The second yama, satya, is translated as truthfulness, and there’s something beautifully simple about it. Many of us were taught some version of it as a first lesson in morality when we were kids: “lying is wrong,” our parents probably instructed. Over the centuries, volumes have been written about the meaning and value of truth, and a lot of us have a beloved quote about the nature of honesty by our favorite writer, physicist, or politician. But actually practicing “truth” in a consistent way – both with others and ourselves – is a bit harder.
In fact, the simplicity of the truth concept pretty much fades away after a few minutes of thinking about what it means. What’s the point of truth, or truth telling, after all? What’s the problem with not telling the truth? Are there any circumstances when we actually shouldn’t be truthful? And maybe the most challenging of all: What does being truthful with ourselves, as opposed to other people, actually entail?
In Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras, he says that the full translation of the yama is “To be established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.” In other words, when you’re always truthful, good things will “want” to follow you. This might be hard to swallow at first, but it could be as simple as the concept of action and reaction: If we put truthfulness out there by treating people a certain way, it will come back to us in some form. He adds that one of the virtues of being grounded in truthfulness, is that when doing so, “the state of fearlessness comes. One need not be afraid of anybody and can always lead an open life.” (Whether we’re daring enough for honesty as a way of life may be the real question.)
So what’s the problem with lying? Brad Waites, the Director of the College of Purna Yoga in Vancouver, says that lying is generally driven by the ego and feeds right back into it, which ultimately distances us from ourselves. “Whenever we are not telling the truth, we deepen our separation from this inner self. In this gap, shadow grows. The larger we make the gap through living falsehoods, the more the shadow takes over our life, and this shadow shows up psychologically (negative, hostile or destructive thoughts, hypocrisy and pretension), emotionally (non-positive states such as fear, depression, anger, etc.), and physically (pain, illness, and even accidents).”
So lying may not be so good for us, but is truth telling always the right choice? What if there are circumstances in which being truthful is a detriment to someone else? Jennifer Schmid, who teaches at the Ananda Ashram in Monroe, NY, says that we have to remember to think about satya in context with the other yamas: “There is a reason the yamas are listed in the order that they are. Though each stands alone individually, there is indeed a hierarchy of sorts. If telling the truth has the possibility of causing harm to anyone, it’s no longer truth, as it is unable to uphold ahimsa – non-violence.”
Waites agrees that what’s important to understand about the yamas is that they have to be conceptualized in relation to one another – they don’t exist as discrete entities, but they interact with one another in important ways. “Satya speaks to the way we must work with the yamas and niyamas. A truthful application involves more than focusing on them singularly and in a vacuum; there is a dynamic interplay between them… In a sense, they incorporate a system of checks and balances.”
He underlines that even something as fundamental as truth-telling can be problematic or even absurd if addressed by itself, which is why it has to be observed with regard to other elements of yoga. When asked whether it’s ever OK to lie, Waites had this to say. “While ‘truth’ isn’t interpreted differently based on circumstances, its application must be tempered by reference to all the other yamas and niyamas in a carefully considered and nuanced fashion, as even the loftiest principle becomes an absurdity if applied to the extreme. For example, satya calls for reference to ahimsa in situations where speaking a truth may hurt others. Our spoken words must always be true, but they must also be necessary and kind. Honoring this balance in each communication creates satya in a verbal context.”
One of the most difficult parts of satya might actually be to apply it to ourselves. In a lot of ways, it’s simpler to live truthfully by others; but being honest with ourselves is often trickier, and less pleasant. Many of us have demons we don’t want to deal with or past issues we don’t want to face. It seems like satya would ask us to “go there,” even when it’s not easy to do so.
I asked Schmid what she tells those of us who are having trouble dealing with our own inner workings. She reminds us that one of the goals of yoga is to gain freedom from the “sufferings” in our lives – and to be free from them, we first have to accept them. “Satya means being truthful and real about our shortcomings, our messes, and the places in our life where we have an opportunity to grow and transform. Yoga is about transformation. Yoga is about realizing freedom is already right here, right now.” She points out that while a lot of people might have visions of yoga leading to some sort of ecstatic blissful state, “more likely, and especially today, union is about waking up into your mess and connecting to the divinity within that.” Waites adds that looking honestly at parts of ourselves we may not be comfortable with is much easier if we remove the element of self-judgment that makes it so difficult – when we begin to see our problems with a little detachment, rather than judgment, it’s easier to address the internal issues (the “mess”) that we may have ignored in the past.
Sitting with unpleasantness, and learning not to be consumed by it, is a big part of yoga – both the physical and philosophical aspects. How do you integrate satya into your life? What happens when you don’t? Please share your thoughts below.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.