This is part seven of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.
Santosha, the second of Patanjali’s Niyamas, or observances, in our eight-limbed path of yoga means contentment. If it is sunny, we are content. And if it rains, we are still content. What a peaceful life we would have if we could cultivate this quality. Yet, from where we are standing, it can sometimes feel like an impossibility.
Our self-improvement focused society is, by its very nature, never content. And there is lot going on to make us feel bad—we think. Whether it’s the commute, the 16-degree morning, the lack of space, the trees that are dying, the wrinkles, the unrequited love, or the dripping faucet… There is so much to be discontent about. How could we ever be ‘happy’? What would santosha have us do? Fake a smile or pretend to be content after hearing about another mass shooting?
Not at all. The eightfold path demands authenticity because we are aiming to discover our true nature. If we are sad, then we acknowledge that sadness is present for us. The thoughts are sadness. The feeling is sadness. When we begin to acknowledge what is inside of us, we can begin to accept what is outside of us.
When we begin to acknowledge what is inside of us, we can begin to accept what is outside of us.
But santosha does not rest in acceptance. Contentment is not passive. Santosha is the encouraging friend who nudges us to lean in. “Go on,” it says, “take a deeper look.” Is it possible to see that the cause of our sadness is our deep compassion for those who lose their loved ones? Or if we lean into the anger we feel about climate change, is it possible to see that this feeling is borne out of our love for trees?
This isn’t a case for forgetting all the bad and replacing it with positive thoughts. While that can be helpful, it does not get to the root of the issue. Rather, on the path of yoga, we are truth seekers, and so we must look for what is true, rather than believing the negative perceptions of the mind. As A Course in Miracles tells us: “We are never upset for the reason we think we are.” And if love is what is true, let’s focus on that.
It’s not the impossibility we once believed. Santosha isn’t some spiritual ideology that only the enlightened will get to experience. We have all experienced contentment at least once in our life without even trying. It is when we are in love.
When we are in mid-falling in love with a person, how many of us could lose our job and not give a jot? “It sucks, but it’s OK,” we would say. We could hear the saddest story, and through our tears, we would say—”That is so sad. I am so sorry”—but we would still retain that feeling of being in love. Nothing can kill our buzz. When we are in love, we could be in an apocalypse, and in the horror—with jaw agape—our sense would still be: Wow. Life is amazing.
It’s not that we don’t care. Indeed, we can be of greater service because we come to a situation free from drama, emotion, and self-centeredness. Our mind creates our upsets, and it is love that switches our hearts into override.
Our mind creates our upsets, and it is love that switches our hearts into override.
But how can we generate this feeling of being in love at all times? Surely falling in love happens to us, right? And don’t we need an object or person to fall in love with? Perhaps it is grace that presents us with people who enable us to experience love for a moment—before our minds point out their faults and we believe them. But perhaps it is also that we have allowed the love to take over. We felt the stirrings, we lowered the drawbridge, and we allowed love to siege our castle.
We can do this again. And indeed santosha asks us to do this with everything all the time—to become deeply intimate with our self. You wake up tired—what would love do? It would love that feeling. Your train is late? Love the frustration, love the waiting on the platform, and love watching the rats gnaw on stale pizza. Love the way your heart breaks open when you see more violence and devastation on the news. Love your mind for the way it likes coffee, but only on Tuesdays, in a mug, until it decides coffee is no good for you. Now it likes tea. Isn’t it amazing? It’s not egotistical. We aren’t the mind—so how can it be? Santosha asks us to stop projecting our miserable thoughts onto the screen of our life, and to return to love, to truth.
The sutras promise that if we allow ourselves to fall deeply in love with everything, it will happen, and joy will be the result. As Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching: “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.”
4 Ways to Put Santosha Into Practice
1. Seeing What is True
When an upsetting thought arises, don’t deny it. Lean in. Byron Katie’s “The Work” offers that by questioning our thoughts, we can uncover what is really true, and become a lover of what is. So ask yourself: Is it true? Can I absolutely know that it’s true? Who would I be without the thought? Is love there? When we actively seek out the love that lies hidden beneath our false beliefs, we will find it.
2. Building Appreciation
When we live in appreciation and gratitude, we know we have exactly what we need. Keeping a jar of daily appreciation notes, or a daily list of gratitudes, can help put us in a frame of mind where we are seeking the love and wonder of life rather than looking for what is bad, and therefore untrue.
3. Cultivating Curiosity
When we live in curiosity, we let go of our preconceived judgments and opinions, and open ourselves up to experience life in its purity. We become like the questioning child. Does the leaf choose to fall? How do birds know how to fly south? Love the mystery and marvel of life. Love your role as an explorer. Find what drives your curiosity—history, science, nature, math, psychology, yoga—and see if you can bring this level of wonder to everything you see.
4. On the Mat
With any luck we are always practicing santosha on our mats. When we look for our edge in a posture, we are looking to the part of us that finds discomfort and upset. As our thighs burn holding Utkatasana, we just listen to the mind and practice accepting what is. Seek the love that lies in this posture and observe how when thinking changes, pain eases. Ustrasana, the camel, or Chakrasana, the wheel, are also wonderful poses for opening our hearts and preparing us to fall in love with everything.
In meditation, we can take santosha to its fullest by falling in love with love itself. Sitting in a comfortable position with eyes closed, turn your attention away from thoughts, and begin to gently search for loving consciousness. Become the observer to your own consciousness with the gentle, inward gaze of love. “You can look upon your consciousness as something that wants you to love it without expecting anything from it, like someone who wants to be loved for what they are, not for what they give you,” suggests Michael Langford in his book, How to Live a Life That Knows Only Love. “Peace will come unexpectedly, joy will come unexpectedly, and infinite love will come unexpectedly,” he says.
Join us soon as we explore the third of our five Niyamas, tapas: self-discipline.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom channels on wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.