We continue our exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with the second niyama, santosha or contentment. As with our previous principles, we’ll look at santosha in both the direct and subtle forms in which it can be understood, as well as concrete ways we can apply it on the mat and in our lives.
Santosha, Counterpart to Non-Coveting
As mentioned last article, you’ll notice the niyamas represent a shift in emphasis from the external/behavior to internal/our attitude. This is once again particularly clear with santosha, which can be seen as the “internal counterpart” to the fifth yama, aparigraha or non-coveting. Where aparigraha involves staying aware of our natural tendency to focus excessively on things or situations we would like to obtain or achieve, santosha is about actively cultivating appreciation of what we already have. Like many of our other principles, there is a simplicity to contentment that can make it easy to gloss over – especially when examined next to such “dramatic” topics as non-violence or sexuality, and yet one could in fact suggest santosha is actually the most powerful and potentially life-changing of all the principles. Let’s take a look at why….
Contentment & the Value of “Cultivated Presence”
There is a famous aphorism by the great Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar that quite powerfully captures the importance of santosha that says: “It’s so simple to be happy; it’s so difficult to be simple…” – a truth as relevant today as it was centuries ago. What both he and the Yogis realized is it takes very little for us to be joyous – in fact, as discussed previously, all we really need is to be aware of the things that distract us from our inherent peace. Again, the challenge is the vast majority of our lives is in fact invested in the opposite direction, that is we spend a lot of time and energy learning how to build and to generate but don’t apply equal energy in learning how to appreciate those things once we achieve them.
Of course, at this point it can be valuable to note, in the Yogic view, these skills are by no means bad – again, our inclination to explore and experience and acquire are all natural parts of us. The issue arises when they get out of balance – when we put so much effort into building skill and achieving we forget how to simply “be.” To take a more concrete example, we all know what it’s like to finally achieve a goal – whether it’s as simple as a new acquisition or as complex as a degree or new job – only to find we are already so busy thinking of the “next step” – how we can make it “better” or “more stable” or simply the natural continuation – that we forget to enjoy the thing itself. In the idea of santosha, the Yogis are reminding us if we want to learn to actually enjoy the things we achieve, we need to spend as much time cultivating presence as we do achieving. Through awareness of santosha, we can learn to pause for a moment and reinforce all the pleasure, joy, and wholeness that is in our lives right now, ultimately giving ourselves more energy to pursue our goals and greater capacity to enjoy when we achieve them.
Contentment & “The Scourge of Disappointment”
Of course, these immediate benefits to santosha are hopefully sufficient of themselves, but there are other advantages to practicing contentment, foremost among them being relief from the pain of disappointment. Simply put, the Yogis realized the more we focus on a future outcome, the more we build ourselves up for frustration and even pain if it does not arise. Again, this is something we’ve all experienced countless times – often in areas that might initially have been minor. We all know what it’s like to hear of something and think innocently: “That would be nice…” only to find, the more we dwell on it and imagine what it would be like, the harder it becomes to imagine our lives without it: what begins as an innocent thought eventually becomes a “make-or-break” situation – a pain we can spare ourselves through the practice of contentment. Simply put, by regularly checking in and reminding ourselves how happy we are right now, we can continue to strive for a goal without losing touch with the fact we will still be fine even if we don’t achieve it.
Contentment vs. Laziness/Inertia
While on the topic of achievement, it’s worth noting contentment shouldn’t be misconstrued as “laziness” or grounds for passivity. In fact, in the Yogic view, it is exactly the opposite: being appreciative of what we have actually helps us achieve the physical and mental state from which it is most effective and powerful to act. Much like the samurai who knows the most important element of battle is being at peace with death – a peace that lets them to fight with presence and all the power and clarity that brings – so the Yogis realized staying grounded in the blessings of our lives gives us the composure and presence to most effectively achieve change and growth. In this sense, santosha not only does not encourage us to simply “give up and accept” but rather to appreciate the here and now even while striving for what may be.
From Material to Mental
As with our other principles, one last concept it’s important to understand regarding santosha is it applies to the cognitive and abstract as much as the physical – in other words, just as we want to appreciate the things we have, we also want to stay mindful of appreciating our abilities, our experiences, and even the challenges of our lives. By cultivating gratitude not only toward things but also “moments” – even moments that might seem “negative” – we build the capacity to be more present and aware. Again, ultimately this allows us to absorb more of the joy of life and more readily learn from the lessons with which it is filled. Also, by shifting our focus from what we think of as the opportunities or skills of others to appreciating our own unique gifts, we ultimately develop more love and compassion both for ourselves and those around us – again, a process that naturally increases the joy of our own world and of all we touch.
Santosha & Meditation
Before looking at some of the practical applications of santosha, one last aspect it can be beneficial to be aware of is the link between santosha and meditation. Again as we discussed above, part of what makes santosha so powerful is also what makes it challenging, and that’s the fact that it runs counter to the skills we are generally encouraged to develop in our education and careers. Again, the bulk of our encouragement – both formal and implicit – revolves around getting better at envisioning things we want and making them happen. Because santosha is actually about stepping out of this process, it can take some time to build, much like a muscle that’s become atrophied through disuse. One way we can facilitate this is through meditation – that is, by building the ability to maintain presence in the relatively simple act of sitting, we gradually get better in other areas of our lives at noticing when our mind starts to “project out” and to draw it back to the here and now. Again, by being more aware of the power of santosha and the direct way meditation can support it, this can give us one more valuable piece of support in developing and deepening these crucial practices.
Santosha On the Mat & In Our Lives
To conclude once more with a brief look at some of the practical applications of santosha, again we can start with asana. As touched on before, one of the great benefits of our physical poses is the fact they’re “tangibly qualifiable” – that is, they provide information on ways we are progressing that can be both insightful as well as motivating. That much said, this comes with the downside that it can be easy to fall into excessive focus on “evaluating” or “judging” at the expense of enjoying the process and the act of “being” itself – in other words, too much focus on progress can keep us from appreciating our efforts and the benefits we are receiving regardless of our “degree of success.” Through awareness of the power of santosha, we can stay more mindful of keeping balance between the desire to learn and grow while also honoring and absorbing the benefits in even the most simple or “limited” of poses.
Obviously, this application of santosha extends naturally into our daily lives, through the simple fact as we become more mindful of our tendency to think in terms of “better” or “less good,” we can strive to stay equally aware of the need to actively practice presence and appreciation of the here and now. Again, it’s important to remember this does not preclude or diminish effort but in fact enhances it – once more, by taking the time to feel gratitude for what we have and what we and others have accomplished, we actually have greater energy to apply ourselves to future goals. And, since we are not allowing ourselves to fall into a false and distorting “do-or-die” mentality, we’re able to approach those goals with greater clarity and efficiency and support those around us in the same. Again, ultimately this increases our likelihood of success as well as continued peace and joy even if our ambitions do not reach our desired results. Through this, ultimately santosha allows us to experience greater ease and joy in all stages of life and to share that joy with others.