On and Off the Mat: Santosha

Asana, the physical practice of yoga postures, is what brings us together at Smiling Dog Yoga. We return day after day, week after week, to our mats and to the studio because of a shared set of core values. We share a commitment to unite body, mind, and spirit through our practice. But for Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, asana is only one piece of the yoga puzzle.

A Path to Samadhi
Patanjali, building on traditional yoga philosophy, outlines an eight-fold path to samadhi, the ecstatic bliss that accompanies the profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings. For Patanjali, asana is the third step on that path. The second step is comprised of five “observances” collectively known as the niyamas. Among these niyamas is santosha, the practice of cultivating happy satisfaction.

Santosha has been described as “the state of not requiring more than you have to achieve contentment” and “the renunciation of the need to acquire and thereby the elimination of want.” On the mat, this means finding a way to be okay with where we are today, not always begging our bodies to reach farther or hold longer, just knowing that what we have now — a time and a space to practice in a supportive community — is enough. Off the mat, in our consumer-driven economy, setting aside our need to acquire ever more can be a bigger challenge. The reward of meeting that challenge, though, is great. As Vimala McClure, who has been teaching Tantra yoga since 1971, writes: “To accept what you are is to be content, and contentment is the greatest wealth.”

Admittedly, achieving that greatest wealth demands a certain diligence on our part. For McClure, it means, above all, accepting.  And like everything else in yoga, this takes practice.

The Practice of Santosha
Frankly, sometimes the practice of santosha can seem daunting. Will we ever truly be able to give up our feeling that we need more than we have, that we need to be more than we are? Thankfully, in the same way that we can use props in our asana practice to support us on our path to a fuller posture, there are props (of a sort) available to us on our path to santosha too.

It turns out that cultivating gratitude can take us a long way towards cultivating contentment. And the practice of gratitude often seems less intimidating. After all, we already have words available to us to articulate our appreciation: think of how powerful a well-timed thank you can be. We already have times set aside in our days, in our weeks, in our years, just for giving thanks: grace before meals, Thanksgiving, the end of our yoga classes. We even have wordless gestures we can use to express our thanks: anjali mudra, bowing, giving gifts. These gratitude practices are the props that support us as we move towards the feeling of fulfillment and satiety that is santosha.

By becoming more sensitive to the myriad wonders we witness each day, we create more opportunities to practice thankfulness. If we then seize those opportunities, we nurture a habit of gratitude. Being in a state of perpetual gratitude makes it easier to experience abundance rather than lack, (and a host of other scientifically-proven benefits you can read about here), which in turn makes it easier to accept that what we have, and who we are, is enough. In that moment of acceptance, even if only for a moment, we stop wanting and experience santosha.

The Practice of Gratitude
Cultivating gratitude, though, has its own demands. An esteemed acquaintance, Rabbi Josh Feigelson writes, “Gratitude requires a certain view of the world, a certain existential posture. It requires openness — the same openness that leads to curiosity, to learning, to inspiration and to courage. That basic openness is at the root of all that makes goodness possible in the world.” (You can read the rest of what Josh writes about gratitude here.)

If we can practice that existential posture of openness alongside our practice of physical postures, opening ourselves to the inherent curiosity we had as children, we open ourselves to learning. And when we open ourselves to learning, we create opportunities to be inspired. And then, from that inspiration, comes the courage to act for good in the world, the courage to make goodness possible in the world, the courage to be content.

Seems like it’s worth a shot. Are you in?


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