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To Tell the Truth

The yogic practice of satya (truth) focuses on carefully choosing our words so they do the least harm—and most good.

By Judith Hanson Lasater

woman meditating

Speech is perhaps the most human of all our activities. Parents eagerly await their children's first words; paradoxically, before long they can't wait for them to be quiet. The spoken word has the capacity to inspire, frighten, and delight. It is used to announce birth, mourn death, and dominates most of the waking hours in between.

The world's great spiritual teachings all acknowledge that what we say has profound power to affect our consciousness. Buddhism, for example, teaches Right Speech as one of its main precepts. In this context, Right Speech means speech that is nonharming and which has the intention to support all living beings. In the Yoga Sutra (Chapter II, verse 30), Patanjali presents to yoga students the concept of satya (truth) as a similar teaching. But he offers a slightly different slant. Satya is one of the five yamas, or restraints, that practitioners are to incorporate into their lives. (The other four are ahimsa, nonviolence; asteya, nonstealing; brahmacharya, sexual continence; and aparigraha, noncovetousness.) Because satya is presented as a yama, Patanjali's teaching on the subject has mainly been associated with restraint rather than with action—with what we should refrain from doing rather than with what specifically we should do. The teaching of satya is not presented in this manner as an accident or oversight. In most ways, the practice of satya is about restraint: about slowing down, filtering, carefully considering our words so that when we choose them, they are in harmony with the first yama, ahimsa. Patanjali and his major commentators state that no words can reflect truth unless they flow from the spirit of nonviolence. And here Patanjali is exactly in harmony with the Buddhist teaching of Right Speech. It is clear that Patanjali did not want his readers to confuse satya with speech that might be factually accurate but harmful. Your dress may be the ugliest one I have ever seen, but it is not necessarily practicing satya to tell you so.

Regrettably, additional guidelines for the practice of satya in the Yoga Sutra are not very extensive. In the era when Patanjali wrote, it was expected that the teacher or guru would fill in any gaps in the disciple's understanding. But many modern-day yoga students don't have such guidance, and the lack of explanation in the Yoga Sutra about practicing satya can make it difficult to incorporate the practice into everyday life.

The Language of Observation

I have found much help for deepening my practice of satya in the teachings of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. For one thing, his work has helped me more carefully separate my judgments from my observations. Instead of saying, "This room is a mess," I now might say, "This room does not meet my 'need' for order." The first sentence is a judgment; the second one is an observation. In the first sentence, I am imposing my standards on the world; in the second, I am simply and clearly expressing my needs in this moment. ("Needs" is the terminology used in NVC; it might be more in keeping with yoga philosophy to call these "desires.")

The practice of yoga is about becoming clearly self-aware. As I practice yoga over the years, I work to become increasingly aware of my perceptions and beliefs—and to acknowledge they are only my individual perceptions and beliefs. To speak as if they are "truth" with a capital "T" is not to live in reality, and it's certainly not the practice of satya. If I say that someone or something is "bad," my words may be spoken as a truth, but it is actually just an opinion. I am not suggesting that we try to attain some, perfect state and attempt to avoid evaluating anything. If we did this, we could not judge which shirt to put on in the morning. I am suggesting instead that we focus on our thoughts and speech so we that we become aware if and when we choose to judge. By being aware that I am judging, I can make clear to myself and others that I am not claiming access to ultimate truth. In reality, of course, no one person can legitimately claim that.

Even when we are practicing yoga, we can easily confuse observation and judgment. In the studio, for example, it is not uncommon to have judgments about a pose we find unpleasant. When the teacher suggests we try such a pose, one of the following judgments may pass through the mind. First, we might say to ourselves, "This pose does not do anything useful" (judging the pose). Or we may inwardly judge the teacher. Finally, and probably most commonly, we think, "What's wrong with me that I cannot do this pose?" (judging ourselves).

When we use speech that expresses judgment, we limit ourselves and others. In this case, we limit ourselves by putting the pose, the teacher, or ourselves in a box, a box labeled "bad." We lose track of the fact that it is not the pose which is bad, nor the teacher, nor us. Rather, "bad" is an interpretation that arises within us. Whether we speak them out loud or silently, such judgments are not satya.

An alternative way to speak to ourselves about a difficult pose is to say, "I am having trouble with this pose right now." When we use speech this way, whether silently or out loud, a very different atmosphere for learning is created. To make the observation that I am having trouble right now makes no statement at all about the pose itself, the teacher, or my worth as a student. Neither does it ordain that things will not change. When I use the language of observation, I give myself the space and freedom to change right now or at any point in the future.

The Power of Clear Requests

Here is another example of how judging is not satya. I go to my favorite ice cream store to buy my preferred flavor (chocolate, of course!) and am told there is none. I must choose another flavor or do without, so I pick vanilla. Tomorrow I go back into the ice cream store, having developed a new appreciation for vanilla, and am disappointed to hear there is no vanilla, only chocolate. Yesterday chocolate was good and right; today chocolate is bad and wrong. Obviously there is not an inherent quality of "good" or "bad" in the chocolate ice cream. What I have done is project my beliefs and perceptions onto the ice cream. When I judge without acknowledging that I am doing so, I'm not practicing satya. Instead, I could make observations about my inner preferences—in this situation, by saying "I prefer chocolate" or "I prefer vanilla." These are much closer to the spirit of satya.

While it's useful to practice satya in more trivial situations like my ice cream excursion, its importance is even more apparent when we interact with others. Recently, on a car trip with my husband, I turned to him and said, "Are you thirsty?" When he answered, "No," I slowly became more and more agitated. Soon we had a bit of a fight. This dysfunctional interaction stemmed from the lack of clarity in my initial question. Instead, I could have said, "I'm thirsty. Would you be willing to stop for some water?" That request would have been more clear and thus more in keeping with satya.

What would the world be like if we made clear requests of others and they made them of us? While teaching yoga, I have increasingly attempted to make clear requests of my students. I ask them if they would be willing to try something new: I say, "This is what I would like you to try now." This way, I communicate more clearly that I am asking them to try something I think would be beneficial rather than demanding they practice the pose the "right" way. When I speak in this manner, I have found that students feel freer to explore and learn; they seem less afraid of getting things "wrong."

Patanjali slightly expands his discussion of satya in Chapter II, verse 36, where he writes that the words of those firmly established in the practice of satya become so powerful that everything they say comes true. Many commentators have speculated on what this verse means. One interpretation holds that persons firmly established in satya so completely harmonize with what is that they cannot say anything untrue. This interpretation appeals to me because it focuses on the self-transformative value of satya instead of gaining personal power over the world. In other words, instead of instructing us to practice satya because it will give us the power of "making thing scome true," the sutra teaches that by perfecting satya we gain the even greater power of living more fully in harmony with the universe.

Commentators on this sutra have also interpreted it to imply that the words of a person established in satya have the power to evoke virtue in others. When we experience a person speaking from satya, we resonate with those words. Hearing words that express truth helps us to experience a deep recognition that unconsciously we already know the truth. Upon hearing such words, we feel that some deep, essential part of us has been seen, hear, and understood. When we sense such profound acknowledgment and understanding, our soul receives an almost primordial comfort. We feel at home from the inside out, and we are inspired to act from that place of virtue within ourselves. Thus, beginning to practice satya by bringing more awareness to our words not only aids us in our lives and relationships but also contributes to the well-being of the whole world. Why? Because to speak from satya is to bring out the very best in others. When we do this, we are creating at this very moment the world we want to live in, a world based in clarity and connection.


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Reader Comments

Anonymous

what is sexual continence? the issue is skirted. a lot of spent saying about communication but sexual continence is mentioned and nobody says what it is. clearly, westerners are not interpreting it literally as celibacy. lets get clear on that much.

sally sue

Very good article. The conversation between you and your husband reminds me of what I learned about the emotional bidding process in the book the relationship cure by john gottman. When we communicate our needs more clearer they have a much greater chance of getting met.

Shirley

Wow. I have a new outlook on how to communicate through my use of words. Often judgement clouds the true meaning of speech. Thank you for an insightful article.

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