Santosha (contentment)

An attitude of contentment (santosha) gives rise to unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction. ||42||

In Marin County/San Francisco we are now at exactly 20 weeks since the first day of the shutdown.  That is a very long time, and much has happened in those five months.

One of the teachings of yoga which has become a bit controversial these days is a practice called Santosha.  In that practice, the yogi assumes that everything is perfect as it is, and goes about making living their life in that way.

Here is the underlying principle.  If you react to something you do not like, it creates a condition, a likelihood that that the condition will stay the same, or keep repeating in the life.  By choosing to look at everything as perfect, the yogi plants a seed for everything to unfold perfectly.  Here is an example (and I’m not saying this is true or not true, it’s just a hypothetical example)

During the shutdown, many people who live their lives with relative freedom experienced, maybe for the first time in their lives, a degree of oppression that prevented them from walking down the street, eating where they wanted to, going to church, hanging out in a bar, earning morning.  Whatever it is.  Everyone had a different experience of this, and many felt oppressed.  In that oppression minds were opened to understand a little better what life feels like for those who live in perpetual oppression.  We had a big shift.  Things may not be resolved as of yet, but there was definitely a shift.  So the yogi, understanding that everything is perfect, knows that only a shutdown  of this magnitude would have created the pressure cooker in which so many  minds and hearts could be changed.

On a more personal level it’s useful to look at where we each are right now.  What happened for us?  What shifted?  In those shiftings, what opportunities were created?  Sometimes we just have to train ourselves to see them.

Long before I practiced yoga, a very savvy NY recruiter was sending me out to interview for paralegal positions in some of the fanciest law firms in New York City.  Good pay, great benefits.  She also sent me to this tiny little firm, two attorneys, just hiring their first patent clerk.  I saw an opportunity.  She was astounded.  It turns out that she just included them because she knew one of their daughters.  They taught me so much about patents at that little firm, and it served me well for years to come.  Things are not always what they appear.

So, in yoga, the maximal push of a posture is not always the means to the biggest result.  On one level, when we first start, that’s how we “feel”  progress.  But in yoga the subtle shifts are sometimes the most powerful.

संतोषातनुत्तमस्सुखलाभ

saṁtoṣāt-anuttamas-sukhalābhaḥ

From the practice of contentment, one obtains unsurpassed comfort and joy.

Why Practice?

My teacher said once “What is the greatest obstacle to practicing yoga?  [dramatic pause] Getting started. “ That is a challenge we face day after day.  It’s not just the first day we practice.  It’s every day.  Sometimes the second class may be the hardest one to get to because after the first class we know that we will change if we continue to practice.  What then do we draw on to get us past that point to the mat for the second class?  Or the 10,000th class?  Faith.  Faith in what?  Faith in the practice of yoga.  Faith in the practice of yoga how?  Faith that something good may come of our practice which would be worth the effort.  Faith that something good will happen in spite of all the disappointments we may have faced. Faith that yoga might help us to find something, something beyond the fringes of our current understanding of the way the world works, that might help us to live in the world more easily.  Nurturing our curiosity brings us to the first class, nurturing our faith helps us to continue the practice.  How do we nurture our faith in yoga? 

In the days when I began my yoga practice, my teachers drew on the stories of the enlightened masters of the old schools.  I understood that yoga brought about a state of liberation.  Upon deeper investigation and searching I learned those states of liberation often involved removing ones consciousness entirely from the material world and dwelling in absorption with the divine.  It was a sexy, titillating idea peppered with promises of deep bliss states.  After years of practice, I fell into questioning this.  While I’d never attained the exalted states of the Jivanmuktas (the ones who attained this exalted state) I had experienced enough connection to the divine to have experienced detachment from the material world.  Big deal, I thought, I still have to go back into the material world, pay my bills and deal with difficult people.  So, I left that goal behind and continued to ask myself, what is this yoga for?  After so many years spent in practice I couldn’t give up.  That is when things began to change, and a deep teaching it was. 

I went back into the world of work, inhabiting job roles I found oppressive and navigating social and economic hierarchies which were not always kind.  Here is what I found.  The disciplines of yoga had freed me.  Physically I was still entangled in these roles and hierarchy but my mind was free….most of the time….free to choose who I wanted to be in that moment and by that I meant how I wanted to respond to the aggressive or unkind environment. 

There was no overt breakout that occurred.  It was subtle and gradual.  If my employer said something which hurt my feelings, I felt I could detach my attention from the pain and direct it to something useful.  Completing the tasks at hand which would provide useful skills for a better position.  In the unkind social hierarchies I could keep myself from retaliating for longer and longer periods of time and later detach enough to exit those social circles all together.

My focus developed in such a way that I could apply a healthy balanced measure of discipline to my day – allowing me to consciously own the power of a moment so I could focus on creative activities long before neglected.

But most of all this freedom which emerged from the disciplines of yoga opened the door for me to choose to be different.  Instead of feeling like I was stuck in  a role I hated I could choose to move in the direction of being someone wanted to be, rather than being condemned to repeat the same story over the over again. 

So the goals look different from how they were lived by the great yoga masters of history,  but the practice and disciplines themselves still proved to have a valid result. 

So what exactly does the process of yoga do?   Done in accordance with the original recipes, with an willing heart and an open mind, the process of yoga breaks down our conditioning.  From the time we were born we were conditioned by schools and governments, our families our friends, the media and our fears , in subtle and deep ways.  Sometimes this conditioning is so deeply entrenched that we are unaware at all that we aren’t seeing what is there.  But it controls our every moment by moment decision. 

So how do we get to our second class?  Faith.  Faith that it will be worth it.  Faith that there substance in the practice which will be valuable.  A good use of your time.  Faith that, while what happens for us may not look like what happens for others, that it will be a good result, aligned with our personal truth.   IN the words of yoga master K. Pattabhi Jois, “Keep practicing, all is coming!”

The afflictions of attachment and aversion

सुखानुशयी रागः ॥७॥

sukha-anuśayī rāgaḥ ॥7॥

 The residue of pleasure is attachment.

duhkha-anushayi dveshah ||8||

दुःखानुशयी द्वेषः ॥८॥

duḥkha-anuśayī dveṣaḥ ॥8॥

The residue of pain is avoidance.

In the practice section of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the second “padah”, Patanjali offers a set of three powerful practices which propel one towards the experience of yoga.  The three are the practices of Tapah, Svadyaya and Ishvara Pranidhanani, which were discussed in the previous post.  After presenting these practices Patanjali notes that not only will these practices lead to samadhi, but that they will also diminish our afflictions.  We all want to diminish our afflictions.  They are forms of mental fluctuations which create the experience of disturbance.  We experience them, until we learn to work with them. 

Today we will discuss two potent kleshas or afflictions:  raga (attachment) and dvesa (aversion).  In this context attachment and aversion refer to the experience where we form a judgment about a person, place or experience based on our history with it.  Either we , want it again, or we never want it again.   While it may seem that this is sound reasoning – to avoid something which has caused pain and to go near that which gives us pleasure there are three important things to note here.   First, by dividing the world into that which we like and that which we don’t like we are creating division and separation.  This moves us away from the experience of our ourselves as whole.  We split off parts of ourselves and others.  To be yoked to our higher self, to be in union with, is to join with our higher self.  Any kind of duality will interfere with that joining.  Second, these judgments are based on the erroneous idea that because we experienced something one way one day, that we will always experience it that way.  We project the past on the present.  Third, that projection of the past into the present creates an expectation which can create conflict in ourselves or with others.   The experience of connection is obstructed when we are absorbed in a memory of the past.  We only experience connection when we are present!

Practicing yoga philosophy  in our lives and in the techniques of yoga asana,  we encounter the dynamic play of opposites.  Through cultivating a harmonious aligned relationship between apparent opposites we create stable foundations for unlocking the power of a posture or an experience.  This is central to all asana, but today we will consider this approach in relation to back bends. 

Back bends transcend time.  They are constructed in such a way that it is possible through practice to open the heart chakra.   The heart chakra is an energy center, or realm of consciousness where we begin to open to our deeper connections with the whole of existence around us.   Whatever we might be holding which could be termed a judgement or a lack of forgiveness will show up as a congestion in the body which obstructs our ability to experience the back bend with a fully open heart.  I use the word experience deliberately because in one body the back bend may appear small to the observer, but is experienced as vast and open to student.  Likewise a back bend may appear as a deep curve but still contains the experience of pain or restriction for the person doing the back bend.  The postures, like all other experiences which we could label good and bad, are all relative.  As we cultivate spaciousness and non-judgement of ourselves in our postures we train the mind to be spacious rather than judgmental towards others.

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