Santosha, the Niyama of contentment
written by Laura Johanna & Haiyan Khan
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” Socrates
Santosha is a Sanskrit word derived from two root words: “San/m,” meaning completely, and “Tosha,” meaning contentment. Santosha is the practice of establishing complete contentment in our hearts. In classical yoga, the practice of santosha is taken on as a self purification process, or niyama. It is said that as one comes closer to the state of yoga or harmony, Santosha as a practice falls away, replaced by a clear seeing that things are “as they are,” which reveals a deep sense of already present contentment. In the meantime, working to embody contentment can bring us a sense of inner joy, peacefulness, flexibility, and reduced stress.
At its heart, practicing santosha, the niyama of contentment, allows us to merge with rather than deny the present moment, therefore opening to all the present moment’s teachings and magic.
There are a total of five niyamas, or personal observances, described in the second limb of Pantajali’s 8-limbed path towards yoga. The niyamas are commitments we make internally to cultivate habits and behaviors that promote inner clarity and freedom. They are: saucha, or cleanliness of body, speech, and mind; santosha, or contentment, tapas, or self-discipline, svadyaha, or study of self through wisdom teachings; and ishvara pranidhana, or surrender to the divine as we understand it.
What Santosha is Not:
Some might hear a teaching asking them to foster inner contentment and think that this in some way implies that they should be complacent or non-engaged in their lives. They might hear an invitation to be passive and detached from social and personal action in favor of trying to be “okay” with everything.
This coupled with images of Buddha sitting calmly under the Bodhi tree in many seekers’ minds portrays a sense of unhealthy contentment, being okay with all injustices in the world or being a pushover in life. However, this is not what the practice is santosha is asking us to do. This mindset ignores the idea that there is still much work being asked of us, that we must follow our own dharma, or unique path of devoted, passionate work in this life. We each have a different sense of what that work is, of what creates meaning in our lives. When we are still and silent, we can often hear that deep inner calling of instinct urging us to move and grow. Santosha is not about being complacent or checked out.
Nor is santosha a form of spiritual bypassing, or the practice of using spiritual teachings to avoid dealing with painful feelings or collective problems. In fact, it’s an invitation to really face the things that trouble us, not gloss over them. As the saying goes, what you resist, persists. Be honest about the things that cause you discontent so that you can be clearer about your actions and what does bring you contentment.
What santosha, the niyama of contentment, means is that even as we do our work and seek to create a more just, loving world, that we also are not denying how things currently are. Stay open and available, read the wisdom of teachers and struggle with the teachings, but persevere and talk to your community. For example, for me (Haiyan), this was also a significant struggle. I fought with myself, argued with teachers, insisted on a way of addressing this issue. And yet over time, the struggle eased significantly. The need to hold onto to or perpetuate discontent made little sense.
So how can we take this simple concept and practice it? As Peace Pilgrim put it, “No life can be in harmony unless belief and practice are in harmony.” In order to practice Santosha we must not only believe in it, but also take steps to embody it.
Recently, the two of us were on a very long car ride together. Thanks to the hours-long drive, there started to be an immense amount of dissatisfaction riding along in the car with us, especially towards the end of the journey. Due to our eagerness to get out of the car, we became agitated and started looking for a myriad of different ways to soothe our impatience: snacking, trying to find the right dharma to listen to, scanning through conversation topics, fidgeting endlessly. Every adjustment was just an attempt to overcome a growing discontent with the present moment.
It’s not an unfamiliar scenario for most of us: replace “seemingly endless car ride” with some other familiar irritant and you’ll probably be able to put yourself right in our shoes.
When we finally reached our destination city, we were fortunate to be able to drive straight to a park. We stepped outside into the fresh air and started a long walk. Almost instantly as we entered the park, our discontent began to fall away. Simply as a result of being able to breathe fresh air, stretch our legs, and be outside, we were able to reconnect to a sense of abundance and peacefulness. Contentment was once again present in our hearts. It hadn’t actually gone anywhere. We’d just lost our connection to it.
There are many ways in which one can practice santosha, the niyama of contentment. Thanks to this small yet powerful moment, we became clear on three effective and accessible ways we can get a little closer to santosha.
1. Simplify. While unhappy in the car, we were grasping. We were searching to acquire something to ease our impatience and put a balm on our restless minds. But in the end, the solution was not an acquisition of something outside of ourselves, nor was it something complex. It was a small act of returning to nature’s abundance and reconnecting to something simple that we both love doing: walking. Nothing complicated.
Simplify your outer and inner life and santosha will feel closer within reach. Simplicity and humility are the languages of the heart. Peace Pilgrim says, “Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens.Wants and needs can become the same in a human life and, when this is accomplished, there will be a sense of harmony between inner and outer well-being.”
Inventory your outer life and possessions. Clean out your house, room, closet or shed. Inventory your inner life. Identify patterns in your life that are cluttering and burdening you. Make a resolve to not engage in them; instead, plant a healthier pattern. Establish a meditation or gratitude practice instead. Take a walk. Take a deep breath. Open to the beautiful immensity of what may seem small.
2. Open to the present moment. Another thing that was happening in the car was an unconscious resistance to the reality of the present moment. When we deny or internally argue with what currently IS, we are always fighting a losing battle. The gentle act of acceptance, of opening to what the present moment holds for us, is a challenging practice, but it’s a strong invitation to start seeping in the truth of Now. Sometimes this just means opening to the fact that we are unhappy with the present moment, and accepting that!
Start where you are. Observe and open to whatever your thoughts are. Say to yourself: “This is what is happening in my body/mind right now.” Observe and open to whatever feelings your are having in this moment. “This is what is happening in my body/mind right now.” As a result of looking in this way, you may even find judgement to such looking. Open to and observe that as well. Remember this doesn’t mean you are denying observations of self worth, world injustice etc, but actually feeling while simultaneously allowing or opening to this pain without reacting. This allows for the patterns to start the process of neutralization. Then, when we do act, we are in step with reality and harmony can begin to manifest.
3. Express appreciation/gratitude. In moments of discontent, this can be one of the hardest to practice, but it is also immensely and immediately rewarding. Cultivate appreciation for all that is good. There is so much good out there. It might not look like that at first, but make it a habit of finding the good in something. What is good in your life? Remember it can be something simple.
You may not always be able to find something in the present moment that you truly and wholly appreciate. This is okay. Again, cultivating santosha is not about false positivity or bypassing any of our more challenging or heartbreaking experiences. Rather, practicing contentment helps us strengthen our equanimity and counterbalances our evolutionary negativity bias.
If you are unable to find something current to appreciate, see if you can reach back into your past for a moment or experience that brings the feeling of gratitude alive in you. Connect with to the residual sensations that you feel in your body as a result of holding space for that moment in your heart. Allow this practice to transform you from the inside out. Without appreciating what we have, even if what we have seems lacking or not good enough, we will never be able to attain contentment.
There is often more to appreciate than we realize. Take inventory of the things that nourish you. When we were finally able to exit the car, nature’s abundance provided immediate relief and gratitude. We could appreciate the cooling temperatures, the breeze, the vast skies, the wildflowers. It doesn’t take much of a detour from our daily lives to reconnect to the things that stir gratitude within us.
On your mat this month, recognize the gift of even the most simple, foundational poses. Notice the radical effect some of the most common yoga poses have on your physical being, and allow yourself to feel contentment, ease, and appreciation for the movements. Practice poses like Warrior 1, Warrior 2, lunge, and bridge as if you are practicing them for the first time. Let the movements be simple. Allow yourself to embody each shape with a sense of peace and santosha.
If you celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, see if there are ways you can simplify the event and infuse santosha into it. Rather than seeing it as a day of indulgence, see if it can truly become a day of humbling appreciation for the abundance you have in your life. Do less. And perhaps carry that contentment with you into Black Friday when the temptation to acquire more things arises.
Above all, create time in your day to breathe and meditate, allowing yourself to cultivate and nurture a sense of deep appreciation for your life. See things as they are. Let the currents of your body speak freely to you. Whatever arises, let it arise. Whatever speaks, let it speak. Even if it is a message of discontent or dissatisfaction, allow the message to come through rather than try to ignore it. Receive the wisdom of the moment and seek to allow it, and from there, see how much more easily contentment can arise.
● Invite deeply this moment as not something against us but rather the doorway into the present. Allow and accept this moment as the practice. With everything that is going on. Despite of all the commotion, you are here without an agenda, completely open. Not wanting to change how you feel. Not wanting to deny how you feel but to open to it in deep admiration.
Consider ending every class with a brief 3-minute meditation prior to savasana.
● “If your attitude is not right, then even if you are surrounded by good friends and the best facilities, you cannot be happy. This is why mental attitude is more important than external conditions. Despite this, it seems to me that many people are more concerned about their external conditions and neglect the inner attitude of mind. I suggest that we should pay more attention to our inner qualities.” –The Dalai Lama
● “When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.” – Dalai Lama
● “In yoga, one of the methods is called ‘contentment’. That’s not a goal, that’s a method. I can be content this moment, and the next moment I’m moving toward something else. When I am here I am content, when I am here I am content, when I am here I am content. So even though you are going to change something the next minute, that doesn’t mean you change it out of discontent. It changes because it changes. That is the basis that you do everything in yoga.” — Dalai Lama
● “Yoga is the state in which you are needing nothing.” Shri Bramhananda
● “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough” ― Oprah Winfrey
● “I have learned that to be with those I like is enough” ― Walt Whitman
● “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.” ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
● “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ― Lao Tzu
● “It’s like this now.” Lama Marut
● “We can’t just escape what we are indeed dissatisfied with. We must face it.” Swan Michelle
All standing poses. Encourage students to ground and find contentment in simplicity rather than striving to achieve more “advanced” or complicated postures. Let them appreciate grounding through their feet, standing on their legs, and breathing deeply. Invite them to know that they don’t need anything more from their asana practice than this.
Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha and other chants to Ganesha, who is the mover and remover of obstacles. By singing to Ganesha, we can ask that our obstacles to contentment be removed or placed in front of us in a way that we can better comprehend them.
Sutra 2.32: shaucha santosha tapah svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana niyamah
Purnamadah Purnamidam Purnat Purnam Udacyate Purnasya Purnamadaya Purnameva Vashishyate
All is whole as it is.