What is Santosha?
Yoga is more than holding postures in a yoga class. The physical movement we do in yoga is only one of eight parts of the greater practice of yoga - better known as the eight limbs. I’ll dive into the eight limbs in another post, but I’m really leaning heavily on one aspect of my yoga practice in my life right now so I wanted to dive into it - Santosha.
Before we dive into Santosha, let’s step back to the eight limbs of yoga for a second. The second limb of yoga is known as Niyamas, or “Observances”. What can we observe about our relationship with ourselves and how can we improve that relationship? One of these “observances”, among others, is Santosha, or “contentment”, although, I’m not the biggest fan of this translation. One of my preferred understandings of Santosha is a lack of desire for things that we think will make us happy. That can mean both tangible and non-tangible objects.
For example, I often think things like
“This miracle hair product will make my hair perfect, and then I will finally be happy.”
“Once I have a family, I will be happy.”
“Once I get a job that I love, I will be happy.”
“As soon as my home is Instagram perfect, I will be happy”
The lack of these cravings, or attachments, is Santosha. And it is very difficult to not want things. I’m sure many of you can relate to a few of these items (or versions of this list). The goal of yoga and practicing these observances is to let go of these attachments to our desired outcomes, the way we wish things could be.
Now I’m not talking about violent/dangerous/unsafe/malnourished situations. Working towards a lack of desire comes after all of our basic needs as a human (clean, water / food / safety / shelter / rest / etc.) are met. But many of us are in places where we have all of those things and are looking for the latest iPhone to make us happy.
My Journey to Santosha
Right now I’m in a phase of life that is pretty much identical to this line from Ann Pratchett’s The Dutch House:
“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you'd been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you're suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”
In school, I had dreams of working for an international organization like UNCHR, the Red Cross, or Human Rights Watch. I spent most of my time living in other countries, learning different languages, and building relationships with people that were so similar to me despite the fact that we grew up worlds apart. I built my identity on all of those things. I read philosophy and stayed up late talking to my housemates about what I was reading in our house that was built several hundred years before the United States was even an idea.
And then I moved back home, fell in love, and left that identity behind me. I wanted to be with him more than I wanted to keep that identity that I had curated over the years. But that left me in the place of suspension that Ann Pratchett defined so well. It doesn’t help that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is literally putting the whole world on hold (not to mention the poor handling of the virus in the United States making this suspension last a lot longer than anticipated).
I jumped so easily, but I didn’t have a future built yet. This may be just me personally, but I’m not the type of person to build my identity on another person. I can build a future with another person, but that shouldn’t define me. So although I can get support from my husband, I can’t (and shouldn’t) expect him to help me become who I’m supposed to be in this new life. That’s up to me.
But here’s where the issue lies. I was so attached to these external parts of me - where I lived, the job I had, the language I spoke, and the home I built - that when those things were no longer a part of me, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I’m still struggling with these attachments.
Once I quit my job and moved across the country, I had an idea of what my future would look like. And then the virus hit and put a significant dent in that plan. So here I am with a longing for my past self and yearning to become the person I want to be, neither of which exist right now. I’m not in grad school biking down Belgian streets in the rain to get to my lectures, but I’m also not living the future I had carefully mapped out to a schedule either. I used to wake up every day and think “what’s the point?”, “Why am I continuing to work at a job that isn’t my ‘passion’ (a problem that I believe many people my age have), when the future I wanted isn’t anywhere in sight?”.
This is where Santosha comes in. And it is a hard thing to become good at.
Letting go of our desire for things that we think will make us happy is easier said than done. Choosing not to buy a certain shampoo when I don’t really need it because I have plenty already and this new shampoo probably won’t make a difference - that’s an easy thing to let go of. But a family? Friends? Those things are a little harder to let go of. When you live in the desert without friends or family, it can be really easy to feel lonely and to want those things more than anything in the world. And it’s ok to want those things, those are good things to want! AND it’s easy for me to let my desire for those things put a damper on what I already have.
I have a husband who is kind, gentle, supportive, sacrificial, generous, and brilliant (also very handsome). I also have a cat and a dog who are so happy to see me when I get home and spend all day cuddling me on the couch when I’m not feeling well. I have friends that I can FaceTime whenever I’m feeling lonely. I have all of the things I want, but it just looks a little different from this vision that I’m so attached to. I may not live near family, but I work from home so I can call my mom whenever I need a boost.
But I also don’t see Santosha as a gratitude practice. Gratitude practices are great, but they don’t get to the root of desire in my experience. Santosha is a constant practice. And sometimes I get hit with surprising bursts of longing when I see friends hanging out on Instagram.
Actually Practicing Santosha
When I’m feeling sorry for myself and throwing a pity party because I don’t have the things I think I need, I pause. I take several deep, slow, even breaths (pranayama). I rub my palms together and place my palms over my eyes. I take a few sips of water and then do the things that make me feel like myself. I may not live in Europe anymore, but I still love Early Grey tea and biscuits. So I put the kettle on and pour myself a cup of tea and grab a few speculoos cookies. I may not have friends or family nearby, but I can pick up my cat and hold her for a few minutes, or FaceTime my sister. I’ve found that pruning the herbs in my kitchen windowsill brings me a lot of joy. Or I’ll reach across the couch and hold my husband’s hand and smile at him. And then for a few minutes, I know I don’t need anything else to be happy.
But don’t worry if that only works for a few minutes! I find myself throwing another pity party the next time I have to drive an hour to pick up a prescription and it won’t be ready for a few hours, so I’ll have to make the drive all over again. So I repeat my process of finding myself. I listen to my favorite podcast, FaceTime my friends that still live in Europe, or ask my husband for a long hug.
Santosha is a daily practice. An hourly practice. I can be content one minute, and sad the next. But learning what brings you joy (not what you think brings you joy - I thought I would love embroidery, but it turns out it just makes me super stressed out), and pulling out those tools when you need them becomes a habit over time. So that one day, those moments of happiness will get longer, and those moments of desire will get shorter.
I am by no means good at this. But I’m learning. I’m practicing. And that’s a start.
Please note that I am not a medical professional and if you are seeking mental health advice, please see a licensed practitioner or if you are feeling overwhelmed with sadness, depression, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.