‘If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all’...

Did your parents or grandparents ever say these words to you? Mind did – I have been reminded of these words while thinking about the yogic practice of satya (truth) focuses on carefully choosing our words so they do the least harm—and most good. 

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. What we say has the capacity to inspire, frighten, and delight. 

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 Patanjalis Yoga Sutra, the concept of satya (truth) is given as a similar teaching, with a slightly different slant. Satya is one of the five yamas, or restraints, that yoga practitioners try to incorporate into their lives. 

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 come from a place of truth where they can flow from the spirit of nonviolence. Even if your dress could be the ugliest one I have ever seen, but it is not necessarily practicing satya to tell you so.


Taken from The Language of Observation
AUG 28, 2007

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

Off the mat and in to the world, it's useful to practice satya and its importance is even more apparent when we interact with others. Recently, on a car trip with my buddy, 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 am attempting to make clear requests of my students. Inviting them to try something new, hoping this will give them the freedom to explore, without fear 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.

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.

Victoria Stovell