when we lie to ourselves; when we say “yes” when we feel “no”? In our yoga practices it can be both dangerous and undermining.
Our body knows what’s right for us, and so yoga becomes the art of listening. One might say that listening is the most important skill we develop as yogis – listening to our bodies, which hopefully then translates into listening to our hearts/guts, and then listening to others.
Here is the first line of the preface of Richard Freeman’s wonderful book, The Mirror of Yoga:
“Yoga begins with listening. When we listen, we are giving space to what is.”
We not only give space to what is, but we create a space in which to notice, see, hear, and respond to what is true. Listening is how we tune in to reality, and it can be a confronting process. (see previous post, “Yoga Requires Courage”)
In our daily practice we can move more slowly in order to listen more deeply. Often reality is in direct conflict with our ego-driven expectations of what should be true. What if you wake up one day and you can’t touch your toes, even though you did every day for ten years? Yoga teaches us to go to that point where we can be, and breathe, and listen, and be gentle with whatever we find there. Maybe we did a lot of gardening the day before, or we didn’t sleep well, whatever the reason, if we meet this tightness with compassion, we may just find something more beautiful than touching our toes.
"Asteya (non-stealing), the third of the five yamas (restraints) described in the Yoga Sutra, counsels us not to take (or misuse) what doesn’t belong to us and not to crave or be envious of what others have. When we take something from someone else—possessions, partners, ideas, time, or energy—we are trying to fill an inner void, the sages tell us. They liken this to pouring milk into a bowl with holes in it. No matter how much milk we pour in, the bowl stays empty.
We are like that bowl. The holes in us, caused by some deep loss or unfulfilled desire, can leave us lacking, feeling insecure, jealous, or resentful of others.
- Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak, The Thief in the Night, Yoga International site.
The internal connection we establish in yoga can help us shift from a feeling of “lacking” to a feeling of “enough”. Even when facing the challenge of our physical limitations, our experience can be rich and integrating. By striving to meet expectations, or competing, or resenting what we cannot do, it robs us of the present experience.
Being un-engaged, doing less than we can, is as much an untruth as pushing too hard. If we don’t try to stretch our arms all the way overhead we’ll never know if we can, and if we don’t listen and stop when we hear a “no” then we can injure ourselves. It’s a matter of practicing with “correct” effort and intensity – not too much, not too little, that is the key to being truthful.
Again, Richard Freeman:
“When practicing Asteya we see things as part of an inter-connected whole, and with that insight, we can release everything to be just as it is so that all may flow in its natural and true way”
In other words, when we practice Asteya on the mat, we allow our own bodies to flow in “their natural and true way”, too. Which brings us back to Ahimsa (non-harming), making sure that our thoughts, words, and actions foster well-being in all beings, including ourselves!
Remember that the Yamas are also about connecting to the world around us. Another way to feel “full” or complete can be service (in Sanskrit, Seva.) Do for others without expecting recognition or gratitude. It can turn around that feeling of isolation or lack and replace it with connection.
Satya means a commitment to truthfulness. It doesn’t mean just speaking the truth at all times, or being factual at all times, it means being aligned with the truth of the Yoga Sūtras, which means putting Ahimsa first.
Speak when it’s kind and necessary and make sure that it’s true. On the mat; put your attention on what is true, and respond in a way that’s kind and necessary.