"Are you Happy in Your Heart?" Cultivating Samtosha or Contentment through Yoga
Recently, during a practise on the dock comprised of some simple asanas or postures, the late day sun sparkled on the quiet lake. And suddenly, a sensation of immense gratitude flowed forth. These feelings were for the universe for having provided me with all that it had over the past few months, and in particular to B.K.S. Iyengar. Just prior to embarking on my yoga studies in Pune, India this past June, I had experienced a very disturbing process with some members of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada and left feeling unsettled. It wasn’t the yoga process or the Iyengar methodology that was unsettling but rather the lack of yogic behaviors that was experienced first-hand and what I perceived as an apparent disconnection to the legacy that B.K.S. Iyengar was creating for his practitioners and teachers. My decision to try to share some of this with him during my time in India was made although I wasn’t sure how he would respond. Thankfully, he answered with kindness, compassion, support and guidance, and was my teacher in every sense of the word.
It was several weeks before I began to absorb the meaning of my interactions with B.K.S. Iyengar and to really appreciate the gift bestowed upon me by him. In these late day moments during my practise on the dock, when these strong feelings of gratitude spontaneously arose from my unconscious, I was touched deeply by the experience because the feelings that surfaced were honest, raw, uncensored, and welcomed. As I sat in gratitude, tears flowed for the understanding that Grace had placed me at the Ramamami Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute at this time. The understanding had evolved that B.K.S. Iyengar, or “Guruji as he is affectionately called by his students, was now truly my Guruji, providing me with exactly what was needed – guidance and hope.
Samtosha or contentment is one of the five niyamas or personal practices that we are encouraged to use. The niyamas are one of the eight limbs of yoga. Ultimately, contentment is one’s responsibility and part of this task is to maintain a focus on the gifts that life brings us. Patanjalli’s yoga sutra “Samtosad anuttanamah sukhalabhah” tells us to cultivate contentment by bringing satisfaction to whatever unfolds and by accepting that there truly is a Divine flow of life even if it doesn’t always go according to our plans. This sutra (chapter II, verse 41) states that from the continued practise of contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness. This verse guides us and gives hope and joy and suggests that through following the path of contentment, happiness is indeed attainable. My experience with Guruji and my recent spontaneous response illuminates and reflects for me this sutra, and my interactions with him seem to have been connected to other things in a unified and profound manner.
During the day at different times I attempt to focus on my blessings even amidst the not so positive moments, and then to touch down and sit with gratitude even when I am not sitting down. Through our immersion in yoga studies, we learn how to remain present moment-to-moment, and to accept that which is unfolding, breath-by-breath. When we inhale, we receive the breath with an acceptance for this Divine gift of life and for what each moment offers. With each exhalation, we surrender and there is also an acceptance for whatever is occurring, including embracing equally both imperfections and perfections. When we remain cognizant of practicing samtosha or contentment, we develop the ability to remain present – and happy – with the circumstances of this moment. We become more willing to live in this present moment with acceptance of whatever it brings and to more easily let go of the desire or need to change anything or anyone or the wish for it to be different than what it is. Then we are able to focus on gratitude.
One of the outcomes of practicing samtosha or contentment is that the moments during which feelings of longing for something other than what is or those moments when coveting for one’s self what others seem to have occur less frequently. Naturally, from time to time such feelings do arise but through my ongoing practise of svadyaya or self-study (another niyama or personal practise), I am generally more able to identify when I am experiencing jealousy, greed or dissatisfaction or when I have succumbed to the temptation to look outside of my self or the moment in order to feel content or happy. With this self-awareness and understanding comes the opportunity to consciously choose how I will respond. I return to Patanjali’s sutras, and this one in particular, and recall his suggestion to simply be content with the “whatever”, thus living in joy regardless of what will next occur.
Yoga’s recent surge in popularity during the past decade is well timed for more and more people report feeling disillusioned, disconnected and discontented while also searching for balance and satisfaction in their lives. Although the more common physical benefits of yoga are experienced almost immediately, over time there are other subtle or not so subtle positive changes that occur. For example, in addition to observing when the previously mentioned base emotions of jealousy, greed and dissatisfaction arise, the tendency to react with greater acceptance for the way things are has developed. This change has been fueled by the belief that we are provided with exactly what we are meant to receive at any given moment and by maintaining a simple trust in the universe. These changes are also because of my committed practise of samtosha or contentment.
I believe that one of the most beneficial outcomes of sustaining a long-term yoga practise is the natural evolution of this practise of contentment, and the concurrent feelings of happiness and gratitude that are experienced. Simple phrases such as: “whatever”; “it is what it is”, and “it’s all good” have become more common in the popular lexicon and are spoken more frequently albeit at times in a seemingly flippant manner. But with the continual and ever evolving practise of cultivating samtosha or contentment, I have observed that these phrases have definitely become more entrenched in my speech and are spoken in a truly heartfelt manner. More importantly, through the practise of this niyama and the guidance of this sutra, I regularly experience samtosha and gratitude, and thankfully, happiness resides in my heart.
“Samtosad anuttanamah sukhalabhah” (chapter II, verse 41) “From contentment unsurpassed happiness is obtained.”