The Yamas and Niyamas are Yoga’s ethical precepts as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are practices that govern our outward behavior and the niyamas are internal observances. Santosha, which means “contentment”, is the second niyama.
Practicing contentment sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just smile and everything will be fine, right? Well, as yoga practitioners we know our practice is simple, but certainly not easy. After all, if it were easy to be content, we wouldn’t have to practice!
Santosha encourages us to look within ourselves to uncover contentment. Many of us feel we will be content when our external circumstances meet our internal expectations. Therein lies the two-fold problem. First of all, our external circumstances will never meet our internal expectations! Even if they do, it is in the nature of external circumstances to change. Once more, we find ourselves discontented.
Second is the issue of expectations itself. From a yogic perspective, contentment is an internal state. We can practice contentment regardless of our external circumstances. We may or may not feel happy about the situation we are in. In fact, we may be actively working towards creating a better situation for ourselves! However, we don’t have to be miserable in the process. Considering that our internal state impacts our external circumstances, best that we not.
Practice does not make perfect.
Perfectionism is both a catalyst for and symptom of discontentment. Fear feeds our desire for perfection. Many of us have a deep seeded anxiety around enough-ness. We are afraid that if we are caught being imperfect, we will be shamed, ridiculed, or embarrassed.
From a yogic perspective, we are already perfect. Perfection exists at the level of our true self. Through our practice we uncover and maintain our connection to this higher self. When we are connected to our higher self, we act in alignment with our true nature and our work in the world is in accordance with universal flow. Things seem to work out!
Perfectionism blocks our connection to universal flow. It suggests that our worth and dignity depend on factors outside of ourselves, such as the opinions of other people. It isn’t that other people’s opinions don’t matter. What those we respect and love think about us may matter very much to us! However, other people need not dictate the decisions we make, how we feel about ourselves, and certainly not whether or not we are content with who we are!
Self-acceptance is the answer to perfectionism. Accepting ourselves does not mean that we do not grow and change. We are all works-in-progress! However, when we accept ourselves first, we seek to become the best version of ourselves in alignment with the truth of who we are, not our or someone else’s idea of who we should be. Improvement comes from a place of love and openness rather than fear and judgement.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Place your journal and a pen by your bed. First thing in the morning, write down three things you are grateful for. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are negatively biased. If done regularly, this simple gratitude practice primes your brain to notice the good.
- Abhyasa and vairagya mean practice and non-attachment. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali12, the disturbances of the mind cease through practice and non-attachment. This allows us to sustain a connection to our higher self. Through our practice we nurture our connection to our higher self. Our minds quiet, we can think more clearly, and we cultivate acceptance of things as they are. When we accept things as they are instead of arguing with reality, we can practice santosha no matter what is going on in our world, regardless of how we feel about it. Rather than becoming reactive, our feelings can offer us information to consider with regards to the thoughts we choose to think and the actions we choose to take.
- Find contentment on the yoga mat. Asana (yoga posture) practice is a wonderful way we can practice contentment. Practicing our favorite yoga pose probably makes us happy. It is easy to practice santosha when we practice our favorite yoga pose! Practicing a yoga pose we don’t like very much may leave us feeling annoyed, irritated, or aggravated. Our internal sense of contentment need not change regardless of whether we do or do not like the pose we are in. To practice santosha means that our internal state of contentment is not dependent on external circumstances.