There’s a saying from the late and well-respected yoga teacher TKV Desikachar that if you want to know if you’re advancing in your yoga practice, look at your relationships.
While on the surface we’re often practicing breathing and poses, we’re really learning how things relate to each other. How the inhale relates to the exhale. How our bodies relate to earth. How you relate to me and I to you.
When it comes to our relationships with ourselves and others, there’s a simple formula from the Yoga Sutras: Be Kind AND Honest.
I long thought these things were so easy and ingrained from childhood that they didn’t really require my consideration. Then last year, my yoga philosophy teachers called me on my actions in one of the most cringeworthy ways I could imagine: You’re being nice, not honest, she said.
Nice, as in fake or superficial.
Immediately after our conversation I began to write her, determined to show her how truthful I could be as I questioned her description. But as I sat with it, I started to see how in some parts of my life I have leaned into kindness, avoiding honesty so as not to be mean or not to lose something. Or I would lean altogether into brutal truthfulness — just being honest! — and avoid taking the time to deliver it with kindness.
To be nice and not ask for my needs seemed like I was being a good yogi. Or at least a good girl.
Often one of the first parts of yoga philosophy taught is Ahimsa, non-violence or kindness, which is the first of 5 Yamas, ways of being in the world. The problem is we often stop there, or we apply the 5 yamas separately, according to the situation. The second Yama is Satya, or truth, being honest. (The others are Asteya, don’t steal; Brahmacharya, fairness; aparigrahah, don’t cling, or only take in what is appropriate for you.)
We are meant to practice these all together, or in a shorthand way: Be Kind and Honest.
The Yamas are rules for how we are to build stronger relationships, with ourselves and others. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that we are connected to each other.
To practice both kindness and honesty is to walk a tightrope at times. It requires us to both consider ourselves and consider the other.
I have failed at it often over the last year. I think of a line from writer George Saunders: what I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Sometimes, like when caught in traffic, it has not felt like it mattered to be kind, and it hurts me to write that.
As much as I regret the times I have failed in kindness, I regret the times I have dodged the truth in favor of niceness. It prevented me from having a real conversation and a real chance of connecting with the other person. A lack of truth keeps relationships superficial, distant.
Truth is messy.
So is life.
Yoga is waking us up to our lives. What is really happening here now. Like waking up a leg that’s fallen asleep, waking up is a prickly process. It is not glossing over our habits or how we relate to others in favor of false positivity. Or niceness.
Kind and Honest forces us to get real. First with ourselves. In those parts of our life we are not truthful, we are hurting ourselves. If I deny that my balance isn’t good, I’m not going to get better by saying it is. Being kind and honest opens up the possibility for positive change.
When we avoid being honest with ourselves we are disconnected from our power. We are doubting our power to change a situation for the better. In some areas of our life we may have so many stories and survival habits from childhood or trauma that it can take years of self work to touch into truth.
Kind and Honest is sometimes a No. It is setting boundaries on our time. It is asking for what we need. It is softening our judgement. It is considering someone else’s perspective. It is seeing where we are falling short of being the people we want to be.
It is Warrior’s work. It is the pathway to transforming our relationships. It begins with ourselves.