The following post was written by Katherine Moore. Katherine has been teaching for The Perri Institute for Mind and Body since 2013. You can find her running all over New York City, working as a teacher, choreographer, freelance dancer, and writer. Relax with her at Steps on Broadway on Friday nights at 6:30pm for restorative yoga.
The start of a new year is always a reflective time for me, and it’s a time that I enjoy immensely. There’s a sense of quiet and simplicity after the holiday rush, and I relish the slower, wintery pace of this new season. At the same time, there’s also a sense of freshness to this time of year, a desire for things to come that’s hidden inside the chilly air.
At a time of year when many people are setting resolutions and goals, I’ve been thinking a lot about santosa, one of Patanjali’s niyamas, or rules of conduct, in the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Santosa means contentment, and according to B.K.S Iyengar in Light on Yoga, santosa is something that has to be cultivated. “A mind that is not content cannot concentrate,” he says.
What is interesting to me about santosa is its relationship to desire: “There is contentment and tranquility when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire.”
I’ve been running these words over in my mind all week, contemplating their meaning in the context of a new year with new goals, and perhaps also with an acute sense of what I feel is lacking in my current life and what I want to do about it in 2016. How can I cultivate santosa while at the same time knowing that certain aspects of my life need to change? My desire for things to be different seems to be in conflict with my practice of tranquility.
While I’m not typically one for hard and fast new year’s resolutions, I often come up with a general theme I’d like to work with throughout the year. For example, “Have More Fun” or “Wait and See.” It’s a simple way of approaching each year’s twists and turns with different mentalities and being curious about the results. This year I’ve settled on the always appropriate, “Relax.”
So how can I relax while also wrestling with the aspects of my life that seem unsatisfying and in need of change? Don’t I need to be doing something?
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Santosa does not imply that we should not take action, that we should not work hard toward goals or take ourselves out of less than ideal situations or try to improve our lives. What santosa does imply however, is that through a cultivated practice of contentment, we might begin to know the difference between the choices that the changing, sometimes fickle nature of desire leads us to make and following paths that open to us when we work with a focused yet tranquil mind.
This can be a subtle and difficult discernment to make, and when examining our hopes and wishes for a new year in light of santosa, I think it’s important to remember that it’s human nature to want things to be different than how they are. It’s one of the most common trappings of the mind and one of the most detrimental thought patterns to our mental well-being. We can become addicted to our feelings of dissatisfaction and our attempts to control our surroundings in order to feel more satisfied. This may temporarily provide relief, but rarely offers the permanent sense of “I’m OK now” that we were hoping for. The hard truth is that that feeling never comes. The nature of life itself is impermanence.
I prefer “groundlessness” for this idea, taken from Pema Chödrön in Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Her ideas on working with groundlessness are helping me sculpt a practice for santosa this winter:
“This basic meditation technique is designed to help us remain open and receptive not only to our thoughts and emotions, not only to outer circumstances and the people we encounter, but also to groundlessness itself, to this underlying energy that is so threatening to the part of us that wants certainty. This practice allows us to get very close to this edgy, uncomfortable energy. It allows us to become familiar with nothing to hold on to, with stepping into the next moment without knowing what will happen. It gives us practice in taking a leap. It also gives us the space to notice how the mind immediately tries to entertain us or come up with scenarios of escape or revenge or do whatever else it does to provide security and comfort.
As we continue the practice, we will come to experience life’s impermanent and changing energy not just as threatening but also as refreshing, liberating, and inspiring. It’s the same energy—we just experience it in two different ways. Either we can relax into it, seeing it as the true nature of our mind, our conditional goodness, or we can react against it.”
Just as the newness of winter offers both quiet and freshness at the same time, so does santosa offer both tranquility and inspiration for paths not taken. When cultivated, santosa can actually help us stoke the flame of our spirits, especially while enjoying the calm and quiet of winter at the same time.
So as I relax into a santosa practice this winter, I am trying to remember that cultivating contentment will actually provide the exact opposite result of “doing nothing.” Instead of giving in to daily desire for change and by working with this groundlessness that Pema describes in a tranquil, focused way, perhaps I will become even more attuned to the energy that will help me take leaps, make unexpected changes, and help me find liberation from the new year’s mentality of dissatisfaction.