Satya (truthfulness), the second of the 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.
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 hurt someone’s feelings 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.
One day, my close friend Don called to see if I wanted to go to a party that night. I told him that as much as I would love to, I didn’t feel well. And as I said it, I started to feel sickish and felt the pull of the couch calling me. I just wanted to nestle under a cozy blanket, sip chamomile tea, and read a good mystery.
Usually Don, a nurturer at heart, would sympathize with me and ask if I needed anything. But not today. In a quiet, matter-of-fact tone he said, “You know, if you don’t want to go out tonight, just say so. You don’t need to pretend you’re not well.”
Affronted that he would so bluntly challenge me, I sputtered some feeble protest that no, I was not pretending, that I really was sick. But he wouldn’t let me off the hook. “You know, you tend to do this a lot. Every time you don’t want to do something you say you’re sick.” He wasn’t angry, he said, just concerned that I didn’t feel I could be honest with him. I mumbled another denial and hung up the phone. I felt terribly exposed. My heart raced. My body trembled. My face felt flushed. Had he been standing there in front of me, I wouldn’t have been able to look him in the eye. Then suddenly it hit me: Oh my God, he’s right. I am lying.
Not only had I been lying to him and others, more importantly, I had been lying to myself. Without being aware of it, I had morphed into my mother. I had learned this response from observing her—a young immigrant woman in a strange country, not knowing the language, with three small children to care for and a demanding husband. From my childhood on, I remember her often being ill after recovering from surgery. But even as she got physically better, it seemed to me that she still used the excuse of not feeling well quite often, especially when my father drank too much, or got angry, or wanted to go out and she didn’t. At such times, I watched this normally capable woman, whom I loved dearly, pop the pills her doctor gave her and fade in front of my eyes, as she shrank into herself to avoid those situations she couldn’t deal with.
And now here I was virtually doing the same thing. Don was right—it had become my default reply. Worse, each time I said it, I honestly believed I didn’t feel well. I would even start to experience physical symptoms. By saying I was sick, I was making myself sick. When we lie, the sages say, we disconnect from our higher self; our minds become confused, and we cannot trust ourselves. I no longer knew my own truth. What else am I lying to myself about? I wondered.
When we lie, the sages say, we disconnect from our higher self; our minds become confused, and we cannot trust ourselves.
Should we always tell our friends what we think about their behavior, like Don did with me? 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 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 useful? Is it kind?
According to the wisdom of the sages, it is better to remain silent than to speak a harsh or cruel truth.
In my case, Don acted from a place of love and caring, and our long-standing friendship was strong enough for me to hear and accept his words. A year earlier, he had trusted me with his secret of being gay—a huge risk in 1970—setting the honesty bar at a very high level. Even so, if I hadn’t been ready to face my own truth, his words could have damaged, or even ended, our friendship. But instead, Don opened the way for me to start examining myself. Because he loved me enough to be straightforward with me, I decided to be brave enough to acknowledge my actions. Then later that year I started to do yoga. Little by little, the asanas and diaphragmatic breathing released 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, nonjudgmental, accepting way—the more honest others feel they can be around me.
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.
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.