May 22 • 7M

Contentment In a Chaotic World

The Yogic Virtue of Santosha

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Gnospi Swimming Spot, the Mani, in Southern Greece

Contentment, Acceptance and Optimism

Last week we looked at the most important and well-known yoga principle: ahimsa, or non-violence. This week we’ll look at one of yoga’s less well-known observances, santosha. Santosha means contentment and as one of my yoga teachers reflected, it sounds like a Greek island… and who could not be contented on a Greek island? The balmy breezes, the air fragrant with the scent of pine and wild mountain herbs… The delight of snorkelling in crystal-clear, turquoise-blue waters… Not to mention the delicious sun-ripened fruits, the amazing sunsets and the warm stary nights. Heavenly!!

However, the contentment of santosha is much more than a simple response to being in an idyllic place. Quite the contrary! Santosha involves grit, determination and continued practice. We deepen our skill in using this virtue amidst the harsh realities and everyday challenges of life, in an authentic and practical way.

Santosha is one of a group of ethical yoga principles called the niyamas. These are virtues that yoga practitioners undertake to support their spiritual growth and well-being. Santosha is a Sanskrit word, which translates as acceptance of one's circumstances, acceptance of others, contentment and optimism for self.

Must We Accept the Unacceptable?

However, acceptance is a bit of a loaded word in our world, which is so unjust.

To give one example: how can we accept that UK politicians take £16 million of our tax to subsidise their booze and food in Parliament, whilst at least 3.9 million children live in poverty in the UK? That's over a quarter of the children in the UK going hungry unnecessarily, in a country that is considered the 5th richest nation in the world.

There are many more unacceptable facts that I could trot out, but I’m not here to depress you. On the contrary, I’m here to explore how we can find a place of peace and ease within ourselves, amidst the deep inequity, unfairness, cruelty and greed that is a very real aspect of our everyday lives.

Santosha does not mean that we view the present circumstances as “just the way it is” or “our lot” or that we must simply “put up and shut up”. This type of defeatist, begrudging acceptance will not support our empowerment, health or wellbeing, or that of our community. The acceptance associated with santosha is different. We might helpfully liken it to a term used in positive psychology called radical acceptance.

Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance means that we fully take on board the reality of our present situation. Think of being stuck in a traffic jam, on your way to an important meeting. You might get tense, angry or anxious, your breath might speed up and become more shallow. In addition, you may blame yourself, or other people, because you are stuck and you’re going to be very late for the meeting. None of these emotional responses will help you get out of the traffic jam. All they will do is make you feel more stressed out!

If we choose to practise radical self-acceptance (santosha), we undertake in each moment to not resist, or become overwhelmed by, the reality of the difficulty. We choose to calmly accept the situation as it is, whether it is as trivial as a traffic jam, or as oppressive as systemic social injustice. To take care of ourselves in the present moment, we notice, acknowledge and name our feelings. The issue (even something as simple as being stuck in traffic) might bring up feelings of deep grief, frustration, fury, fear or powerlessness. Depending on our situation, we can laugh, cry, sing, joke, write, discuss, create art and generally express our feelings so that we’re not bottling them all up inside.

Actively Creating Contentment

I hear you wondering… Where is the contentment in this?
The contentment we find is of our own creation. Each time we find our emotions rising we remind ourselves, that we cannot change the situation in the present moment. However, we can choose our response to it. We can choose to slow down our breathing, to activate the parasympathetic nervous system by using our diaphragm to breathe more deeply and efficiently. This means that we become less reactive and more responsive in the present moment. In this way, we do less harm to ourselves and others (ahimsa). This is how we create santosha even if we are faced with adversity.

The following well-known poem, shared widely in the recovery world, explains how to work with this process (serenity is another word for santosha).

The Serenity Prayer

God, 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.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Choosing Santosha

By choosing to radically accept the challenging realities of our lives, whether it’s greedy politicians, ongoing pain or overcrowded roads, we'll have a much better journey than if we spend our time cursing, blaming, stressing and worrying. So, instead of bypassing the problem, resisting the problem or trying to will the problem away (which are all ways of refusing to accept the reality of the situation) we sit with things as they are and breathe. As we develop the skill, we might find we can find serenity even in the midst of adversity and stress. It is a continual practice, a skill that we hone throughout our lives.

One way I cultivate santosha is to greet each of my in-breaths with a feeling of gratitude and as I exhale I appreciate the feeling of release and relaxation that I sense within. This practice helps me realise the preciousness of life: the gift of each moment, of each breath. Learning to appreciate the small things in life, the smell of pine trees, the taste of freshly picked fruit… can enable us to broaden the full spectrum of our experience, we learn to notice what is beautiful and good as well as what is frustrating, hurtful and wrong. In this way, we are able to find balance and contentment within, helping us to enjoy moments of peace and a deep sense of joy in our everyday lives.

Dear Yoga Student,

I’m thinking of putting together some video packages for you to buy if you can’t make classes. The videos will enable you to practice at a time that suits you. Let me know if you’d be interested in this and your thoughts on what type of classes you’d like. Yoga or somatics? Working on a particular area of the body or more general? I’d be really grateful if you’d leave your ideas in the comments section, or you can email me if you prefer. Just hit reply, it’s always wonderful to hear from you.

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Classes are running as usual, you can book your spot by going to the timetable on my website. There are a couple of Zoom classes, a Free Meditation Class and an In-Person Somatics Class you are welcome to them all! It would be lovely to see you. If you’d like a private lesson, email me.

Class Timetable

Wishing you a great week! With love and good wishes,

Julia xxx