On the Mat, Off the Mat

Off the mat / Philosophy

An Introduction to the Niyamas – Part 2

The next niyama is one of my favourites because I feel it is one of the biggest lessons anyone has to learn in life, in fact, I’d say rather that it’s an ongoing lesson and practice. It’s a lesson to be learned on the mat as well as off the mat 🙂 . It’s the niyama, santosha, which means contentment. Contentment is a personal quality worth cultivating in every aspect of life. Let me first explain what I don’t mean by contentment.

Contentment, in this case is not at all to be confused with satisfaction. It’s not a smugness towards something as if you’ve “arrived” or that you have nothing left to learn. Contentment is also not about that feeling of “settling” for something, being alright with not getting something you really wanted, “I suppose I should be grateful for….”. Contentment is also not stagnation. When you have an inkling that your life could be better “if only you did this….” or “if only so-and-so would do that….”, but you’re too scared, lazy or insecure to push for more of that something that you know you need. Contentment is not stagnating in your comfort zone. It is not the lack of ambition or drive either.

Santosha is accessing the deepest part of yourself that is always calm in the face of adversity and knowing that you are alright, no matter what life presents you with. That you can find peace of mind both in good times and during times of crisis.

Contentment in yoga, especially during the practice of asana or pranayama (controlled breathing), is that moment you find when you cease to struggle with yourself – physically and mentally. It is when you can stop fidgeting or straining and release into a pose, wherever you may find yourself in that pose, and find contentment. It is an active practice, that needs to be practiced over and over again, this is the only way the lesson can be learned. In asana, to attain a quality of awareness and contentment, comes after you have earnestly spread your awareness throughout your body in the pose. It happens when your mind is not screaming at you to stop, or insisting that you’re going to break if you continue holding the pose (learn to discern the difference between real danger of pain and injury versus pushing your boundaries safely in a pose). Santosha in asana is when you find the contentment in the exact moment of where you are, your mind opens up to the lesson and your body is able to either maintain this or move deeper.

“We can easily practice santosa in the beautiful moments and joyous experiences of our lives. But Patanjali asks us to be equally willing to embrace the difficult moments. Only when we can be content in the midst of difficulty can we be truly free. Only when we can remain open in the midst of pain do we understand what true openness is. In our relationships, when we accept those around us as they truly are, not as we want them to be, we are practicing santosa.”
Cultivate Your Connections by Judith Lasater (Courtesy of yogajournal.com)

There’s this thing we all do, a personality trait most of us have, my husband and I call it “The More Monster”. It’s when no matter how good something is, you want more, what there is, it is simply not enough. Whether it’s love, money, time, a great job, a delicious meal, travel… this list goes on, but you want more….more and more and more. Wanting more creates this sense of greedy craving and lack of gratitude for what is right in front of you. It creates a hole that can never be filled by it’s very in-satiating nature of being the “more monster”. The antidote to this is santosha, truly, to find contentment and coupled with that, gratitude. This is also linked to the Yama of Aparigraha (non-grasping). Santosha is about finding within yourself peace and happiness in spite of your external situation. It’s not about changing the people in our lives, it’s not about waiting for another moment or day that “might” be better than today. It’s about being open to today, open to the person sitting in front of you, with all their annoying habits and lovable ones. It’s about being able to enjoy and find the joy in each moment.

This week’s class was a general sequence which included a little bit of everything, from standing poses, to inversions, seated forward bends, backbends and a twist. I encouraged students to cultivate contentment in each pose and find their peace within, whether they were standing, sitting or upside down.