Cultivate Contentment in Your Yoga Practice

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Cultivate Contentment in Your Yoga Practice

When I was a child, I would hear older adults say “the grass is always greener on the other side.” As a young adult, I would find myself saying “I’ll be happy when / if….” In my early 40s, I found myself diving into various philosophies and religions seeking a spiritual solution to addiction issues. There, I found the Buddhist principle of the monkey mind – a term that refers to being unsettled, restless, or confused. That concept spoke to me and since then I’ve strived to quiet my monkey brain – to cultivate contentment –  with meditation and yoga. I haven’t entirely stopped saying “I’ll be happy when / if….” But, these days, I generally at least notice that I’m doing it and am able to (sometimes quickly – sometimes slowly) see the folly of that kind of thinking.

Acceptance and Gratitude = Contentment

As a yoga teacher, I began studying Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras and discovered the concept of santosha, which is generally translated as contentment. In my life (and in my yoga practice), I have found that there can only be contentment when I’m present. There can only be contentment when I’m not regretting the past nor focused on anxiety about the future. I have also found that there can only be contentment when I find acceptance and gratitude for my life – for the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Do I always succeed in finding this state of acceptance and gratitude? Absolutely not! Am I better at it than I used to be? Absolutely! And, I credit my yoga practice (of which postures are only one piece of an 8-piece pie) with that improvement.

Ethical Guidelines of Yoga

There are eight limbs of yoga: restraints (yamas), positive observances (niyamas), postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focused concentration (dharana), meditative absorption (dhyana), and enlightenment (samadhi).

We generally consider the yamas and niyamas to be ethical guidelines. The five yamas are restraints: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), right use of energy (brahmacharya), and non-attachment (agarigraha). The five niyamas are observances: cleanliness (soucha), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapas), inner exploration (svadyaya), and surrender (isvara panidhana). All of these can play out in and are integral to a yoga practice: chair yoga or mat yoga. I have written about non-violence / non-harming (ahimsa) as including being kind and compassionate with oneself and how that plays out in a yoga class. Lately, I’ve been contemplating exploring how santosha (contentment) also plays out in yoga.

Santosha (Contentment)

“When at peace and content with oneself and others (Santosha), supreme joy is celebrated.” (Patanjali sutra 2.42; trans. Nischala Joy Devi). 

Achieving a state of contentment is not simple. In our (late-stage?) capitalistic culture, we are conditioned to want, produce, and achieve more. And more. And more. Thus, accepting and appreciating what we have and who we are can go counter to our cultural conditioning. Cultivating contentment is therefore a lifelong practice. A key part of this for me is practicing gratitude. I try to sit down and take a few moments of gratitude every day. When I’m wallowing in self-pity, sometimes my list becomes rote: the roof over my head, the food in my refrigerator, the clothes in my closet, that I don’t live in a war zone. But, the act of making this mental (or sometimes written) list brings me a little further away from discontentment. And, closer to contentment – closer to accepting life on life’s terms. I can thus move forward in my life with greater ease.

Acceptance

As a recovering alcoholic, acceptance is something I am always cultivating. Does it mean I become completely passive and perhaps a doormat? Not at all. I have come to understand it to mean relinquishing the idea that I have control over much external to myself. It has helped me realize my limitations (and my strengths). And, to practice gratitude daily. There is an often-quoted passage in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that includes that “unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.” (p. 417) Later in that same chapter, it says that “I must keep my magic magnifying mind on my acceptance and off my expectations, for my serenity is directly proportional to my level of acceptance.” (p. 420).

The Serenity Prayer

As most everyone knows from the media, if not from personal experience, the Serenity Prayer is usually part of 12-step meetings. 

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I’ve learned that there are a lot of things out of my control – things I cannot change. These include what other people believe or think or feel or do, aging, time, traffic, the weather… Cultivating santosha involves remembering that those things are out of my control. It involves experiencing peace and serenity. And, thus joy. 

Acceptance and Contentment in a Yoga Class

When I’m teaching chair yoga, I strive to create a space where people can accept and appreciate their bodies. Where people can accept and appreciate who they are. One of the many benefits of practicing chair yoga (or mat yoga) is building inner calm, reducing stress and relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is because a yoga space is one in which we give ourselves permission to simply be. And, to simply breathe. If you find yourself in a yoga class where the focus is on striving to contort your body or to do anything that is painful or makes it difficult to breathe, please find another place to practice yoga. As I developed a consistent yoga practice, I learned to better accept and appreciate my body. I thus became able to move forward in my life with more ease and contentment. 

Honor Your Body

I teach chair yoga to those seeking a more gentle yoga practice (and mat yoga for recovering alcoholics & addicts) in Birmingham, Alabama. I strive to serve my community by helping people honor their bodies. In my chair yoga (and mat yoga) classes, we learn to accept and love and appreciate our bodies, gently guiding them to become stronger and more flexible while, perhaps most importantly, building inner calm. 

I hope you will consider bringing awareness to how you can strive for santosha in your yoga practice. And, thus in your life. 

If you’d like to join me in a class, please check out my offerings or contact me.

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You can learn more about Alcoholics Anonymous here. And/or you could go to SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline. SAMHSA is a free, confidential, 24/7 treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

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