The yama and niyama outlined in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali are Yoga’s ethical precepts. The second yama, or restraint, is satya.
Sanskrit is a vibrational language. As such, each syllable carries with it a tremendous amount of meaning and depth. That is why we can spend many pages of English-written reflection on just one, simple Sanskrit word such as Om, namaste, and, of course, satya.
The “truth” about satya.
The Sanskrit word satya is often defined as “truthfulness”. Truthfulness is one way of practicing satya, but the words meaning is far richer. In Sanskrit, the word sat more closely means “the true essence”. From this perspective, if it can be changed, it isn’t True. That which is True endures.
According to the Yoga Sutra, Yoga is what happens when our fluctuating thoughts quiet and we are able to experience the Truth of who we are. We are connected to ourselves, each other, and the Numinous. Our thoughts are fleeting. Some of them are helpful. Others, not so much. The helpful thoughts are based in Reality. The unhelpful thoughts are based on our experience of reality.
Here is an example of a seemingly simple but untrue thought. I am hungry. Well, am I? At the moment, yes. However, if I eat something, I will no longer be hungry. Therefore, hunger is changeable. If hunger is changeable, it must not be True. The True essence of who I am is complete in and of itself. It does not experience hunger. There for, from a yogic perspective, “I” am actually not hungry. From a yogic perspective, “I” simply “Am”. It is far more accurate to think or say to oneself, “I feel hungry”, “I am experiencing hunger,” or “hunger is present”. This acknowledges the momentary existence of hunger while distinguishing that hunger is not who or what I am.
A case of mistaken identity.
Does such a common statement really make all that much a difference? Well, yes, actually it does. When we tell ourselves we are anything, we create mental grooves. The more we have the thought that initiated the groove, the more well-worn the groove becomes. In Yoga the word for these mental grooves is samskara. When we do not realize our experience of reality is based on our thoughts about it, sooner or later, our samskaras become our primary experience of reality.
In the above example, the seemingly simple thought “I am hungry” indicates a mistaken identity. If I identify myself as hungry, I create a barrier between my momentary experience and my ability to appropriately respond to that experience. Physical symptoms of hunger include moodiness, brain fog, and preoccupation with food. I am not hungry every time I am moody, have brain fog, or feel preoccupied by food. However, the more I tell myself “I am hungry”, which, in essence, means “Hunger is what I am” the less I will be able to discern whether I am actually hungry or experiencing hunger’s symptoms for another reason entirely, such as being tired or unhappy. We then begin to believe that food and eating is the antidote to our discomfort and that we need it in order to feel okay.
Ah… now we’re getting somewhere!
What I really Am is…
None of this is to suggest denial or repression of our physical needs is the appropriate response. There is nothing spiritual to be gained by neglecting and abusing our bodies. When we feel hunger, the appropriate response is to eat something. However, we are not our physical body. We have a physical body. Nor are we the experiences we have in our physical body, be they painful, pleasurable, or neutral. Our experiences are changeable. Thus, they do not endure. Therefore, we are not our experiences.
If we are not our experiences, we must be something else.
Satya is a practice that loosens our attachment to our ego, a necessary but false identity we construct so that we can operate as physical beings in a physical world. Our ego is at the mercy of the world it identifies with. If we only identify ourselves with the physical world, we are at the affect of whatever we experience there. However, if we realize that our ego is merely a persona -a mutable aspect of our psyche informed by our senses, emotions, and experiences- our attachment to it wanes.
When we identify with the Truth of who we are, we foster connection to an unending source of love. The more we allow this love to flow in and through us, the more we are able to live deeply, intentionally, and courageously. As mental chatter subsides, we discover and begin to live from a calm place of stillness and peace.
Practices for cultivating satya.
- Observe your thoughts. Notice the way you talk to yourself. Play around with your internal dialogue. Try using language that acknowledges your experiences but does not identify you with them. Instead of “I am…” statements, see how it feels to use statements such as “I feel…” or “My experience is…” At first, this may feel awkward, but give it some time. See if it helps you release your attachment to your experiences and embrace the idea that your True self is strong, wise, and capable of handling whatever life sends your way!
- Get honest with others. Practicing satya in our relationships is more than just “not lying”, although that is a GREAT place to start! How often do we tell “white lies” to friends and loved ones? If a friend asks us to go out to dinner on a day we feel particularly tired, do we make excuses such as “I am not feeling well” or “I have a headache”? When we are dishonest with others, we create an unhealthy barrier around ourselves. Instead of making-up an excuse, we can simply say, “No thank you,” and leave it at first. After years of feeling we have to have an excuse for taking care of ourselves and living as we see fit, it may feel strange to simply own our yes and own our no. It will take some practice, but eventually it feels less scary and more liberating.
- Be aware of what you are listening to. Communication involves more than our thoughts and words. It begins with what we allow into our minds. Our thoughts, words, and behaviors are affected when we constantly expose ourselves to the unhelpful thoughts, words, and deeds of others or our environment. This doesn’t mean we don’t communicate with people we don’t agree with, but it does mean that we approach these encounters with discernment and healthy boundaries. Yoga teaches us to calm and quiet our minds. In doing so we are better able to tease apart which thoughts are ours and which belong to others. As Yogis, this actually puts us in an optimal position to foster dialogue with those we don’t agree or whom we have conflict with!
- Practice satya in light of ahimsa. Sometimes we have to share a difficult truth with another person. There are ways we can do so that foster greater connection and promote non-violence. The Center for Non-Violent Communication is doing wonderful work in this field! For more, check them out here.