The Five Yamas (Part 2 – Satya)

30 January 2013
The Five Yamas (Part 2 – Satya)


This article is the second of a five part series based on this post: The Eight Limbs of Yoga (Part 1 – Yama)

The second of the five Yamas is Satya – a Sanskrit term that translates into English as “truth”, “truthfulness” or “honesty”. Satya is also defined in Sanskrit as “sate hitam satyam” which translates to “The path to ultimate truth or Sat is satya (the real truth)”.

Satya is indispensable for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Patanjali says of Satya: “As truthfulness (satya) is achieved, the fruits of actions naturally result according to the will of the Yogi.” (Yoga Sutras 2.36 – satya pratisthayam kriya phala ashrayatvam)

Basically what is meant by this is; for the one who increasingly practices honesty or truthfulness in all their actions, speech, and thoughts, their will is naturally fulfilled. But there is a cautionary note associated with this sutra, being the exercising of care in speaking truth: Truth needs to be concurrence with thought, word and deed. It must be true to fact and at the same time considerate. If by speaking the truth, another is hurt it ceases to be truth and becomes himsa [harming]. So, the student or yogi is instructed to exercise great care when speaking and each word must be weighed carefully before it is voiced.

The relationship between Satya (truthfulness) and Ahimsa (non-harming) must be balanced, even though, at times, this practice can be extremely challenging, if not downright confusing. It’s important to keep in mind that Ahimsa is the primary focus and central goal when practicing the five Yamas, and that the other four Yamas are in service of it. Learning how to delicately balance not lying, while at the same time avoiding being painfully honest with others, is a real art within Yoga practice.

When you consider the many situations in life when your so-called “truthfulness” might cause pain to others, it can be overwhelming, this may include something as simple as your comments about a meal served by a friend or how you respond when someone asks you about their appearance or clothes when they’re dressing for some special event? If your mind isn’t “in the moment”, and quick enough to artfully maneuver around such a situation, you would have to choose to be either painfully honest, or marginally honest for the sake of not hurting the other person. Of course, we’d all like to be quick-minded enough to balance non-harming and non-lying perfectly, but many of us have not yet developed the skill necessary to master this, and need to remain ever mindful of the most important practice, which is to first and foremost to cause no harm. This principle also applies to practicing the other Yamas.

Throughout the world the greatest spiritual teachings all acknowledge that what we say has profound power to affect our consciousness and the consciousness of others. Buddhism, for example, teaches “Right Speech” as one of its main precepts. In this context, “Right Speech” is taken to mean speech that is non-harming, posessing the intention to support all sentient beings. In his Yoga Sutra (Chapter II, verse 30), Patanjali presents the concept of Satya (truthfulness) as a similar teaching, but he offers a slightly different approach. Satya is one of the five yamas, and because it’s presented as a yama, Patanjali’s teaching on the subject has mainly been associated with restraint rather than with action; focusing on what we should refrain from doing rather than with what specifically we should do. The teaching of satya is not presented in this manner is not meant to be an accident, oversight or negative in any way. Instead, the practice of satya is about restraint in a positive sense: it’s about slowing down, filtering, carefully considering our words so that when we utter them, they are in harmony with the first yama, ahimsa. Patanjali and even his major, contemporary commentators agree that no words can reflect the truth unless they flow from the spirit of non- harming and non-violence. And as a result Patanjali is in perfect harmony with the Buddhist teaching of “Right Speech”. Patanjali made it clear that he did not want his students to confuse Satya with speech that is factually accurate but harmful.

To summarize; the yogic practice of Satya instructs the student to mindfully and carefully choose their words so they do the least harm, and most good.

The Five Yamas (Part 2 – Satya)

Stay tuned for: The Five Yamas (Part 3 – Asteya)

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