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In 1991, I took my second trip to Moscow to teach yoga. On our first day there, I was sitting with a group of American yoga teachers, having lunch in the cafeteria in our hotel, when we were approached by a group of Russian yoga teachers. I knew some of them from my previous trip and began casually chatting with one of them. I can’t remember what I was saying, but I’ll never forget how she studied my face intently as I made small talk. At one point, she firmly grasped my shoulders and said, “Stop! Let us speak of real things.” Though startled, I agreed, and we dove into discussing the deeper teachings of yoga.
Dharma—which means living in harmony with the order of life and the Universe—is all about looking at “real things,” and yoga gives us many opportunities to practice doing just that. Lately, I’ve been focusing on santosha (contentment), which Patanjali introduces in the Yoga Sutra (2.32). It is presented as a practice to be undertaken—Patanjali exhorts us not to just be content, but rather to practice contentment. We are to live it.
Like most people, I didn’t start practicing yoga because I felt content. Quite the opposite. I had the beginnings of arthritis, and I was looking for a quick fix so I could get back to studying dance. But I immediately fell in love with yoga. In fact, I became quite ambitious in my study of it, and I wanted all the people in my world to fall as deeply in love with the practice as I had. At this stage, my understanding of contentment involved achieving a difficult asana. To wit: I distinctly remember being at a party one night, trying to convince my friends of the wonders of yoga by doing Sirsasana (Headstand) on a coffee table. And yes, I fell off the coffee table. So much for contentment.
It was decades later that I felt my first inkling of what santosha was really all about. I was practicing alone on my mat at home. I really wanted to accomplish dropping backward from standing to a backbend, making an arch while standing on my feet and hands. I was doing it alright, but I wanted the transition to be slower, better, different. As I practiced the pose, I thought about each detail. I silently told myself: lift the breastbone; take the head back; root down in the feet. After several attempts, I finally let go of my thinking and did the pose exactly the way I was striving for—but without effort. I simply floated down to the floor. It was delicious beyond words.
Yet what happened next was even more remarkable. I quit for the day. I did not do another backbend. In fact, I did not do another asana at all—not even Savasana (Corpse Pose). I just walked away from my mat, soaked to the bones with the residue of contentment. I was done. I was whole. I was present. I felt full and empty at the same time, and I had no desire to practice another pose.
I had spontaneously given up my typical longing to achieve more—to immediately recreate a feeling of accomplishment. What a revelation to have a taste of being content—of beginning to understand what the word actually meant. So often I have practiced with ambition and self-judgment. Not this time.
Contentment is a paradox. If we seek it, it evades us. If we give up on it, it evades us. It is like a shy cat that hides under the bed. If we try to catch it, we never will. But if we sit still and wait in patience, the cat will come to us.
Yoga is about creating space in our bodies and minds so contentment can find a place to live within us. If we practice with humility and trust, then we create a container that attracts contentment.
Mind you, contentment is not the same as happiness. Contentment is being willing to accept both your happiness and your lack of it at any given moment. Sometimes we are asked to actively remain present with our discontent—to see it as simply what is arising within us, and to look at it with a sense of nonjudgment. This is not a practice for cowards. Santosha is a fierce practice that calls upon our dedication and surrender, in each moment of our lives—not just on the yoga mat. Can we be radically present with ourselves, whether
we get what we want or not? I ask myself this question almost daily, and I’m regularly amazed by how little it takes for me to lose my apparently fragile sense of contentment.
When I think back on my conversation with the Russian yoga teacher, I appreciate what she was trying to teach me: to remember “real things.” For me, the opportunity to practice yoga all day long is what’s real. Right now, that means becoming contentment, even for a moment. When we practice this, we not only change ourselves, but we also affect the people and situations around us in ways that makes the world a better place.