As a quick reminder, the niyamas are five personal qualities mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that we’re encouraged to cultivate within ourselves, to help us on our yoga path. Building on August’s article on ‘saucha’ (cleanliness or purity), we now move onto looking at the second niyama: ‘santosha’, which means contentment.
Aah, the elusive contentment… I often think that contentment is what all of us are truly seeking, on some level, whether we consciously realise it or not. It might seem to us that we’re pursuing happiness but, in reality, can you imagine if you were happy all of the time? Do you not think it could become a bit wearing to feel the same emotion all the time, or exhausting to be on such a high all the time or, dare I say it, boring after some time?!
In fact, when you begin to think about the concept of ‘perma-happiness’, it soon becomes evident that it’s an impossible illusion – we need to experience a full range of emotions to truly feel each one; for example we can’t know happiness as an emotion unless we also know sadness and suffering and vice versa. I would even go further, to say that our emotional complexity is part of the beauty of the human experience – it is the full gamut of emotions, the good, the bad and the ugly, which makes our experience in this earthly realm rich and complete. Imagine how many of our greatest songs, paintings, novels and poems wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our complexity of emotions – so many of them are inspired by the interplay of light and dark in our psyches…
But, with practice, we can cultivate ‘perma-contentment’, throughout all of our emotional experiences. To me, contentment somehow seems to sit ‘behind’ the emotional landscape that passes through our mind. It is a state of being that we can practise and nurture within us, whereby we are able to accept whatever is happening to us with a semblance of grace and serenity, and find some level of peace within whatever maelstrom is passing through. It doesn’t mean we are passive, and just sitting back and allowing negative things to happen to us. It simply means we calmly accept our situation until a point where we can change it. By finding a level of calm within a negative situation it means we’re more able to act decisively and positively when the time is right; contentment helps to create clarity of mind.
Similarly, when positive, happy times blow through our lives, we accept these with the same calm contentment, appreciating them for what they are, not wanting to change them in any way. In both cases, the contentment arises partly from accepting that every experience passes in time, both the good and the bad – change is our only constant. At the end of the day it’s all aboutacceptance; accepting what is, rather than trying to control or change events ourselves.
Our asana practice provides us with a great opportunity to cultivate contentment. Like all things worth having, it requires much practice, patience and perseverance. For example, when you’re in a posture that feels horrific but you know it’s doing you good (the core-busting boat for example!), see if you can relax into the unpleasant sensations. Try and sit back, ‘behind’ the emotions/sensations you’re feeling and stay relaxed, knowing it will pass in time. Try slowing the breath, relaxing the face, maybe even finding the faintest hint of a smile. Conversely, when you reach your favourite postures, for example savasana (lying down at the end of the class!) see if you can just relax into the simple appreciation of the positive feelings you’re experiencing, rather than letting the mind take over, perhaps by wishing the posture could last longer, anticipating its end, or wishing you felt even more relaxed in it. With practice we can, in theory, pass through an entire asana class maintaining this backdrop of contentment, regardless of what contortions we’re putting ourselves through. And, as on the mat, so as in life, as really the yoga begins when we leave our mat and enter the fray of humanity, with all the various emotional experiences it brings to us each day… 😉