What we can learn from the yoga philosophy, santosha
Santosha — the notion of contentment in yoga philosophy — reminds us to pause in our mindless, relentless pursuit for more and notice the ways in which we already are abundant in life.
One of the astonishing things about ancient philosophy — in this case, ancient yogic philosophy — is how wildly relevant it can often be thousands of years later. It’s as if the ancient sages and wise people planted seeds of truth in the earth hoping they would grow into trees centuries later, when the world needed this wisdom more than ever.
Santosha is one philosophical concept that resonates incredibly strongly today. Included in Patanjali’s niyamas (virtues to observe on the yogic path), santosha is made up of two words: “sam”, meaning “completely”, and “tosha” meaning “contentment” or “acceptance”. It’s also sometimes explained as “cheerfulness”, although this is less of a direct translation and more of an interpretation of how to practise santosha. Essentially, santosha is about being content with the way things are and not wanting more than you have.
At first glance, it may seem that this niyama promotes complacency and asks us to relinquish goals, dreams and material possessions. Yet santosha isn’t about adopting a spartan lifestyle or settling for less than we truly deserve. It also doesn’t mean burying our feelings or ignoring the things in our lives that genuinely need changing. Instead, santosha reminds us to pause in our mindless, relentless pursuit for more and notice the ways in which we already are abundant. It’s a practice of looking towards the future with a vision, but also with an appreciation of the beauty that already exists in the present. Central to the idea of santosha is the question: If you’re not content now, how will you ever be?
It can grate a little against our modern conditioning to contemplate that we already have everything we need. After all, we live in a world that prizes goal setting, achievement and “getting ahead”, and that often quantifies our success through shows of increasing material abundance. We’re also frequently fed the message — often subconsciously — that if we just have more money, more friends, more holidays and more clothes, we’ll somehow be complete.
We receive this message both through advertising and social media (sometimes simultaneously), which leads us to believe that other people have more of these things than we do, and that there’s something missing from our lives. In other words, we feel scarce.
Yet the truth is that “keeping up with the Joneses” is inevitably a fruitless journey. Comparison, as they say, is the thief of joy. There will always be someone with more of whatever we’re chasing — wealth, beauty, artistic success. And often the perceived abundance of the people we’re trying to keep up with — whether they’re celebrities, influencers or friends — is an illusion in the first place. It’s as if we’re trying to chase a mirage and repeatedly finding that it’s just beyond our reach. So, we continue chasing.
Like many things, the presence of absence of santosha is evident on the yoga mat. We might attempt a particular asana because we see the person next to us practising it, or because we were able to do it when we practised last week. If we fail, we might get frustrated. We lose sight of the notion that our yoga practice is about meeting ourselves where we are and running our own race.
And, like many things, the yoga mat can be an excellent training ground — a kind of dōjō — for cultivating santosha. We can use it as a space for svadhyaya (self-study), and become curious about our striving. We can ask ourselves if we’re motivated by a deep and genuine desire to advance our practice, for example, or if we’re being swayed by comparison or competitiveness. And rather than getting frustrated on days where we’re tired or injured, santosha can help us exercise self-compassion.
Santosha reminds us that lasting fulfilment doesn’t come from obtaining things outside of ourselves, but from cultivating inner contentment. In a world propelled by humanity’s need for more, it might just be the antidote we need to slow down the consumerism that’s hurting our souls and the planet. By reminding us that we have enough, do enough and are enough, santosha has the potential to be a healing balm.
Meditation is espoused as a panacea for many things — because it is. When it comes to separating the signal from the noise (in other words, to differentiate what we genuinely need in our lives from the ways in which we’ve been influenced by external forces), meditation provides a means for us to drop in to our inner knowing.
Gratitude leads to santosha. Your 14 might be as simple as spending five minutes every morning writing down what you’re grateful for, or sharing three highlights of your day with your partner before you fall asleep.
Write an abundance list
Whenever you sit down to write out your goals, dreams or visions, start by first making a list of the ways in which you’re already abundant. This will mean that you’re beginning from a place of abundance rather than lack, and also that you can focus on expanding the good aspects of your life as opposed to imagining an entirely new one.
Watch the self-talk
Often, without realising it, we continue to pedal certain narratives or beliefs in our thought patterns. Thoughts like, “Everyone else always does better than me,” can lead to a confirmation bias, where we look for evidence that confirms our belief and we end up perceiving things differently to how they really are. Journalling can help illuminate your self-talk and bring your thought patterns to light.
Radical acceptance on the mat
Each time you arrive on the yoga mat, begin your practice with radical acceptance of where you are in the moment — whether you’re feeling frantic, exhausted, angry, tender, stiff or fragile. Remind yourself that you can come to yoga exactly as you are. Continue to check in with yourself throughout the practice, and let these observations inform the way you move your body.