Special Series on the Yamas and Niyamas: Santosa

by Melissa West on

 As we continue our journey through the internal practices of the niyamas, we reach santosa, contentment. Santosa is about being content with who we are and what we have in our lives. This week, as I was brewing a cup of yogi tea, I noticed this quote, “Greatness is measured by your gifts, not your possessions.” Our culture is so wrapped up in accumulating and having the latest and greatest model of everything from cars to cell phones, that recognizing our gifts and not our possessions is a refreshing way to cultivate santosa in our lives. If we focus on our talents and living from our gifts in a way that serves ourselves and others, we will be content and happy. 

In my life, I have noticed that when I live from my gifts, I am rewarded; when I work from a place of fear to acquire more materially, it usually backfires. Just over a year ago I tried to get into some more training for pilates so that I could begin seeing clients on pilates equipment. I love pilates and I would still like to train on the equipment, but I must admit that the motivation behind the training was to secure an additional income stream. A series of events transpired and the whole thing basically fell through the night before I was supposed to start my training. I was devestated, however, the kick in the teeth was exactly what I needed to turn inward and find out what I should really be doing. If I hadn’t come to that road block I never would have found thai massage or phoenix rising yoga therapy, both of which have been major blessings in my life, not to mention a source of contentment in the lives of many others. 
Nischala Joy Devi suggests that we can cultivate santosa by appreciating how much we have, rather than how much we want. This past weekend I finished reading Enlightnment for Idiots by Anne Cushman. The book is a fictional account of a young yogini who travels to India to find enlightenment as part of an writing assignment to create a travel book on finding enlightenment. As I read this book I realize all the luxuries we have in North America, that we totally take foregranted. Everything from toilets and toilet paper to cars and clothes. We have access to food from all over the world. We have opportunities to educate ourselves and choose our vocation. We spend so much time wanting pretty, shiny things that many times we are oblivious to all the good fortune right around us. 
Santosa is about taking the time to recognize all the blessings in our lives. As we practice gratitude we begin to create a new habit that changes the way we look at things. Gratitude acts like windshield wiper fluid for the metaphorical windshield to our heart. Each time we practice gratitude we clean the windshield and become more and more in tune to our pure inner light of awareness. This is the unchanging part of our spirit that is already perfect and has nothing to acquire or achieve. 
Karen McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You, says that the gifts of contentment (which she defines as appreciation and recognition), are enjoyment, satisfaction, self-esteem, renewal, and fulfillment. When we practice gratitude, being happy with who we are and what we have, we feel good about ourselves, have more energy, and enjoy our lives. In fact, Karen suggests that we will know that contentment is being obstructed when we fail to feel satisfied with ourselves and then this becomes a sign to celebrate our good fortune and skills. 
I believe santosa is an excellent niyama to cultivate during our yoga practice. I think many times we can become frustrated by our “progress” (or lack thereof) in our asana practice. We compare ourselves to other people, or even some idealized version of ourselves from the past or into the future and we cause ourselves suffering. The fact that we can even practice yoga is such a gift. Many people do not have the resources financial or otherwise, to be able to take a class. There are many people who suffer from severe physical limitations that would prevent them from ever practicing yoga asana. It is such a gift to be able to get down on our mats and move our bodies in a way that is innately beneficial to our internal environment. 
Nischala Joy Devi says that, “some of us open more naturally to joy, while others need to cultivate it more carefully.” I myself fall into the cultivate it more carefully category, while I have friends and yoga teachers like Nienke Young and Sandie Collins who ooze celebration of joy in a way that seems effortless. Therefore, over the next couple of months I have chosen to cultivate santosa as part of my sadhana (spiritual practice). 
How will you cultivate santosa this week? What gifts do you have for which you can cultivate gratitude? Think of all the things that bring you joy in your life. I love the idea of a gratitude journal. I will leave you with this, as you practice yoga this week, try this mantra by Tich Nhat Hanh, “Breathing in I calm my body, Breathing out I smile.” This one always helps me center myself in santosa, contentment. 



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