Santosha – Contentment
This weekend I had every intention of waking up to my alarm in time to get to early morning yoga class. I’ll wake up naturally, I thought, and will be at the studio in time to center myself. It was a busy week of focus and distractions, I didn’t practice as much as I “should have,” I felt frazzled, and my plans for early morning weekend yoga were just what I needed to get back into my happy place. And yet, I slept in both days, ignoring my alarm and waking up as class was about to begin. Was I disappointed in myself? Sure. Annoyed that my plans for self-care fell through? Yes. Did I consider myself lazy, self-indulgent, undisciplined? For a split-second. I was missing out on my happy place while others were there practicing without me! Then I remembered my home practice. Ah, yes. Yoga is always available, whether I sleep in or not. The happy place is always within. In fact, it’s not a destination. It’s a process. A practice. Santosha.
As I set up my yoga nook in the basement, I themed my practice around the niyama santosha, which Patanjali introduces in the Yoga Sutra 2.32. The Sanskrit word santosha is divided into two parts: sam, meaning completely or entirely, and tosha, meaning acceptance, satisfaction, and contentment. Santosha asks us to surrender, to stop forcing something to happen, to back off and breathe and see what unfolds. Clearly, my body needed to wake naturally this weekend and embody a home yoga practice on my own time rather than force myself awake for an early morning class.
The practice of contentment is vitally relevant to the incarcerated women I work with and teach yoga to at Vermont’s only women’s correctional facility. As with life on the “outside,” happiness is fleeting on the “inside” and may only last a second or two: a raised hope dashed by bad news at a parole hearing, flashes of elatedness during a phone call with one’s kids, only to feel despair after goodbye. Real happiness may feel impossible in an inherently oppressive environment such as jail or prison. But in our therapeutic yoga and support group, we explore the practice of contentment. Coupled with mindfulness – noticing moment-to-moment experiences of beauty, joy, surprise, and gratitude amid swirls of chaos and boredom – contentment requires practice, but it is always accessible if we are open to it. Even as most of us are not incarcerated, we may feel like our day-to-day needs, shoulds, supposed to’s, to-do lists, tasks and preparations are impossible to escape from. At the height of these summer days, even travel and vacations may feel like work. But I’m supposed to be happy, you may say, this is what I wanted….
As Judith Hanson Lasater wrote in her dharma talk about santosha, “Contentment is a paradox. If we seek it, it evades us. If we give up on it, it evades us. It is like a shy cat that hides under the bed. If we try to catch it, we never will. But if we sit still and wait in patience, the cat will come to us.”
Although sometimes it may seem that the world (or even our alarm clock) is out to get us, chances are that we are placing value on these external sources that are truly neutral. And from Deborah Adele in The Yamas & Niyamas: “Santosha calls for our dedication and surrender. Being radically present, whether we get what we want or not.” There is a levity in knowing this very moment is fleeting, in practicing non-attachment to how something “should” be. Looking outward for fulfillment will always keep contentment one step out of reach. “True freedom and contentment begin to find their way to us when we see them as they are, neutral, and not spend so much energy manipulating things according to our preferences” (Adele).
But I’m frustrated! I wanted to wake up earlier! I wanted a second interview for that job! And from the women at the correctional facility it might be, I deserved parole! This isn’t fair! Why isn’t my lawyer calling me? When am I going to talk to my kids? “Contentment is not the same as happiness. Contentment is being willing to accept both your happiness and your lack of it at any given moment” (Adele). Sometimes we are asked to remain present to our discontent – to see it simply as what is rising within us without judgment. And here is where I find (and share) comfort in the reminder of santosha, the surrendering of control, sitting still and waiting in patience as the shy cat comes out from under the bed and rubs its cute, furry head on my knee, and then curls in my lap to softly purr. “Contentment is a practice, not a product. It’s about creating space in our bodies and minds so contentment can find a place to live within us. If we practice with humility and trust, then we create a container that attracts contentment,” writes Lasater.
Santosha is the opposite of longing, of envy, of expecting the world to meet our needs. What a relief! As we practice embodying santosha through the month of August at Evolution, I invite you to join me in practicing contentment by, as Adele writes, “taking refuge in our calm center, opening our hearts in gratitude to what we do have, and practicing the paradox of ‘not seeking.’”
What if we practice contentment and surrender – with ourselves, our loved ones, our schedules, our plights, our tasks, our world – knowing that the next moment brings a new experience? Contentment is within our own power, our own practice. It protects us from our own pettiness and smallness (Adele). We can both work toward a better world – being the change we want to be and see – and release expectations of how it is supposed to be.
Here’s to waking up to whatever the day brings, without seeking or avoiding. Here’s to opening our hearts and surrendering to what is. As the sweet song goes, “Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be.”