This is part 7 of a 10 part series that I'll be posting. Each post will be discussing one of the yamas or niyamas, which form the foundation of a yoga practice. To provide a little background: the path of yoga was described about 2000 years ago by Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras- one of the most important texts on yoga. Here, Patanjali laid out the 8 limbed path of yoga. This means that there are 8 stages of yoga, starting with the simplest and moving to the most advanced. The 8th limb is Samadhi, which is enlightenment, aka when you become One with the universe. We can't just skip to limb number 8, however. We've gotta start with the basics. These days, we tend to jump right in at the third limb of yoga: asana (aka. the physical postures). Maybe we'll also dabble in the 4th limb, pranayama (conscious breathing, and control/ manipulation of breath). Unfortunately, we tend to skip right over the first two limbs: the Yamas, and the Niyamas. The Yamas are the 5 restraints; the things we should avoid, in order to be good yogis, and decent human beings. The Niyamas are the 5 observances; the qualities we should cultivate, in terms of how we treat ourselves. Each of the Yamas and Niyamas has important lessons to teach us, both on and off the mat. Here are my thoughts on each one.
As I talked about when discussing asteya and aparigraha, our modern society is not exactly supportive of santosha. We live in a world that praises material possessions, and corporations are constantly finding new ways of convincing us that we are insufficient as we are, and therefore need to give them all of our money to make our lives, and our Selves, better. Of course this is a futile path, since there will always be more things to buy.
Most of us could probably use a little more santosha when we look in the mirror, as well. Again, thanks to the influence of media and their unrealistic, photoshopped expectations, we tend to be very critical of our beautiful, hard-working, well-functioning bodies. Instead of being grateful for these lovely vessels, we spend a lot of time wishing for longer legs, a perkier bum, a sweet 6-pack, or any number of physical traits that we feel would make us better people. What a bummer.
When we do our asana practice, it is our time to free ourselves of expectations, and to connect to our bodies on a deeper level, marveling at all of their amazing capabilities. And yet, we sometimes end up comparing ourselves, and our bodies, to our fellow yogis. We get down on ourselves if we can’t do the same poses as the people around us, and wish for their bodies instead of ours. It’s a pity.
So, to practice santosha, we need to start realizing how much we have going for us, on and off the mat. Our bodies are awesome. They keep us alive, and let us run, play, and dance. My legs are short, and kind of stubby, but they’ve done a fine job of carrying me all over the world. Instead of spending your time during yoga focusing on the poses you can’t yet do, instead focus on everything you can do! I think you’ll find that you are capable of much more than you give yourself credit for. Even just having the luxury of stepping on a yoga mat and taking the time to nurture yourself is a reason to be happy!
As far as material possessions go, I probably don’t have to tell you that you likely already have more than enough. We aren’t bad people, or bad yogis, for occasionally succumbing to the wiles of advertising agencies, but I think we do have the smarts to see it for what it is- a way to get money off of us, by making us feel bad about ourselves. You can choose not to participate.
I do want to mention something important, which is that santosha and settling are two different things. You are not practicing santosha by staying in a job that you hate, or a relationship that doesn’t serve you anymore. You’re settling for less than you deserve. Remember that the niyamas are the observances that deal with our inner worlds - so santosha is meant to refer to being content with yourself. The beauty of it is that once we learn to be happy with ourselves, we’ll find it easier to muster up the strength to leave the situations that no longer serve us.
Santosha also isn’t meant to be an excuse for only doing the yoga poses that are easy for you, and therefore make you happy. An important aspect of the physical practice of yoga is to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and to challenge yourself. If we don’t try new, difficult, and sometimes scary poses, we will never grow. It is from the challenges that we learn the most- whether it’s to open your heart in a backbend, or turn your world upside down in an inversion. The tricky postures are also, in my opinion, one of the absolute best ways of practicing santosha. Some poses are easy, and some poses are hard- and on some days a pose is easy, while the next day it’s impossible. So, our task, as yogis, is to love the difficult days and challenging poses at least as much as the easy stuff. It doesn’t matter if you struggle with a pose, or fall down over and over and over again. It matters that you keep joy in your heart as you practice. Then, you will eventually master not only the pose, but also the practice of contentment.
What does santosha mean to you?