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The Second Niyama: Santosha - Contentment
Ah, santosha. Contentment. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The second of the niyamas (personal observances) from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, santosha is essentially the opposite of desire, of lack, of feeling that we need things to be different before we can be happy. In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar writes, “the yogi feels the lack of nothing and so is naturally content.”
So it’s simple. Get rid of desire, and you’ll rest constantly in a state of incomparable happiness and ease. Want nothing, and bliss will surely follow.
Ironically, for many of us our yoga practice is actually motivated by desire. Often it’s desire itself that leads us to the mat: desire for a calmer mind, less stress and a lean, strong, flexible body. How can we move beyond these and our other longings, and simply be happy, satisfied and content as we are?
In examining the conditions necessary for santosha to come to fruition, it becomes apparent that how we practice yoga is key. Although asana or posture practice is merely one aspect of yoga (others being meditation, breath control, concentration, and lifestyle), for many of us in the West it’s a major component of our practice. Depending on how we approach asana, it can just as easily perpetuate bodily abuse and psychological harm as it can encourage self-acceptance and satisfaction.
Asana is a double-edged sword. When practiced in a certain way it allows us to feel our bodies, our breath, our minds, and our hearts, and to merge these seemingly disparate parts into a unified whole. Through this sense of wholeness we can then develop deep, loving, and intimate relationships with ourselves and with others.
But when practiced in another way, asana can actually have a very different effect: it can intensify unhealthy attitudes about our bodies and actually increase our desire to conform to an unrealistic ideal. Instead of accepting our bodies as they are, we might instead think that spending more time on the mat will bring happiness by way of a perkier butt, flatter belly, or sculpted thighs.
This attitude that yoga can “fix” what we hate about our bodies runs counter to santosha and turns our yoga practice into just another extreme exercise regime to whip our bodies into some idealized shape. If we spend our time on the mat worrying about how big our thighs look in our yoga pants, or the roll of fat that’s hanging over our waistband, or how flabby our belly feels when we rest our hands on it, we’re abusing our asana practice in a way that leads away from santosha and deeper into self-hatred and negativity. We’re feeding the harmful belief that we’re not good enough as we are.
It’s sad that the industry that has grown up around yoga in the West capitalizes on this endemic cultural craving to be more beautiful, thinner, curvier and sexier. Flip through the pages of popular yoga magazines and it’s easy to conclude that to practice yoga you must be young, gorgeous, lithe and lean. Continue flipping and you might come across an advertisement for diet pills and an article on how to mask your body “flaws” by choosing the appropriate trendy yoga apparel.
Unfortunately yoga is sometimes sold by the yoga industry as just another way to lose weight, tone up, whittle your waist and slim your thighs. However, if we’re able to look past this noise and distraction to the true essence of the practice, we’ll discover that yoga promises so much more than these superficial rewards.
Rather than fixing what we believe is wrong with our bodies, through yoga we can enhance our relationship with our bodies. Rather than constantly focusing on how our bodies look, we can instead explore how our bodies feel. We can delve into the aspects of yoga beyond asana—meditation, breathing, and lifestyle choices—as a way of connecting more deeply with ourselves and the world around us.
As someone initially attracted to yoga for its physical benefits, I completely understand and sympathize with the impulse to use asana as a tool to merely sculpt the body. When I think back to why I decided to take my very first yoga class, I remember that Madonna had just put out her first album since giving birth to her daughter. In interviews she touted the benefits of her daily asana regimen. I took one look at her post-baby body, complete with chiseled arms and six-pack abs, and decided yoga was worth a try.
After practicing for a while I realized that instead of using asana to change my body, I could instead dive deeper into my yoga practice and transform how I feel about my body.
I also discovered that yoga is not a quick fix for a negative body image. I’ve been practicing for over 16 years and I still find myself struggling at times to cultivate a relationship with my body that’s healthy rather than harmful. Even after several years of practice I sometimes catch myself striving to embody our society’s image of the perfect yogini: fit; slim; serene; glowing with good health; immune to injury and disease; and in a constant state of peace, joy and equanimity. There are plenty of days I feel the exact opposite of that!
However, I’ve learned that with dedication, perseverance, patience and compassion it is possible to gradually transform our attitudes and beliefs about ourselves. If we work toward cultivating santosha, we can move beyond the constant yearning to be different. We can break free from the negative mindset of not thin enough, not curvy enough, not strong enough, just NOT ENOUGH, and finally believe that this body is perfect, as it is, here and now.
Santosha, contentment, is a state wherein we can be satisfied with whatever is, in this moment, just as it is. We look at ourselves honestly, at the whole spectrum of ourselves. We see the parts we love and the parts we hate, toned muscles and cellulite, wrinkles and smooth skin … and we accept and embrace all of it, as it is.
The next time you’re on your mat, notice what kinds of thoughts and emotions come up about yourself and your body. Do you beat yourself up when you can’t touch your toes in a forward fold? Do you compare yourself to everyone in the room and conclude that you’re not strong enough, flexible enough or young enough? Do you get mired in self-criticism and wish that you were somehow better than what you are right now?
If these kinds of thoughts are surfacing, acknowledge that they’re only thoughts and not reality. Then consciously shift from thinking to feeling. Feel what’s happening in the body, feel the breath, feel the state of your mind. See if you can focus on simply feeling what comes up from moment to moment with no judgment, rather than having to do or achieve or change anything today.
Instead of contorting and forcing your body into a pose, find the version of the pose that makes sense for your body; in which you feel relaxed and alert, calm and aware, grounded and spacious—that challenges you, but still allows you to maintain your alignment and a calm, steady breath.
If you’re grappling with how you feel about your body, have compassion for wherever you are in that struggle. Remember that you’re doing the best you can in this moment to be kind and loving towards yourself.
If negative thoughts about yourself or your body become too overwhelming, don’t be afraid to seek help outside the yoga studio. Find a therapist, a support group, or a trusted friend. Sometimes we need help beyond what we find on the mat. Yoga is a practice of awareness and empowerment. Becoming aware of when we need help and then being empowered to seek it is just as much yoga as Downward Dog.
Santosha takes time, and practice, and a lot of self-love. But remember that even so, already in this moment you are perfect, just as you are.
Christine Malossi, RYT is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine where she designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice.
Find her at www.christinemalossi.com.