Satya is the Sanskrit word for truth. It also refers to a virtue, to being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action. In Yoga, satya is one of the five yamas. It is the virtuous restraint from falsehood and, crucially, the distortion of reality in one’s expressions and actions.
A student recently asked me why I didn’t give positive feedback to individuals in class. It’s a question that comes up from time to time. Speaking as a school teacher, she said she spent her working life encouraging and praising pupils for effort and achievement. Why is there no praise in a Yoga class?
There is a stock answer: when I say to a yoga student, “Well done”, I am giving myself a pat on the back. I am saying, “Look! My teaching is so excellent, and this student is living proof!” Is that Satya?
What about all the lessons that student has not learned, the basic actions avoided and evaded even after months and years of practice? Shoulders back, lift your chest – do I still need to say this every time? Clearly yes – I have not taught them this lesson yet. That these actions are not coming tells me their mind is elsewhere or their ego is still in the driving seat, and I have not dealt with those issues. That is the reality, the Satya in this situation. To say “Well done” is to distort reality for both of us.
How many of us experience moments of dread when the teacher moves on to our ‘worst’ pose, the one we love to hate? Somehow we struggle through, cling on and breathe a sigh of relief when they move to the next pose. And then when we are practicing, when we see the results begin to come, is there a part of us that looks forward to showing off our new-found skills and achievements in class, anticipating admiring glances from our fellows and praise from the teacher? Is this Satya?
Some students just seem to flow into the most demanding of poses – deep twists, spring up into handstands but how is their practice in, say, Savasana for instance?
And is it so very wrong to quietly say, “Well done” to someone who has been struggling and finally gets up into Urdhva Dhanurasana? When I’m immersed in my teaching, sometimes the words just pop out of my mouth! But what if a student is unlikely ever to achieve that pose? Maybe there’s an injury, a difficulty that precludes them from the final pose – is their effort any the less because of that?
Saying, “Well done” to someone in a Yoga class is the quickest way to stunt their progress. When someone is praised, in that moment, the learning stops: out come the laurels and the ego, effort ceases and is replaced by laziness, apathy and then disillusion. The brain takes over and their experience of yoga narrows down to a few postures they can use to demonstrate their experience and ability. Satya includes the reality of our inexperience, our inability too.
In Iyengar Yoga the challenge is to learn the essence of the pose, not just its technique or shape. If it was all about form and beauty, Yoga would be an Olympic sport, like gymnastics. When Mrs. Urdhva Dhanurasana finally lifts up from the floor, to say “Well done” creates a distortion of reality: the discipline and effort are gone and the student gets mentally ‘stuck’, believing that’s all they have to do. Their practice will suffer because getting into the pose is only the beginning. My teaching therefore is at fault. That is Satya!