Santosha: Practicing the Art of Contentment

How can we apply the yogic concept of Santosha to food?

Emily Hightower is a past Wanderlust Festival presenter. For the 2016 lineup, click here.

This article is part of a series on applying yogic philosophy to food. Check out the previous articles on Brahmacharya, Ahimsa, Satya, AsteyaAparigraha, and Saucha

Today, after writing this article about Santosha, yoga’s practice of contentment, my day will likely be filled with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain in an endless wheel of options and preferences. I am not sitting, at present, in a cave telling you to “just be content.” I’m tossing around in the sea of modern humanity, wanting, posting, liking, desiring. How does this affect my eating behavior? Think “mindless munching” to ease the stress. On really disconnected days, think “hungry ghost”—the worst insult I can think of!

The hungry ghost in Buddhism is like the yogic teaching on how we naturally try to fill a void that, if left alone, reveals a sacred space. Being a ghost in your own life means vacating the moment, or even the body, to ease the pain of existence while mindlessly silencing the discomfort of Being with external fillers.

Our Santosha practice starts with dropping the urge to constantly fix and fill. When we sit with whatever is coming up in the moment, the moment presents perfectly all that is. We can face it; we are part of it. Here we enter a space that contains an energy of peace, presence, and potential. When we access it, we are content. Be one with the raisin. This takes practice! This is why the type or amount of food you have or the shape of your body doesn’t determine your level of contentment. Some have less, some have better or more, but contentment comes from within.

My favorite part of Santosha is that it contains optimism for our future. This means we can’t be complacent as a disguise for contentment. We can’t fake it here! Eating donuts on the couch all day because you’re enlightened and no longer care is amazing! But is it really enlightenment, or just a clever disguise?

Ideally we can feel Santosha, this optimistic contentment, no matter where we go. I used to travel a lot, and I would think, “how can I use my daily cup of coffee as a way to check in and be content in any place and time?” I wanted to master being aware and fulfilled, and the predictable hot drink gave me a “Tibetan Bell” to remind me to practice. It worked when I was on my own paddling in Chili or living out of my truck to kayak rivers around the Southwest. My warm mug was a pause full of presence and Santosha. Watching the morning rise across various rivers with that steaming java gave me a simple metronome of fulfillment. Simplicity and Santosha seem to go hand in hand.

The more we practice contentment, the more we have access to it.

Once we had our son, my needs got more complicated. I took a trip to India to help a dear friend receive medical treatments not available in our own country when my son had only recently weaned. The entire time I felt I should be somewhere else, with my baby. I couldn’t drop in and enjoy the experience of a sacred place. Being a new mother while witnessing how much of the world lives among rivers of trash and abject poverty made it very hard to sip my chai in peace. Yet some of the faces I saw doing yoga in the City Park of New Delhi were the most contented I’d ever seen. Thinking back, I see how easy contentment came when living as a river pixie on my own. Once awake to the responsibility of motherhood, of loving another so purely you want the whole world to heal in an instant, my warm mug became more of a necessity than a pleasure. Santosha could have helped me remember to accept the circumstances, feel the feelings, and practice optimism.

If Santosha isn’t about how much or how little we have, let’s look at how many of us in the developed world struggle with food portions while feeling guilty for our opportunities. Obesity-guilt is rampant in our abundant culture, yet obesity and starvation are both afflictions of malnourishment. The paradox here is that obesity may be seen as a result of over indulgence, when in metabolic reality, it is more often the result of our very sick food supply, which can lead to insulin resistance. Eating the nutrient-depleted foods in schools, hospitals, and conventional stores creates irrational hunger, addictions, and fat storage. Both populations of hungry and obese are starving for real nourishment. It seems hard to be content when your body is malnourished. Santosha can remind us all not to be complacent in the face of inequity.

The optimism part contains in it a quest to align ourselves with choices that create personal and cultural healing. It implies that once awake to a problem, contentment rises up when we know we are acting on it. Your plate can be Santosha in action, but guilt cannot be a condiment. Santosha is our calling to act from here towards harmony by expanding fulfillment rather than lack or guilt. The more we practice contentment, the more we have access to it. I hope that no matter your circumstances today that you find Santosha through food. Practice being content with this moment, and you will find you have all you need.

We have three more Niyama, or personal practices, in this series. Stay tuned next month as we discover what keeps your will power burning with Tapas! If you’d like to learn more, please join me for a free Yoga of Food class online here.

emily-hightowerEmily Hightower founded Ondalu to empower people to make holistic decisions for their health. Her integrative programs have helped thousands of people including Wounded Warriors, Teens, and Women in Crisis using yoga, nutrition, and nature. Emily guides in person, on retreat, or by Skype and is based in Carbondale, Colorado, with her husband, son, chickens, and huge dog.