Part 4 of a 10-part invitation to inquiry centred on the yamas and niyamas described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The full series is available at

Satya – truthfulness (yama – Patanjali II.30 and II.36)
“For those grounded in truthfulness, every action and its
consequences are imbued with truth.”  (Hartranft)

As usual, there’s more to Satya than first glance suggests.  When I first encountered this yama, it was presented to me as a simple ‘tell the truth’ instruction.  Even this simple interpretation raises questions
pretty quickly.  Always tell the truth? Even if it hurts people? How does this sit with ahimsa (non–harming)?

Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Centre provides a thoughtful set of inquiries to guide us towards what in Buddhism is referred to as ‘right speech’.  Our ‘tell the truth’ interpretation of Satya seems to fit alongside this element of the Buddhist eightfold path.  Roshi Joan’s gatekeepers of right speech encourage us to select our words carefully and mindfully, by asking:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it beneficial?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it the right time?

While challenging to apply consistently, this seems a very practical way of attempting to “tell the truth”.   However, it seems to me that there is an elephant in the room here which also exists in most of the translations of Patanjali that I consulted.

No one seems to ask – what is truth?  The only exception I encountered was Matthew Remski who uses ‘honesty’ as an alternative to ‘truthfulness’ when translating Satya.  He suggests that doing so, ‘relieves the burden of certainty’.

Don’t panic – I’m not about to disappear down a philosophical rabbit hole.  It is enough to see that even at a very practical level ‘the truth’ varies over time and with different perspectives.

If my heart stops beating I will die.  True – unless someone resuscitates me.

The sight of a bluebell wood in the spring makes me feel vibrant, hopeful and happy to be alive.  True – apart from the time I was grumpy / angry / sad while walking in the woods.

Ah but what about scientific truth?  Well, to non-scientists it is often a little surprising to hear that scientific truth always comes with a caveat.  It goes like this – this is the truth as far as we can tell, based on current knowledge and evidence.  In other words, if we get new data or understanding, the old truth may no longer be true!  Which has of course happened many, many times as scientific knowledge has developed.  If this sounds like a criticism of science it certainly not intended that way.  One of the most robust aspects of the scientific method is its willingness to change conclusions based on new information.

Relating to Satya in this way, opens the possibility of ‘multiple truths’.  This is where Remski’s ‘honesty’ translation is helpful.  The ‘truth’ is simply a heartfelt expression of how I see and relate to the world.  It may be a subjective thing that is obviously transient – I am cold. Or it may be an opinion or conclusion based on available evidence or consensus – the earth orbits the sun.  It may even be a belief that is difficult to quantify or prove in absolute terms eg John loves Mary.  Truthfulness becomes less about ‘absolute fact’ and more a kind of mindful adoption of a viewpoint.

Following on from Roshi Joan’s “gatekeepers of right speech’, I wondered whether the following attitudes might act as useful ‘guardians of truthfulness’?

Openness – requiring both courage and kindness, in order to experience without judgement, prejudice or exclusion.  Such openness helps us avoid spinning into stories of fear, grasping or revulsion

Honesty – to consider deeply what we experience.  Again, without immediately filtering through our established beliefs, concepts or outcomes

Ease – to hold whatever ‘truth’ we adopt lightly, seeking to find the usefulness of the viewpoint, but also acknowledging the depths of our unknowing.

Such guardians might help me relate to truthfulness as a state of open honesty rather than the possession of fundamental belief.  We don’t have to look far to see that the latter frequently creates conflict and suffering.

Incorporating all this into Patanjali’s yamas, Satya becomes much more than simply ‘tell the truth’.  It might, instead, be an encouragement to:

‘consider where a particular truth comes from, whether it is useful, and how to share it skilfully to enhance well-being in ourselves and others.’

This is perhaps also helpful in understanding Patanjali II.36 ‘for those grounded in truthfulness, every action and its consequences are imbued with truth.’

Satya viewed in this way, has strong links to other elements of Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas, perhaps particularly Ahimsa, Aparigraya and Svadyaya.

Coming next….Aparigraya – not being acquisitive.