Satya (truthfulness), the second of five yamas (restraints) described in the Yoga Sutra, guides us to think, speak, and act with integrity. The word sat means “that which exists, that which is.” Satya, therefore is seeing and communicating things as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. This can be quite challenging since we all perceive life through a conditioned mind-set: our thoughts, beliefs, and past experiences shape and color whatever we see, and, as such, none of us experience an event in the same way. Also, what we experience as truth one day may not be the same truth we live the next. Practicing satya requires staying open to truth in the present moment, as it reveals itself. Not always an easy task, as I learned firsthand many years ago.
why be truthful?
As a college student, I considered myself an honest person, except, of course, for the occasional white lie that would slip from my lips when I didn’t want to appear inadequate at work or admit something to my parents. But, as I came to realize, lies can be such an automatic response that we’re not even aware we’re telling them, or that we’re hurting others and ourselves in the process. When we lie, as the sages say, we disconnect from our higher self; our minds become confused, and we cannot trust ourselves. What else am I lying to myself about? I wondered.
Sharing our “truth” can be especially difficult when providing honest feedback to our friends and family. Should we always share exactly what we’re thinking? This is where the principle of satya gets more complex. Satya follows ahimsa (non-violence), the highest-ranking yama. This means that we need to honor the principle of non-harming first and should tell the truth only if it doesn’t cause harm, or in such a way that it causes the least harm. The Greek philosopher Sophocles said, “Truly, to tell lies is not honorable; but when the truth entails tremendous ruin, to speak dishonorably is pardonable.” Further, the Yoga Sutra (2.36) states that when we perfect satya, we gain the siddhi (power) of manifesting our speech—what we say comes true. For this reason it’s essential for us to put ahimsa first and to be mindful that what we say is beneficial in a compassionate and gentle way. According to the wisdom of the sages, it is better to remain silent than to speak a harsh or cruel truth. Before we offer an unsolicited opinion or criticism, the ancients advise us to pause and consider: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
truth sets us free
Yoga has provided a wonderful opportunity to safely observe where I harbor varying degrees of dishonesty. Little by little, the asana and diaphragmatic breathing release the truths stored in my body, while mantra recitation and meditation gradually unveiled the root causes of my mental and emotional behaviors. Some patterns were easy to discern and change; others are so deeply embedded that I am still in the process of uprooting them. The more layers of untruths I unearth, the more I discover to work through. But each layer I dig up takes me deeper within—closer to my inner core. And I find that the more honest I am with myself—in a loving, playful, nonjudgemental, accepting way—the more honest others feel they can be around me.
There is a great freedom in being able to be who we really are, rather than hiding behind a mask of what we think others expect us to be. It allows us to be more spontaneous, more in tune with our creative intuitive side, and, ultimately, more open to explore the deepest truth of all—Self-realization. As we remove the layers of our cultural conditioning, we expand our beliefs to allow new perspectives, and as we clear inner spaces, we catch more and more glimpses of our true Self.