Friday, August 10, 2007

Off the Mat -- Santosha

(Another installment in my series of dharma talks with my yoga students.)

Santosha means “contentment.” When I first ran across this niyama, it bugged me.

Contentment? Didn’t Patanjali get the memo? Contentment is contemptible, we should always be striving, always climbing, always getting more, always unsatisfied with the status quo.

So I believed, and so I lived for many years. That kind of life hasn’t proven to be all it claimed to be. So I’ve begun to explore a different way of being. Taking a step back from the “everything, all the time” mentality has allowed me to discover moments when I have experience contentment. When it has arisen, it has felt like the opposite of suffering, rather like a kind of spaciousness; and it has seemed entirely possible despite poverty or pain, possible in hunger or wealth. On those occasions when it’s arisen, it hasn’t felt dulling or passivity-inspiring, at all – more like a kind of balance, a kind of okay-ness, even when I’m in the midst of a hard-fought court trial or a complicated family problem.

I’ve come to recognize santosha as a function of how I am internally, rather than what the situation is externally.

One teacher described it as a series of contrasts:

…serenity, but not complacency. It is comfort, but not submission; reconciliation, not apathy; acknowledgment, not aloofness. …

Too often we think too small. Some people believe they must close their eyes to the suffering of others in order to maintain their own contentment. They confuse indifference with detachment, passivity with peacefulness, and isolation with equanimity. But hiding one's head in the sand will not guarantee contentment. There is an old saying from India: “You can wake up a sleeping person but you cannot awaken someone who is pretending to sleep.”

That is something I can relate to – a sort of emotional adulthood. You don’t find yourself plunged into despair when something goes wrong, nor wildly elated when something goes right. Cyndi Lee calls it “unconditional happiness.”

On the mat, we continually confront such limitations. In a class I take on Saturdays from an extraordinarily lithe teacher, I’m continually confronted with how much shorter my hamstrings are than hers. I see how deeply her pelvis drops in lunges and I realize that mine will never match hers. When I see her move through a sun salutation with the grace of a cheetah, I’m aware of my own more giraffe-like qualities.

But even when I make those kinds of comparisons, santosha still can come through.

Whenever we perceive the grace of another’s movement, it is not because the other lacks limitations – being embodied is definitionally a limitation – but rather because the other has found a way to move lithely within her or his own body, even in the context of her or his own limitations. Those perceptions of another’s grace can provide us with a seed to plant and cultivate. Perceiving is the first step in consciously becoming. And the grace that we can see in another person is never – never – the result of the other’s perfect ease. It is, rather, the result of the other fully engaging within those limitations, whether they are short hamstrings, sore achilles’ tendons, a stiff neck, a messy divorce, a going-nowhere job, an undeveloped community, a chronic disease, or just bad teeth.

Christopher Reeve embodied grace within the wheelchair of a quadriplegic. Stephen Hawking embodies grace within a body ravaged by Lou Gerig’s disease. A marvelous yoga teacher I know embodies grace within a body formed by severe allergies and celiac disease. Mother Theresa embodied grace within her own despair and doubts.

Practicing santosha doesn’t require us to abandon hopes for or efforts aimed at obtaining freedom from physical restraints, from external oppression, or from illness or aging (though I suspect other things may limit our ability to escape mortality). Instead, it asks us to release the mental suffering we wrap around our experience of those situations. Doing that allows us see the actual problems more clearly and admit that once the current problems are solved, new dilemmas will arise, new intractable and annoying problems will come up.

But in allowing a sense of contentment to enter in, we’re not denying the problems, not refusing to participate, not conceding defeat. Instead, we’re finding a kind of ease in the very practice of being alive, with all of the obstacles, limits, and dilemmas that being alive entails.

In the end, living with santosha is acknowledging that there is no external condition that, when finally obtained or satisfied, will bring an end to our craving, our attachment, our desires, but grace in movement and thought and action are possible, nonetheless.

Practice ideas:

1. On the mat: find a couple of poses that you don’t like and practice them a lot.

Really. Find a pose that just doesn’t work for you, and commit to it for a month – if you practice outside of class sometimes, make sure you include the pose, twice, in each practice. If you’d like me to include the pose in the sequences I plan for JM classes, let me know what it is, and I’ll build it into our practices.

It’s hard to overemphasize how good a mind-conditioning practice it can be to decide to do a pose you hate with santosha, with an attitude of contentment. For me, the pose I hated most for a long time was utkatasana. The santosha practice didn’t change the pose from hard to easy. What really changed was my mind – I stopped focusing on how much I hated the pose, and I started thinking, “yep, I really don’t like this much, but I think I can take the pose deeper.” In thinking that way, I released my need for the pose to be pleasant. It didn’t produce some fairy tale ending – I didn’t suddenly see the light, get wrapped in a brand-new yoga outfit by my fairy godmother, and forever thereafter find utkatasana to be the easiest and pleasantest pose in the catalogue. To this day, I find it hard, challenging, annoying, difficult. But there has been a change – I no longer get into mind-games about how much suffering I’m experiencing in the pose. The absence of that chatter provides a kind of silent space I can move in and hold in utkatasana. That silence and space, in turn, allows me to see into the pose, and then through it and into life.

2. Off the mat: after a month of working with your least favorite yoga pose, find a situation in life that inspires the same kind of discomfort and frustration for you, but one that you’re reasonably certain would be as good for you as your hated yoga pose, if you were to do it. And then, again for one month, actively move into that situation and practice santosha. Give up expecting the situation to magically change and be all butterflies and flowers. Expect it to be what it is. But see if you can release your insistence that it be other than it is, and in so doing, find contentment even within the constraints of the situation or action.

I’d love to hear your experiences with finding contentment within uncomfortable situations, whether on the mat or off, whether individual or interpersonal, whether good or bad.