Many of us think of yoga as a set of physical poses that we hold, to develop strength and flexibility, but in fact asanas (or the physical poses) are just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The first two limbs are the Yamas and Niyamas, which are basically an ethical code or set of principles for living a yogic life off the mat.
One of my favourite Niyamas is “Santosha”. Santosha can be translated as contentment, or a sense of peace with one’s self and one’s situation. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that cultivating Santosha will lead to personal joy. Personal joy seems to be something that we all want, but often seems out of reach. We think that maybe we will be joyful when we build that extension, get that promotion, perfect our headstand or find a lifelong partner, rather than exploring how we can be joyful right now with what we have and all its imperfections.
Yoga provides a set of tools for exploring how to be joyful in the moment. The asanas provide a laboratory where we can explore our own physical sensations, breathing and habits of mind as we move into unusual or challenging positions. Meditation gives us the opportunity to notice what happens in our bodies and minds when we sit in stillness. Both bring us into the present by focusing us on our moment to moment experience.
My experience of yoga is that the longer I practice, the more I feel at ease and at peace in my life, and sometimes I come away from my yoga practice with a joyful smile of my face that lasts all morning, no matter what my chores. It is easier to find contentment in the present moment than when the mind is flitting all over the place. since it means I have let go of worries about the future or upsetting interpretations of past events.
Santosha relates closely to a practice I have carried out at several points in my life, that of keeping a gratitude diary. Taking time to appreciate the good things in my life helps me to feel more cheerful and positive. Practising gratitude actually rewires the brain so that positive thoughts come more easily to us (this is because those brain pathways are already established). Gratitude becomes a habit.
It is interesting to contrast gratitude with attachment. The Yoga Sutras invite us to let go of our attachments to things, relationships or goals. In 1.15, Patanjali seems to be saying that when we can let go of our attachments to things in the material world, and to thoughts and feelings, then we can settle into a state of non-reaction (or maybe that reaching this level of non-reaction will allow us to let go of our attachments).
1.15 “As for non-reaction, one can recognise that it has been fully achieved when no attachment arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.” (translated by Chip Hartranft)
1.15 “With constant remembrance of the self, Vairagya, all yearnings fade.” (translated by Nischla Joy Devi)
This seems very perceptive and useful to me. So much suffering in the world is caused by attachments. Some of those attachments may be to material things – a new car, a bigger house, a higher salary, job security, fashion purchases – whilst others may be to people or relationships. If I am craving a new dress but I cannot afford it this month, I will suffer because I was attached to the idea of the dress. If I am craving recognition from my friend for the way I have helped her, I will suffer if I do not receive this recognition. Through meditation I may be able to witness these attachments forming in my mind and realise that they are just mental activities that I can observe, so they loosen their grip on me.
But if I feel grateful for the material possessions I have, my family, my friends, my job or my achievements, does that mean I am actually cultivating the very attachments that Patanjali says I should avoid? This could be the case, but I think it is possible to cultivate gratitude without strengthening attachments.
Gratitude seems to be to be a positive state of appreciation, whereas attachment becomes negative when I fear losing the object of my attachment. Santosha seems to be about cultivating that positive appreciation for my life whilst not feeding the fear I might have of losing things, whether they are physical possessions, relationships or emotional states. An example of this is a work project where I find myself enjoying working with my colleagues or getting into a creative flow with the tasks, rather than being solely focused on the end result.
Yoga supports that by helping me to witness my attachments rather than be consumed by them. Practising on the mat, I might notice and witness my attachment to perfecting an arm balance, and rather than getting caught up in frustration that I cannot do it, I just witness the story I am telling myself and let it go.
Santosha seems to be a particularly important Niyama, since many of the other Yamas and Niyamas naturally fall out of this state of peaceful contentment. If I feel contented with my situation and at peace, I am likely to experience Aparigraha (non-grasping, awareness of abundance) since I know I do not need more material possessions, success or affirmation from others to experience contentment. If I am in a peaceful state of contentment, I am also more likely to experience Ahimsa (non-violence, compassion for all), since I feel a sense of inner and outer peace and I do not need to take anything away from anyone by force. So, it also relates to Asteya (non-stealing or generosity).
An interesting challenge is to get the right balance between Tapas, or intense practice to ignite the purifying flame, and Santosha, or contentment. It requires some will to practice every day and to put effort into asana and meditation with a spiritual goal in mind, and yet we also need to cultivate acceptance of where we currently are in our lives and with our practice. Wisdom comes from knowing where to apply some effort and where to accept things as they are – this is what I am trying to cultivate in my life! I am disciplined in doing my practice every day, but I accept that the practice is different each day and sometimes it produces more positive emotions or achievements than others. I seem to be less attached to some of the achievements (difficult asanas, a particular energetic state or a focused stillness) than I used to be. Ironically, being less attached to achieving a joyful state actually seems to increase the probability of this being the result of my practice!