Yoga for difficult times: Santosha

Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. In previous posts, I looked at the five yamas: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha; and the first niyama: saucha. Today I’ll be focusing on the second niyama: santosha (“san-TOE-sha”).

Santosha can be understood as “contentment”. How can we practice santosha during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:

Contentment is a practice: Contentment is different from happiness. Unlike happiness, contentment is something you can practice and get better at. It may be useful to think of contentment as a habit of appreciation or gratitude. There are opportunities to practice contentment on any given day, and the more you look for them, the easier they are to find. Think about the little things you enjoy on an average day. Perhaps you begin your day with a cup of coffee or a hot shower. Perhaps your morning involves a hug and kiss goodbye to a spouse or child. There may be little things to appreciate all day long, such as listening to an interesting podcast on the bus or anticipating your favorite leftovers for lunch. Yet, how often do you pause to really appreciate these enjoyable moments? Do you gulp down your coffee without tasting it? Are you in and out of the shower without feeling the hot water on your skin? Do you rush through your morning goodbyes without pausing to appreciate how lovely it is to share a tender embrace with the people you love? Are you so distracted by your thoughts for the day that you’re only half-listening to the podcast you’d been waiting for all week?

Practice contentment: When beginning a contentment practice, it’s helpful to pick just one or two moments a day to focus on. For example, you may choose to make a practice of your daily shower. In this case, your shower becomes your time to be mindful and appreciate how lovely it feels to take a hot shower. This doesn’t require any additional time; you can allot the same amount of time to your shower as you normally would. The difference is, while you’re in the shower, you practice being fully present. Feel the hot water on your skin. Feel your muscles warming up and relaxing. Breathe in the scented soaps you’ve chosen for yourself. Any time you notice your mind leaving the shower and drifting off to ruminate on your day, gently bring yourself back. This could be as simple as returning your attention to the hot water or reminding yourself to “be present”. Try not to get frustrated with yourself. Remember, you’ve been practicing not being present for years, so you’re naturally better at it! Treat yourself with ahimsa (compassion) and speak kindly to yourself.

Start now: Having a contentment practice in place before you begin to experience difficult times is ideal. But it’s also never too late to get started. You may be having the worst day of your life and some kind soul brings you a hot cup of tea. Take that moment to hold the cup in your hands. Feel the warmth radiating through the cup. Bring the cup to your lips and take a sip. Feel the hot, comforting liquid enter your mouth. As you swallow, feel the heat of the tea move down your throat and into your belly. Savour the taste in your mouth. Take a moment to appreciate the tea and the kindness of the person who brought it to you. Even at the worst of times, there are things you can find to appreciate if you look for them.

Cultivate gratitude: A contentment practice goes hand in hand with a gratitude practice. As you begin to notice all the things there are to appreciate in a day, you may find yourself feeling grateful for what you once took for granted. You can build on these feelings by creating your own gratitude practice. For example, you may like to keep a gratitude journal in which you record what you’re feeling grateful for each night before bed. If you aren’t inclined to journaling, you can do this in your head. The point is to reinforce your feelings of gratitude in a way that makes sense to you. By getting specific about the good things in your life, you strengthen your ability to recognize them and this makes you more resilient in difficult times.

Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of santosha when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.

How else can you practice santosha in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.

Image © 2016 Erin Bidlake

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