What is Satya?
This post is the second in a series of articles exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. Stay tuned to our blog over the next few months to continue learning about each of the 10 concepts and how to integrate them into your yoga practice and daily life.
Yamas are ethical practices that help us create a pure, resilient, healthy lifestyle. The first yama is Ahimsa (non-stealing); the second yama is Satya. Satya generally refers to truthfulness, or “non-falsehood.” Yamas are considered to be “restraints” on action, and to act with Satya, one restrains from falsehood or the distortion of reality in action, speech, and thought.
Seems clear, so let’s add some depth
Integrity, or a sense of “moral uprightness,” is essential to think, speak, and act with truthfulness. Your personal set of values and beliefs is mostly stable, and in terms of yoga philosophy, these beliefs form a layer of your true nature. When you react to the world from that place of stability, you are much more likely to act with integrity than if you react from the basis of your ever-changing emotional state.
Truthfulness with yourself
That last paragraph is a lot to take in, so let’s explore those ideas a bit further. When you begin a meditation practice, separation between the “core” of yourself and your emotional state is an important exploration; the idea that “you are not your emotions” and you can react to people and events without purely relying on your emotional compass is important for equanimity in day-to-day situations. Separation from emotion is also an important facet of emotional intelligence, and yoga philosophy includes the concept of “non-attachment” – which we will explore in another post – the idea that “this too shall pass.”
Emotions are not permanent; happy or sad, they will always pass, which means they do not form a reliable compass from which to react to the rest of the world. Think of the last time you woke up happy; how you reacted to your commute, your coworkers, your family. Now think of the last time you woke up grouchy, and how your reactions to those things were different. The objective experiences of those days were likely quite similar, but you probably reacted to them quite differently, even if the difference was only in your thoughts. This is what it means to react from an emotional place; achieving a bit of separation from emotion allows us to react with equanimity instead.
Separation from emotion does not mean detachment from emotion; you can stand in a river without being swept away by it. Part of Satya, or truthfulness, is recognizing your emotions and why they are being triggered; another part of Satya is to be honest with yourself about the reality of the situation that is triggering those emotions.
So if emotion is not permanent, what is? Your true self, or your true nature, lies underneath the emotions and thoughts that roil around in your mind and body. According to yoga philosophy, the true self is known as the “seer,” or the one who perceives the world through the “lens of the mind.” This idea will get a blog post of its own eventually, but in a nutshell, the idea is that you are not your emotions, your clothing, or the car you drive – your true self is what stays stable no matter what trappings surround you.
Truthfulness with others
If telling the truth would hurt someone’s feelings, should you speak it?
According to Osho, you should ask yourself, “What is the deep desire? Do you want to hurt the other in the name of truth? Then your truth is poisoned already: it is no longer religious, it is no longer moral – it is already immoral. Drop that truth. I tell you, even a lie is good if it is spoken out of love, and a truth is bad if it is spoken just to hurt.”
Satya is not an isolated practice; it combines with the other yamas including Ahimsa, or non-harming. In this philosophy, truthfulness cannot be separated from compassion, which means filtering your thoughts and considering your words before you say them to remain both truthful and kind. Also ask yourself, do words spoken just to hurt reflect truth at all?
How can you cause the least harm and the most good with your words? Acting with compassion doesn’t mean never hurting anyone; sometimes someone needs to be hurt in order to avoid something worse down the road. But acting with compassion in mind can help you decide how truthful is too truthful.
Truthfulness in society
Conversations about politics, religion and spirituality, equality, human rights, and power structures are essential in creating a just society. Practicing Satya while taking part in polarizing and triggering conversations can keep discourse from devolving into name-calling; but how do you differentiate between “truthfulness” and “truthiness”?
In an interview, Stephen Colbert said, “Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”
To avoid the “selfish quality” of “truthiness,” we do our best to consider all sides of an argument. Applying Satya to emotionally fraught topics means once again taking a step back from your emotions about that topic and approaching the conversation with compassion. I am not discounting the importance of righteous anger; there are many injustices in the world that we should get angry about because anger can provide the drive to make change. However, there is a difference between righteous anger that drives a cause forward and a mob mentality that can veer off course.
One difference between righteous anger and becoming part of a mob is Satya. Going back to the definition of Satya as a “restraint from falsehood or the distortion of reality,” application of Satya in charged situations means being truthful in a few ways:
- Being truthful with yourself about why you are taking this action or making this argument. Are you trying to make change? Is it important to you to be seen taking this action? Are you trying to hurt someone on the other side?
- Being truthful about the facts. Avoiding “distortion of reality” means looking at both sides of the argument and not cherry-picking facts and situations to bolster your side. This also applies to only selecting facts from your “social media echo chamber” – our social feeds tend to reinforce ideas we already hold about the world.
- Being truthful about those who oppose you; they’re usually not monsters. Take a look at the people who oppose you and consider their point of view. You can still disagree with them, but they need to be humanized in order for you to see the truth of the situation.
JP over at Ultra Spiritual has a great satire video on Being a Social Justice Warrior that perfectly captures the attitude of many people who argue with others online.
It’s important to remember that “being truthful” doesn’t always mean being right; it also doesn’t mean being rigid or inflexible. Beliefs can change if you are open to it, and if you want to change someone else’s mind, you need to be open to them changing yours as well.
Satya in your yoga practice
On your mat, practicing Satya is important for seeing and admitting the truth of where you are in your practice. In order to be kind to yourself and avoid injury, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how you feel, what you need, and what your intentions are.
One way to integrate Satya is to allow yourself a few moments of stillness or space at the beginning of your practice in order to figure out how you feel right now. Try to avoid rushing into the practice while still reacting emotionally to whatever came before in your day. During your practice, listen to your breath and use it to gauge how your body is managing the stress of the movement.
After you’ve checked in with your body, don’t ignore those signals. This can be the most difficult thing; sometimes our mental intention for our yoga practice is in direct opposition to what our body needs, and heeding those signals can be very challenging. If your body needs rest, rest. If your body needs stretching, stretch! If you need lots of physical movement, go for it – but don’t ignore painful sensations. Continually check in and make sure that what you’re doing feels safe.
Stay tuned as we continue our exploration of the yamas and niyamas, and as always, feel free to ask questions of your teachers when you practice!