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yogi’s guide to public health: santosha

The second niyama or observance is santosha or contentment. Alternately understood as a state of being satisfied.

Here’s an understatement: it’s challenging to feel satisfied with life as it is in this moment. Our way of life has been radically upended, our communities are suffering, people are sick and dying, medical professionals are being asked to do the impossible. There are very real reasons to feel far from content.

And yet contentment is one of the teachings of yoga. The Yoga Sutras were composed over 2000 years ago and reflect a wisdom tradition that reaches further back than that.

Our present moment of pandemic, of sheltering in place, of economic despair is not the first historical instance of large scale of suffering. Ancient yogis came from cultures that also went through wars, plagues and other tragedies. And yet contentment endures as a teaching on this well-established path of personal transformation.

Precisely because we feel so much discontent with present circumstances, we find it worth exploring why The Yoga Sutras insist on contentment as part of yoga.

Imagine feeling satisfied with life as it is today. Would that mean condoning the suffering that surrounds us? Does satisfaction or contentment imply complacency or indifference?

Hard stop. No.

Contentment, satisfaction, fullness, completeness — translate santosha as you will — is not linked to external circumstances. We can be deeply aware of and attuned to suffering, our own and others’, and still practice contentment. We can work tirelessly for justice, for wellness, for whatever a given moment requires, and still experience contentment.

Because contentment is an inner state of being. The practice of yoga shows us that we can satisfied within ourselves and dissatisfied with the world around us. No contradiction.

As we’ve seen over the course of this past month plus, life can shift radically. We’re fortunate then that contentment is not tied to the external. Because we can’t control the external; we can only control our own inner experience.

Which leads us to wonder… if we aren’t content now, were we really content before?

It’s easy to be content when things are going smoothly. Think of your asana practice. Many of us are content practicing in a warm room, but if gets too hot or too cold, we get agitated. Similarly, we have a degree of contentment with our lives, but ask us to stay home, give up certain routines and miss out on certain events, we get agitated. We lose our feeling of contentment.

It’s important here to remember that all the limbs are practices. learning them takes time. practicing them includes failing at them. As with any asana, achieving a full expression of contentment is not something that happens right away or every time. We have to start where we are and begin again each moment.

As the cliched saying goes: calm seas never made a good sailor. Similarly, satisfying circumstances never made a good yogi.