Contentment. More than any other yama, niyama, and perhaps any other yoga practice, Santosa is what a majority of people turned to yoga for, believe the purpose of yoga to be, or both.  Backed by the misleading equation:  end result of class = end result of yoga (a glorious perpetual savasana) and false advertising yoga buzzwords like ‘bliss’ and ‘nirvana’, it’s easy to understand why one of the most common things people new to yoga tell me is “Wow, yoga is hard!” Any yogi worth her/his salt will tell you yoga is hard, always been hard, always will be. It’s not for the faint of heart, it’s not the easy path.  All of those amazing beautiful stress-free epxeriences are the perks, not the purpose, of yoga.

That being said, I love the rare blissful savasana experience, where not only do ten minutes pass timelessly, bodilessly and worry-free, but I feel that it was ten minutes baking in a shifted perspective that I can’t help but emanate to others as I leave the yoga room.  The trouble with that being taken for the goal of yoga is that you wind up with a lot of people like:

I’ve met them, you’ve met them – more often than not in a yoga studio and more often than not they don’t even realize they’re forcing it. Because they do a lot of yoga – a lot – and yoga makes you peaceful, happy, serene and stress-free. Yoga makes you smile all the time, to all people. Right? I’m not just being sarcastic. I was right there with them/you.  For years. The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined in part as a response to this.

It’s only when we start to work with Santosa as a practice, and not a goal, that it becomes possible to actually be content.

“You don’t practice to get enlightened. You practice because you already are.” Dogen

Contentment comes from the word content – to contain.  The source of santosa is realizing that we already contain all we need to be happy.


We’ve all had those moments, when we look around at the people we’re with, the sunset, the drink, the wide open space, close knit forest, or deep ocean and think “There’s no where else I’d rather be in this moment. Nothing is missing.”  Santosa is the art of making those “Nothing missing” moments intentional, rather than the happy collaboration of fate they normally are.

The caveat is we are striving all the time for contentment and happiness. It’s pretty much an American way of life.  We just generally seek it in forms that won’t actually bring us contentment. That’s because we base it on our experiences in the past of contentment, and all the external sources that were around us. We keep trying to gather people around, or move to live by the ocean, or buy more of that drink.  Mentally and physically we are going forward, backwards, and more often than not, in circles trying to “get” our way to contentment.

there__s_a_sunset_inside_me_i_guess_by_incandescentinsanity-d508l1xSantosa, however, is sourced within – not with out.  Those external components struck something inside us that allowed us to be in touch with our “nothing missing” experience.  That experience is always within us, we just have to train ourselves to pay attention to it on our own, without the external stimulus.

We have to follow Dogen’s advice; “Don’t go forward, don’t go backward, don’t stay in the middle.”  As a practice now, or at the start of your next yoga class, close your eyes.  Say to yourself “Nothing is missing. My life contains, in this moment, all I need to be content and happy.”  When the “After I get the new job.” or “When I have a bigger apartment” or “Once my bank account is…”  etc. show up, acknowledge them, but let them go, and return to the “mantra” above.  Continue to do so until you feel that subtle shift within – one to contentment.  To believing the mantra, not just saying it. It’s a shift in perspective.

Besides, as Rodney Yee says “Beyond the brick wall, is another brick wall.”

Craving and Contentment

The warning sign for this work is getting caught up in negotiating your cravings.  Generally, craving for something is one of the biggest challenges to contentment.  You can be walking along in your “Nothing Missing” state of mind, and suddenly smell that extra cup of coffee wafting by, see the best pair of yoga pants ever, read about the newest version of your technology, or whatever your “thing” is – and you’re caught in wanting it.  And the majority of our good feelings that come from satisfying these cravings is that for one moment – nothing is missing – our craving has been satisfied. It’s a huge factor in habits and cravings.

Our inclination, based on the tools of psychology and philosophy handed down to us via actual people or our culture – is to delve into the craving. Where did it come from? Why would it make me happy? Is there enough in my bank account for it? What do I need to do to get enough? What will he/she say when he/she knows I bought it?  And we wrestle with it from lots of angles until we either go for it or not.  While some insights can arise from this practice, it’s not the long-term answer.

The yogi switches perspective and focuses on the craving, and not the object of craving. You turn the full gaze of your awareness to the craving, how it makes the physical body feel – tightness, breathing, temperature, etc.  You notice the emotional responses. You stay with the depth of the craving, until it passes.  The drama of the object itself is not invested in.

To work with this in yoga class try out the intention, every time you’re in a pose:

Don’t chase after the next pose, ponder the last, or cling around this one.
Breathe into what’s left.

I used to think content was the worst thing to be – to no longer dream, or try or reach.  I confused cultivating a certain kind of inner state with what I would be doing with my external life.  As if to be content all the time meant to be “finished” with acting.  Actually, what winds up happening is that the content inner state infuses all outward actions, and you are better able to dream, try and reach.

I realized it’s a process of becoming more and more fully present.  To fully know who you are, in each moment, is content. To see others, and not try to change them, is content.  Those are far-reaching goals, and Santosa brings us closer and closer

Sthira Sukham Asanam – I

In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).

sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46
The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful  -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.


Looking at a yoga sutra that comes just before this one, we see that Patanjali has provided a pathway to practicing sukham:

Santosad anuttamah sukha labhah
By contentment, supreme joy is gained.

To practice joy is to first practice contentment – santosa.  The origin of the word contentment is “contain”.  When we are in a state of contentment, we contain everything we need to be happy. Nothing is missing. Nothing. The heart of this sutra is not that we need to work towards being content, but that we already are. Right now, we have everything we need. We are whole.

This is sometimes expressed as the ability to want what we have, rather than have what we want.

We have all experienced this. Moments when we look around us and realize that there is no where else we’d rather be. Or we look at our companion(s) and realize there is no one else we’d rather be here with.  Nothing is missing. We are happy.

The sutra on contentment is asking us to stop leaving it up to luck and happenstance, to a perfect concentration of circumstances.  Instead, intentionally shift perspective to contentment, to nothing missing. Try it out. Even if you have to do so doubtingly, put aside the new job, the different apartment, the change in your partner, the place you’d rather be, and fully believe that right now nothing is missing.

A natural joy and happiness arises, without force, as a result of a moment, however fleeting, of contentment.  It is a shift in perspective, not a shift in circumstance, that allows for santosa and sukham.

Repetition is necessary, all aspects of yoga are a lifelong practice. Eventually, we develop a deep well of sukham.  In the analogy by Matthieu Richard*, we are like the ocean far out to see. On the surface we may have leaping waves dolphins frolic in or turbulent storm tossed ones, but deep down we have a still, steady, always present serenity and joy.

Sometimes we experience this in asana. When we experience the sthira sukham within each pose, instead of purely the external motions of the physical body on the surface, we notice  how the body is moving around this steady joyful source.  All the asanas begin to feel the same.  Our sukham – joy – begins to become steady.

Next month we will focus on sthira.

*Inspired by Matthieu Richard’s November 2007 TED talk.