Santosha

I have a trained eye in whatever is missing. I’m obsessed with it. Or rather was.

Somehow somewhere along the way, I must have been told that it was smart to notice things-that-weren’t-there and, likewise, what people didn’t have. To be fair, I did it to myself too. This somewhat redeeming understanding meant that nothing was ever enough, I never had enough, I was never enough. I became really good at it, because I practiced it day in and day out. I was slowly poisoning myself and others around me.

In my yoga practice, this manifested as multiple injuries from pushing too hard; in my daily life, it manifested as insomnia, digestive issues, insecure relationships, bouts of anxiety, and severe impostor syndrome. A major breakthrough came when a yoga teacher told me that my practice had to be one of backing off. Basically, she was telling me that I needed to learn to take care of myself and to appreciate what I had. Since then, my practice has become a quest for balance, equanimity, and appreciation.

Little by little, I have found things to appreciate both on and off the mat. Little by little, my mood has improved, my outlook on life has brightened, my relationships have become treasured gifts.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali refers to this practice as santosha, commonly translated as contentment, appreciation or acceptance. Santosha is one of the five niyamas, which could be translated as ethical behaviors towards oneself. The yamas, in contrast, are ethical behavior towards others.

Sutra II.42

santosad anuttamah sukha-labhah

Contentment brings unsurpassed joy. (translation by Chip Hartranft)

In other words, joy stems from appreciation, acceptance and contentment from within, not from without. When we can see and appreciate what we have, when we can embrace ourselves and others as they are rather than cling to our idea of who we should be or what they should be, we can experience the fullness of our life, and many of our so-called needs and disappointments vanish. Rather than follow the urge to act, to fix, to change, to improve, we can learn to enjoy what’s already there. Santosha is about accepting life as it is, and myself as I am. 

Contentment is often rejected as fatalistic and passive in the Western world. How could you ever function in the world if you are just content with what you have? Truth is, santosha requires active engagement and presence in the world. Santosha is not about giving up, it’s about seeing reality as it is, and making the best of it. It’s about accepting that headstands are not for you if they trigger headaches. It’s about showing your sister how much you care even if you don’t agree with her decisions. It’s about enjoying your day, even if you forgot your phone.

Santosha is a practice, and like many worthwhile lifestyle changes, it requires repetition, repetition, repetition. To become good at it, you need to start somewhere. I’ve seen it countless times, and I experience it on a daily basis. Santosha alleviates mood swings, disappointments, depression, anxiety, cravings, resistance, resentment, homesickness, helplessness, insomnia.

Santosha makes the world a better place, from the inside out.