Philosophy, Yoga off the mat

Santosha: The antidote to self-improvement

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We’re entering New Year’s Resolution time, the season of self-improvement. All around us, folks are plunging into their efforts to better themselves by losing weight, getting in shape, reading more, cleaning their house, being more organized, and many similar projects.

Just around the corner is the season of failure, falling off the wagon, or at least waning enthusiasm.

The good news is that you don’t have to improve yourself – you are already enough. As it happens, yoga offers us the perfect antidote to all the messages we get around this time of year. Santosha – contentment, or “complete acceptance” – is one of the niyamas (observances) included in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

The practice of contentment can be really tricky. It’s not a “love and light” practice; it doesn’t mean the denial of hardship, oppression, and painful emotional states. Nor does it imply passivity or reneging on our responsibility to take action and make change.

Rather, santosha asks us to cultivate radical acceptance of things as they are, AND it implies that contentment is not predicated on our external circumstances. Equanimity, love, and joy are our birthright; they are core features of our being and are found within, rather than without.

In other words, happiness isn’t a pursuit or achievement. It’s who you are.

How, though?

That’s all very well, but how do we cultivate contentment or acceptance in today’s world? Santosha itself is an observance – in other words, it is an ongoing practice and not a to-do item. It’s challenging, it takes time, and it’s never finished.

These are just a few ideas for exploring the idea of santosha this month, and beyond. An important note: all of these practices can be done on or off the yoga mat.

1. Notice the mind.

Sometimes our thoughts seem real, don’t they? The thoughts are like clouds and the unchanging Self is like the sky. Sometimes the clouds obscure the sky – but it is there all along, regardless. Santosha is the nature of that sky, and so big piece of this practice is to simply begin to recognize the thoughts for what they are.

Judging, comparing, remembering, worrying, planning, etc. are all important functions of the mind – you don’t have to “fix” anything, and you don’t have to stop your mind from doing what it does! Just notice – there’s that thought. And then notice – what feeling arises from the thought? What are the physical sensations?

Start by getting really familiar with what changes – and what doesn’t.

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2. Look for ease, especially when striving.

Santosha doesn’t mean passivity – so how do we work towards a goal without throwing contentment out the window? Ease is the key. We live in a world where work and struggle are often equated, but they are not, in fact, the same thing. It is possible to work quite hard and maintain a sense of ease throughout – and it takes practice.

To maintain ease, we need to be able to recognize the difference between the state of ease and the state of struggle. It’s helpful to spend time in a state of ease – and that looks different for different people. It might be restorative postures, or slow intentional movement, or relaxing on the couch with your pets, or walking in nature, or cooking, or embracing loved ones, or sitting in the sun, or eating good food. Wherever you find your ease and joy, engage in that state with your full attention. Get curious.

What does ease feel like? And where do you feel it in your body when you start to move out of that state?

Another piece of this is to hold your goals lightly. Are you willing to let go of goals that aren’t right for you, or to adjust your approach – or do you cling to the idea of the goal at all costs? If you enjoy making New Year’s Resolutions, by all means make them – and hold them lightly, using ease as your guide as you work towards achieving them.

3. Trust the body.

The body is always right. Sometimes the mind is very clever at convincing you that you’re in an ease state when you aren’t. Getting really familiar with physical sensations and what they indicate is helpful – and exists in a very different space than judging or criticizing the body. Befriending and trusting the body is very difficult process for a lot of folks – and it can be a key to the practice of santosha for some of us.

4. Choose to do less.

You don’t have to do less all the time – but doing less, at least some of the time, is really key to seeing your thought patterns, and getting acquainted with the physical sensations associated with ease, acceptance, and contentment. For a while (pre-COVID), I was doing a project where I would attend group classes and deliberately opt for smaller movements or skip poses that triggered a lot of thoughts and feelings of clinging, comparing, or assigning my worth to the ability to do that particular posture. I continue to find doing less a very interesting way to work with my thoughts and beliefs. Assigning a value hierarchy to different practices is a very common cultural habit that can interfere with our ability to practice complete acceptance. Sometimes, this arises again and again. Drop back into the body and just experience where you are as many times as needed, with kindness, curiosity, and patience.

5. Practice gratitude.

This one can sound cheesy – and in my experience, it can also be really powerful. I think it’s really important to also make space to be angry and sad about the many hardships life throws our way. Gratitude as a practice is not intended to cover up the bad stuff – and in fact, it can be counterproductive if it is used this way. However, taking time to be intentional about noticing the things that are good and feeling appreciation for those things can be helpful in cultivating contentment. For a long time, I wrote down 5 things I was grateful for each day and I found that to be a powerful practice for me.

This list of practices is by no means exhaustive. What are some ways that you cultivate complete acceptance in your yoga practice?

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