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Satya in Sanskrit: सत्य
I vividly remember a moment at summer camp when I was 11 years old. I invented the story that I was a princess from an Eastern European country. As soon as I said it, I felt a pinching in my stomach and chest. I tried to avoid making eye contact with the other campers, but they were inquisitive and had all kinds of questions. Soon I was so tangled in my dubious story that I completely lost track of my lies.
That uneasy feeling became very familiar to me. As a pre-teen, I was so insecure that I often bent the truth, exaggerating it to make myself feel and look good—or so I thought. I didn’t yet know that it hurt me every time I lied. Pretending to be someone I wasn’t actually masked the beautiful qualities of the girl I was.
The powerful force of truth
I eventually grew out of the habit of lying, having felt the sting of being caught in my fabrications. Later, in my early twenties, I started the journey toward accepting my true self, including the yogic culture I’d grown up with. Instead of rejecting yoga, I decided to become a serious student of the practice. Part of this journey involved studying and applying the yamas, which are yogic ethics. I began with satya, which means truth.
Yoga Sutra 2.36 says satya-pratiṣthāyāṁ kriyā-phala-āśrayatvam. This can be translated to mean: When one is established in truthfulness, actions begin to bear fruit.
As part of my journey of self-acceptance, I lived and worked in central India for two years and it was here that I began to study the shlokas, or verses, and see them in action. For part of this time, I lived in Wardha in Central India, at the Sevagram Ashram, which was established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936. Many contemporary yoga practitioners spend time there, where they do their best to live yogic values in action. But I saw that many people had different definitions and experiences of truth.
As someone who understood what it was to have a dubious relationship with truth, including my experience as a young adult learning to accept herself, I really pondered this verse on satya. How could I be more firmly established in truthfulness? What would it look like for my truthfulness to bear fruit? So much of our culture is built on lying—from little white lies to all-out deceit. How could I navigate around that?
In Letters from Yeravda Mandir, Gandhiji wrote, “Generally speaking, observation of the law of Truth is understood merely to mean that we must speak the truth. But we in the Ashram should understand the word Satya or Truth. In a much wider sense there should be Truth in thought, Truth in speech, and Truth in action. Ahimsa is the means; Truth is the end.”
And Gandhi’s role in Indian history gives us a powerful, clear example of truth in action exemplified by the non-violent overthrow of the British. In fact, the movement was called “the satyagraha (holding firmly to truth) movement” and those within it were “satyagrahis.” Satyagraha comes from the words satya (truth) and graha (force). So satyagraha is truth-force. This force of truth was powerful enough to liberate India from its oppressors.
Finding the truth within
Learning from the Gandhian satyagrahis—those who practice truth-force—I started to understand how seeking truth could also involve self-inquiry. To discern the truth, we have to know ourselves deeply. As I lived and studied at the Gandhi ashram, I began to see the Truth beneath the truth. I learned that Truth is often a process of unveiling and inquiry. Truth is more than speaking honestly or not lying. Truth is the harmony among thought, word, and action. It is even the understanding that we are all interconnected, even thought we experience many different truths.
To practice yoga is to be a seeker of truth—even knowing that we may not always get all the way to the true heart of things.
Over time, I learned to look at the truth of my own experiences and validate them, and to speak from confidence rather than insecurity. I believed in myself because I was living as authentically as possible. My own speech had more weight; people seemed to put more value into what I had to share.
A satya affirmation
I developed a personal satya affirmation. You might like to try this, or create a truth affirmation of your own:
Satya is honesty in thought, word, and deed. May I practice truthful thinking, speech, and action in order to promote growth and peace in myself and among others. May I listen deeply to hear others in their own truths. May I pause before speaking and use open communication to resolve all conflicts. May I remember that what I think, do, and say can create happiness or suffering, so I vow to use my actions, words, and my listening to inspire joy, confidence, and positivity. May I use my voice to speak up for others. May I live the truth of interbeing.
There is no way to practice yoga without including satya. A Satya practice invites us to ask ourselves at every turn: Is what I’m doing or saying right now creating more connection or more division? Does it serve the greater purpose or does it do harm? This can be our yoga unity check-in as we bring satya into our everyday lives.
An exercise for cultivating satya
Practice and trust this process to find your satya or inner truth.
- Think of a leader that you respect. What are the specific qualities of that leader that you admire? Be as detailed and descriptive as possible. You can write this down or do it in your head. For me, it’s a particular femme activist I admire who embodies qualities of fearlessness, positivity, and the relentless pursuit of justice.
- Now think of your own qualities. (Here’s the truth-telling part, so get ready!) How do you embody the qualities that you respect and admire in the leader you describe? Be specific! It’s normal to feel doubt. Like, who, me? I can’t possibly be like that amazing leader that I admire! But re-read the words you used to describe them. Let them sink in. You couldn’t see it in your role model if you didn’t have those same qualities (even if only in seed form!) in yourself. For example, maybe I’m not fearless, but I don’t shy away from risk. I pursue my dreams of justice. I am positive. Certainly, I could grow into these qualities more, but yes, I embody them.
- Take a moment to reflect on the truth that you are bringing into being or exploring right now. Brainstorm how you can express your truth in thought, speech, and action.
- Practice bringing satya alive in your life. Satya is powerful. The beauty of it is we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The traditions of yoga have produced many powerful methods and tools that can work for you in your circumstances right here and now:
- Engaging in self inquiry. Telling yourself the truth.
- Listening deeply—in such a way that you hear another’s truth
- Building relationships in a community of truth
- Acknowledging power and dynamics between yourself and others
- Having courageous conversations with yourself and others
- Practicing radical honesty and truly supporting the growth of others
- Being true to what calls you–following your particular passion, issue, or project to fruition
By embodying yoga as yuj, union, we are all connected to Universal Consciousness. You and I are also not separate or different in our innermost being. Satya unveils this truth, and gives us the opportunity to experience the unity of just being.
About our contributor
Susanna Barkataki is the founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute. She helps yoga teachers, studios, nonprofits, and businesses become leaders in equity, diversity, and yogic values so that they embody thriving yoga leadership with integrity and confidence. Learn more and get the Honor Yoga Manifesto at susannabarkataki.com.