Why Santosha is my Favorite Niyama
In a yoga therapy training we were asked, “What is your favorite niyama?” I said Santosha. The Sanskrit term is often translated as contentment. My understanding of contentment has evolved as my experience in life has accumulated.
At an early age, I was dismissive of contentment. I thought it was what one might feel by accomplishing a goal. But accomplishing a goal required work. It took focused effort. You could not just do whatever you wanted and expect to get the desired result. It took discipline to stay on task. Often, the task had unpleasant aspects. One had to tolerate discomfort and sometimes pain to accomplish anything.
That contentment could be a lasting, natural state of being never occurred to me. In my experience, contentment was short-lived and infrequent. I suspected that long-lasting contentment would resemble lethargy, possibly sloth. One needed motivation to accomplish things. How could contentment and motivation coexist? One had to act, move things forward, meet standards. You had to fit what you wanted into what was already present and follow rules. When you accomplished a goal, you might feel contented, for a while, and that was ok. But then you needed to find another goal, if you did not already have one in mind.
Tolerance of discomfort and pain seemed to be an important tool in accomplishing goals. But delayed gratification appeared to be the keystone for success in life. Tolerate discomfort, accomplish the goal, get the benefit, possibly feel content. Then move on to the next goal. That was the formula. It was an investment. Low levels of contentment now would pay off later with higher levels.
I was raised to believe that having goals was essential to having a good life. From an early age I was taught that nothing worth having would be easy. All activity had benefits along with discomfort from doing a good job no matter the task. Adult life was balancing an activity’s expected benefits against expected discomfort — physically, mentally, emotionally.
Another aspect of life required balancing. I was raised not to be selfish. As a young child, I was chastised: “You are being selfish. Don’t be selfish.” I was taught that selfless activity was virtuous. However, being purely selfless did not seem like a realistic way of being. I learned the stories of selfless heroes: Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela. But I did not grasp how pristine selflessness could work in my life. I aspired to do things for a greater good. But in everyday life the choices were not always clear. So I developed what seemed to be a realistic way to make choices. I balanced what seemed necessary, but might be construed selfish, with selfless behavior whenever possible. I balanced pleasure and pain. I avoided selfish behavior and chose selflessness when possible.
By the time I reached my fifties, I could say that this formula had been successful. I had established and maintained financial sufficiency. I participated in a stable and nurturing nuclear family. I had a community of loving and supportive friends and family. Accomplishments were sometimes accompanied by sense of satisfaction — but not quite contentment. Satisfaction did emerge. Yet either it was not deeply felt, or it did not last long. Or it was stilled by the next task demanding attention. I felt that my life resembled the Myth of Sisyphus. The respite of descending the hill only to push the boulder up again was not enough. Over the years I had gotten better at enjoying periodic respite from the boulder. But I wanted something more. My balancing formula seemed not to include that “more.”
In my mid-twenties, I had a brief experience with yoga, primarily asana. It was significant but did not stay with me as I chased my goals. In my mid-fifties, I faintly recalled the contentment I experienced doing yoga in youth. So I tried yoga again.
I started down a path that brings me to where I am now. This path opens me to a different perspective on life and more contentment. The shift in my life that yoga brought has been gradual. It started with asana which was both physically invigorating and emotionally calming and grounding. My yoga expanded to include pranayama, mantra, and meditation. Exploration of yogic scripture followed soon after and gained momentum over the years. Yoga is wholistic. All yoga practices and principles complement each other in deepening yoga’s benefits.
Yoga practices turn us inward where we find a calm, centered, grounded, peaceful, open space. Even in my earliest yoga asana classes, I noticed that blissful state in Shavasana after a sequence of asana that was more like exercise. I came to understand that finding that state of being is the point of yoga. Gradually, I gained more access to that place and came to recognize it as an unchanging part of me. My body is constantly changing. My mind is always on the move. But there is a part of me that doesn’t change.
Yoga calls this calm, open space inside us spirit, soul, or the True Self. It has always been there. In that state, I observe life as it unfolds from a perspective that is apart from the mind and body. Memories of my life, especially the earliest, are reminders of that unchanging state of awareness. Yoga practices reliably keep me in touch with my capital-S Self. They help me remember that I am more than my body, mind, and personality.
For more than a decade, I explored many yoga styles and lineages. Then I found Svaroopa® yoga. It was as important a development for me as finding my way back to yoga in the first place. Svaroopa® yoga prioritizes making that inner space accessible, finding the True Self. It has fundamentally shifted my understanding of contentment. It is not, as I thought, a brief pause between one accomplishment and forging ahead with the next. It is a state that is available in the moment, every moment. I still encounter discomfort and pain. But I no longer view such experiences as things to be avoided. Nor do I just tolerate them while striving for a goal to satisfy some external standard. All experiences provide information from which to learn.
I accept that I am responsible for my choices and actions. I may hope they bring certain results. Yet I accept that I have no control over their outcome. I must accept and learn from whatever the consequences of my actions are.
Contentment is about accepting what I have and being deeply grateful that I have it. Contentment is about much more than material things. It is about all aspects of life. The gratitude extends to every aspect of experience.
Contentment is more present in my life today than ever before. It is my favorite niyama because of my personal history with the idea. Early in my life, I gave thought to the idea and dismissed it as unrealistic, not a natural state. It was too good to be true. But I never gave up on the seemingly overblown promise of contentment. Over time, I adjusted my expectations and found a bit more contentment in life. Soon after I found my way back to yoga, the long path toward contentment that I had travelled took a sharp turn. After finding Svaroopa® yoga, I came truly to understand contentment and see it for what it is. That is why I practice and teach it.
Yoga works for me. I love my life and contentment is in no way an overblown promise. It is a supreme joy.