The Yamas and Niyamas: Satya

Satya, the second Yama or ethical observance in Pantanjali's 8-Limbed path is usually translated as "truthfulness," bringing to mind the notion that to enact satya is simply to not lie, to always speak the truth. In its most corporeal sense, satya is the avoidance of intentionally misleading those around us. Satya however is a rich word and an invitation into a way of seeing and being in the world. 

Richard Rosen (2017) translates satya as "real, genuine, sincere, honest, truthful, faithful, pure, virtuous, successful effectual, value." This longer definition begins to provide some insight into what it really looks like to embody and live in satya. 

To live out satya in our day to day lives requires that our actions, our words, and our thoughts are all consistent. At the heart of satya is the notion of integrity. That is, that we are the same person inside as we project outwardly, that we are the same person when we're alone in our room as we are when we're operating in the world. That there is consistency in our inner and outer worlds. 

When we keep an honest heart-mind that is consistent with our actions, we are able to communicate clearly and openly and as a result more efficaciously. Our relationships have purity. Consequently those in relationship with us feel safer in our presence, knowing that we operate from discretion, honest and constructive criticism, and out of love. 

It is no accident that satya comes directly after ahimsa. The two are meant to operate together, hand in hand. When satya and ahimsa are present in our lives, the other Yamas becomes far easier to live out. Truth-telling when done in concert with ahimsa means speaking carefully, knowing that the power of life and death are in the tongue. To live out satya is to avoid gossip and the harmful use of our words, it is to operate in discretion, not sharing "truths" that may not be ours to tell. It is to offer feedback that inspires mutual love and trust rather than criticisms fueled by fear or pain. 

However, while satya is always in service of ahimsa, like love, though good, it is not always safe. Satya is always pressing us to move past our comforts by calling us into deeper and deeper levels of inquiry. 

Truth-telling, living in truth with ourselves and others is risky, it is fierce, and it is always beckoning is out of our comfort zone and out of the boxes we inevitably build around ourselves. The boxes of our perceptions have to constantly be evaluated and often destroyed so that we can open ourselves to new truths. There is a proverb that reads "truth is built line upon line and precept upon precept". While previous "truths" might not always be supplanted, they are updated with deeper levels of truth and we have to be willing to open our eyes and hearts and to stay inquisitive if we wish to be ones that live and speak in truth. 

To live in truth then, requires that we are constantly updating our thinking by  being willing to ask again and again "what am I not seeing?" Living out satya requires that we stay in connection with the present moment, willing to see all sides of any given story so that we can shift from living out of past projections and pains. Truthfulness requires a fierce engagement with life, that we become master observers willing to continually clear our perceptions and field of consciousness (our citta) so that we can see ourselves and the world accurately. 

Satya then is honesty, it is consistency (integrity) in our thoughts, actions, and words. It is staying in connection with present moment and constantly upgrading our understanding. 

Satya is also at its its heart authenticity and a commitment to being who we really are and honoring our gifts and path. 

Arguably the person we lie to the most is ourselves. We convince ourselves to stay on paths that are not serving us out of "I shoulds" rather than honoring our inner most wisdom. We tend towards people-pleasing seeking approval from others rather than authenticity. Satya is however an invitation into our own greatest possibility. 

The concept of satt "truth" is linked to the notion of svadharma or our own individual dharmic path, our personal role, and duty within the cosmic universe. To live a life of satya is to live deeply committed to our own svadharma and choose the riskier path of failing authentically over "succeeding" at a path that was not meant for us. When we step outside of our callings we always invite chaos and sorrow. Knowing ourselves well and staying the course of our path, even when its risky allows us to live a meaningful and authentic life. 

In the opening chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna the warrior prince is faced with a tremendous dilemma, entering a battle against his kinsmen. As Arjuna falls into self-doubt and disillusionment Lord Krishna admonishes Arjuna by stating

"It is better to do your own duty badly, than to perfectly do another's. You are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing (3:35)."

In the words of Oscar Wilde "Be yourself, everyone else is taken."

To embody satya is to choose authenticity over approval. Every time. To stop living and dying by the praises of men and to yoke ourselves to our own capacity. This yoking is the yoga of action and karma. 

Often we ignore this inner voice and follow our "shoulds" rather than our svadharma because we have for so long silenced our innermost wisdom. We suppress the voice of inner truth not because we don't know it is the right thing in our heart of hearts, but because for whatever reason we simply see the costs of living that truth as too high. But truth requires integrity to the reality of life. And while we may see the costs as too high, the sorrows and walling off of our heart cries is a far higher price to pay. 

Satya is then asking us to stop packaging ourselves in a way the world will deem worthy and instead to get courageous (to speak from the heart boldly) and be wildly and boldly who we are. It is the suppression of our deepest selves that leads us into a life of drudgery, authenticity an invitation into a life far riskier but with far greater reward. 

On a final practical level, satya is asking us to be impeccable in our word. Our gifts and our talents will take us places, but it is our character, our integrity, our commitment to doing what we say, saying what we mean, and living honestly that will sustain us. 

When we honor our word, we honor ourselves and others. 

Our commitment to our word communicates to those around us our value for them and our connection. When we honor our commitments we create soil for real sustainable growth with deep roots. Being impeccable in our word is a radical demonstration of love, both for ourselves and others. 

This means not committing verbally to things we cannot follow through with. It means not lying to ourselves about what we are able to accomplish so that we can honor our promises to ourselves and others. 

This level of honesty with ourselves saves us from spreading ourselves too thin and from having to clean up messes created by our dishonesty.  Satya embodied means making your "yes" a true "yes." And your "no" a "no." Living in this way not only saves you from cleaning up a lot of messes, being overworked and overwhelmed, but demonstrates real leadership to those around you and invites them into the same level of integrity and trust. 

Truth is an act of love. Truth is a demonstration of love. Truth mimics love in so many ways. It is fierce. It is sometimes painful. It is always radically good when it dances with and is enacted through the lens of ahimsa. 


Richard Rosen  2017 "Yoga FAQ Almost Everything You Need to Know About Yoga From Asana to Yamas" Shambala Publications.