Where the Proverbial Rubber (Yoga Mat) Meets the Road
“What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?” [asked Christopher Robin]
“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best —” and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called (110).
The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff
My physical yoga practice has admittedly lapsed over the course of the last two weeks. Between birthdays, family visits and work, among other things, I have just not made time for asana every single day, as I promised myself I would. I could choose to beat myself up over not taking an hour out of my day for something that is so integral to my emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. Or I could choose to look at all the other aspects of the teachings that I carry with me off of the mat and be content with what is, instead of what I wish would be.
In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar writes “As yama is universal social practice, niyama evolves from individual practices necessary to build up the sadhaka’s own character” (144). The five niyama are translated as:
- Sauca: cleanliness, purity
- Santosa: contentment
- Tapas: religious fervor or zeal, a burning desire
- Svādhyāya: study which leads to knowledge of the self
- Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender to Ishvara (God)
Of all the niyama, santosa is something that I strive for everyday in all aspects of my life. This can be difficult, as our culture does not support the value of contentment. We are taught from the very beginning of our lives that we should strive to be the best, to make the most money, to have bigger and better things. Indeed, we are rewarded for not being content. If we get good grades in high school and participate in extra-curricular activities, we can go to a top university to get a more highly recognized degree, which theoretically leads to a more successful career path. If we work hard and make goals to get the bonus money, we can buy a new car or house or the latest iGadget. There is always something to be gained in society’s eye by not being content.
Sometimes, however, taking a step back and looking at the abundance around us is a necessary task. There is always something more out there to aspire to, particularly in the internet age, where we are wired and aware of seemingly endless possibilities for consumption. Designer clothes, a “better” body, vacations to exotic locales – our fetishistic society leaves no stone unturned when it comes to creating desire. Trying to keep up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians) very rarely leaves one feeling content with their lot.
This practice of yoga teaches us to have burning zeal (tapas) in our practice, but according to Guruji’s explanation of sutra II.42, santosat anuttamah sukhalabhah, this cannot be achieved without purity and contentment:
From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness.
Through cleanliness of the body, contentment is achieved. Together they ignite the flame of tapas, propelling the sadhaka towards the fire of knowledge. This transformation, which indicates that the sadhaka is on the right path of concentration, enables him to look inwards through Self-study (svadhyaya) and then towards Godliness (155).
Thus, it is not our desire that leads to the stoking of the flame in our practice, but our ability to be content, which is driven by purity of thought, word and deed.
As I return to my daily asana practice (starting today), I will carry this knowledge with me. I will accept what I cannot change with equanimity and continue to pursue this path with single-minded focus. I will seek the higher self within me, while recognizing that life continues around me. I will attempt to be content with what I have, with who I am, and with what is to be. Perhaps most importantly, I will try to find contentment in the interstitial spaces, where there is time for reflexivity; a moment to be grateful for what is happening in the present moment, regardless of what is to come next.