Our retreat last week let us spend some time gaining a better understanding of Patanjalis Sutras – the basis of many yoga practices today. A series of eight ‘limbs’, asanas (poses) are the 3rd limb of the tree. But before asanas, come yamas and niyamas.
For yamas, think guidance on how we should interact with the world. The yamas are very actionable; you can easily see how to put principles like ahimsa (non-violence) into practice. They apply to us all, no matter who or where we are and they are pretty simple.
Niyamas, on the other hand, can seem a little trickier. Adapting these very personal guidelines to make them relevant to our lives can sometimes seem challenging. There’s often not one straightforward thing we can do to bring their concepts into fruition. This is undeniably true of santosha, the niyama that means contentment. It sounds like something we definitely want – but how do we get there?
If we even think of it at all, we may think of ‘contentment’ as a far-off goal, something we might find eventually once everything else lines up just the way we’ve always wanted it to and all our problems have melted away. The reality is a little different.
Things are always changing and it’s rare for the things we imagine to turn out the way we planned. Our paths follow directions we never dreamed of; we meet people who to our surprise, change our direction or understanding; old doors close and new ones open, creating new possibilities and opportunities that we may never have considered.
Yoga encourages us to be in the present moment as much as possible – so why would we put off finding something as important as contentment until we feel all our ducks are neatly aligned? If we only find contentment when our constantly changing vision of perfection matches our reality, surely contentment, if it could ever exist would be at best fleeting and more likely an impossible state?
The Instagram Effect
We don’t get much help from today’s goals-driven culture. Contentment doesn’t make for eye catching headlines -for many the word ‘contentment’ may feel like ‘giving up’, simply being ‘happy with your lot’, or even ‘not trying’ and seeing other people’s apparently perfect lives on Instagram isn’t conducive to feeling ok with what often feels like the reality of our own less than ‘perfect’ lives.
It takes some time and a fair amount introspection (think svadyaya or self study ) to realise that what everyone is after isn’t actually flashy cars or a bank account that could fund a small country, it’s a way of being ok with ourselves. Beyond the dream job, dream house or dream partner we are looking for contentment.
The truth is, nothing external is going to deliver happiness on a silver plate because contentment is an inside job. What grannie taught you was in fact right, the trappings of someone else’s symbols of wealth, achievement, or even health really wont help you find a place where you are happy with you. Instead then why don’t we try to find joy in our present circumstances -whatever they are.
What About Complacency?
When I teach santosha in class, often students will ask me if santosha means becoming complacent. What about staying hungry, what about getting to the top, what about wanting to improve our lot? Won’t contentment lead to complacency?
Its a misunderstanding of what contentment means but it’s an understandable question. Santosha isn’t the end of growth. It’s not the full stop at the end of the sentence. It’s not about settling for less than you deserve or giving up and accepting the status quo.
It is about being ok with yourself regardless of your situation. When we talk about doing the work in yoga, the work is not nailing a difficult pose. The work is coming to a place where doing the pose or not doesn’t impinge on our self-worth. As is so often the case, the work we do on the mat reverberates into all corners of our lives. You still change and grow but you become less attached to the results because your happiness is not based on results.
Realising that santosha doesn’t hinge on perfection is one of the most important lessons we can learn. It’s a state of mind in which we can experience ups and downs, highs and lows, and then return to balance. Our boats can still be rocked but they don’t capsize quite as easily.
Practicing gratitude is a little like strengthening your muscles through practising asanas and the more you practice the stronger your relationship with contentment. Neuroscience has proven that taking time to feel grateful can improve your sense of well-being as well as your mental and physical health. So exactly how do we practice gratitude? Its really not that hard
Write down what you are grateful for, or simply take a few moment each day to just think of things you are thankful for. Coming up with three or four good things in your life and taking the time to note them helps tip the scales toward contentment quite a bit. It’s a strong counter to the type of negative thoughts that often run through our minds.
Our brains have a thing called a reticular activating system – think of it as a little switch which tells us what’s important to notice. Like when you are in a crowded room – you may not hear all conversations but if you hear your name you are likely to notice. The more we teach our RAS that what’s important to notice are the things that make us feel good, the more we notice those things and the more content we become.
Contentment doesn’t have to wait until we are older or wiser. It doesn’t have to wait until we have accomplished more, paid off the mortgage or reached the end of the journey. Remember that our journey is constantly changing – like many things in yoga – santosha may look like a goal but it’s really more of a process.
The first step is recognising what you already have, not in terms of material possessions but in the intangibles that make you truly happy. You child laughing, the sunrise, your dog with his silly floppy ears, so happy to greet you when you awake (Yup for all the slobber, I love my morning cuddles from Sid) – whatever lifts your spirits take time to acknowledge and delight in the things around you. The more you take time to notice, the more abundant those moments will become.