March 23, 2011

Contentment or Complacent: the Yoga of Things as They Are. ~ Colin Hall

Photo: Brian Snelson


I am a discontent.

But this is not the place for me to vent a long list of things with which I am not content. Suffice to say that I experience discontent. Like, a lot of discontent. My discontent used to make my ears hot and my heart pound in my chest. It used to make me very angry. I was not content with my discontent. The discontent remains (in fact sometimes I think it has grown) but I feel very comfortable with it. I am content with my discontent.

Contentment, or Santosha (sometimes spelled Samtosha), is one of the niyamas (observances) given in the Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga as described in his Yoga Sutras. The yamas (restrictions) are habitual actions that practitioners of yoga should attempt to curb (things like violence, lying, stealing, hoarding, and promiscuity). The niyamas, on the other hand, are habitual actions that we should attempt to cultivate. The other niyamas are purity, self-study, reverence, and austerity.

The yamas and niyamas are often confused with morality. Proponents of this position (Georg Feuerstein being the most prominent) argue that living in alignment with the yamas and niyamas will lead to a virtuous, righteous and more spiritual lifestyle.

This may be true, but that was not the original intention of the yamas and niyamas as given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The yamas and niyamas are a practical consideration, not a moral one. Patanjali offers the practical benefit that comes to the practitioner after the mastery of each yama and niyama.

Photo: Katie Brady

For example, in Sutra 2:42 Patanjali saysSantosad-anuttamah sukha-labhah” for which a rough translation reads “when contentment is excellent, you acquire pleasure.” Contentment is practiced for pragmatic reasons. Besides the acquisition of pleasure, contentment is much more conducive to yoga practice than discontent (ever try doing tree pose when you are agitated? Very tough).

Contentment can happen by accident. Coincidental contentment happens when circumstances align in such a way that we get what we want. You had been dreaming a chance to sleep in when you discover that your kids have a day off school, and you are not needed at your office. The whole family sleeps in and has a late breakfast together. Now that is contentment! But that was a coincidence, not a practice.

Intentional contentment happens when we have decided not to fall into our old patterns of discontent, allowing them to make us moody, sullen, or angry. Intentional contentment happens in the presence of discontent. It is a practice. Not something we normally do.

So instead of sleeping in you have to get up even earlier to take your kid to swimming lessons and you are required to stay late at your office. You arrive home exhausted and snuggle with your kids on the couch before sending them off to bed. That is contentment as well. A hard day’s work is over. No reason to grumble or complain. Just breathe.

Photo: Bradley Olin

Intentional contentment does not mean turning a blind eye to injustice, or even to our own discontent. The practice of santosha transforms unremarkable everyday discontent into a fertile field of yogic practice. Contentment as a practice demands that we acknowledge the reality of our discontent without anger, outrage, or reactionary violence.

For example, when we witness an everyday act of human brutality such as an animal cruelty we should not brush it off (“hey, we are at the top of the food chain for a reason, right?”), but we should not rail against this perceived injustice with the power and certainty of our righteousness locked, loaded and ready for battle. Cruelty demands a response—but the response that makes the most sense is kindness, not anger. Learning to accept the discontent that arises from bearing witness to injustice can minimize the reactionary tendencies that, almost always, add fuel to the fire.

The world is a brutal place. The world is a beautiful place. Inhale. Exhale.

Photo: Will Potter

These feelings arise and fall away like changing seasons. Contentment is the elegance of life that allows us to taste the fullness of emotional experience without clinging to any particular flavor. When you are discontent, you will be motivated toward authentic activism that will help alleviate the cause of that discontent (which might mean getting in better shape, going vegetarian, dancing more, falling in love, boycotting a corporation of your choice, toppling a government, or all of the above). You will not blindly and haphazardly rail against that discontent (“this is NOT right” or “this should NOT be happening”) in hopes of making that feeling go away.

You will breathe. And things will change.


Colin Hall runs a yoga studio in Regina, Saskatchewan with his wife Sarah Garden. He is the father of two beautiful little people, has a MA in religious studies focusing on the teacher-student relationship in hatha yoga traditions, and has always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian.

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