I spend a fair amount of time contemplating the world that the classical and tantric texts arose from so that I can find context for the teachings and uncover how they might fit into my post-modern mind. Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the practice of Santosha. Taken from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Santosha (contentment) is one of the Niyamas of the 8 limbs of Yoga.
There is a feeling among my students and friends that our world today is crashing, roiling, and imploding. I’ve heard many people voice concerns over a suggested practice like contentment in a time where they feel action and change are required for our very survival. That sentiment is valid, however, the world during the period of Classical Yoga was not some better time where racism, classism, sexism, and mindless dogma didn’t exist. While people of that time were more bound to the cycle of nature and less inundated by streaming distraction pumped in on screens of all sizes, life was brutal, and short, and defined by their birthright or lack there of. Human suffering and isolation, the complexities of of the psyche, were front and center in their lived experience. Just like us. The shit has always been hitting the proverbial fan. If this is true, then Santosha might still be a purposeful practice if we can understand it.
I have heard and even mistakenly described Santosha as a practice of acceptance of what is, a practice of making peace with our external circumstances. This view is fundamentally flawed. The outer world is full of circumstances that create suffering, that wreak havoc on people and the planet. We should perceive these circumstances as problematic. We should feel concern. We can act on that concern. The practice of Santosha, when clearly understood, can help us act more skilfully with the external world.
Contentment is defined as satisfaction, fullness, and a feeling of completeness. In general that feeling of fullness is often associated with fleeting external circumstances, but it doesn’t need to be. The practice of Santosha is a remembering, evoking, and acknowledging of our innate wholeness that is not dependent on any thing outside of our selves. Contentment isn’t something that we do, it is a feeling state, an internal ok-ness that is neither given nor taken away by anyone or anything. We can carry our basic wholeness into all circumstances and find ourselves less driven by fear and lack on a core level. Confrontation can become co-creation and cooperation when navigating problems in the structure and organization of our society. We can be content inside ourselves and work with discontent outside of ourselves. We can say I’m ok, yet this is not ok.
I am complete regardless of external circumstances which will rise and fall away.
Now, by all means, go out there and save the world, but don’t do it because you’re broken. You are not a problem that needs to be fixed.
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread,
crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the
passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the
eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the
fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising
from bed and meeting the sun.
The gift of not knowing: How to practice at homeStudent: “Kelly, do you have any video recommendations for me while I travel this summer so I can keep up with my practice?”
Student: “Um Yeah, but…I don’t know what to do!! It won’t be as good. I’m no expert!”
I have this conversation often. Does it sound familiar to you? Let me ask you something. Do you practice yoga at a studio at least twice a week on a regular basis? If yes, then no matter how brilliant your teacher is, you are not only capable of practicing on your own, you owe it to yourself to do it. Home practice isn’t talked about or encouraged nearly enough these days. It is an absoultely pivotal aspect of the practice of yoga. Now, like I said, there are good online sources for classes you can follow along with but that is not what I’m talking about at all.
Home practice is a time when you can do that thing that every teacher tells you to do then doesn’t really want you to do in their class because it would be bedlam. It is a time to deeply listen to your body.
Most of us wash up on the shores of drop in yoga with a very large gulf between awareness and the felt experience of the body and what we percieve as self in our minds. The common response I get when I ask people how they feel:
4. Meh, I feel good…
You will never be able to make good choices for yourself until you get that conversation going. Until then, listen to your body is merely yoga speak for don’t blame me if you hurt yourself.
Your body has so much more wisdom to communicate with you than “Hey, its time to poop!” It takes time, practice, and silence….a lot of silence. It also requires that perfect quality that everyone thinks is a problem. The feeling that you don’t know what to do or how to do it right is called the practice of not knowing. It is where you want to be. Surprise!! Your excuse is actually your invitation into a deep and miraculous unfolding.
It isn’t hard or scary to begin. Here are the steps:
1. Put down a yoga mat or just lay down or just stand there or whatever…you really don’t need anything in particular. I prefer to start on my back with my knees bent and my hands on my belly, but here is the beauty, you can do anything you want.
2. Be still and wait…close your eyes and listen to the breath and wait until some desire to move or curiosity arises. Starting small is best (in my experience).
3. Follow that curiosity. If you need to, set a timer for 10 minutes and move around or lay there for 10 minutes. Pick 3 poses you like (or don’t like) and try them. Try them in different ways. In this kind of practice, less agenda is better. This isn’t the “Master your Handstand” home practice we are talking about.
4. Close your practice with a bow to the deep wisdom that you are inviting to rise and then get on with your day. It is that easy.
I’m sitting in my parked car outside of the studio, fingers curled tightly around my phone, staring at my partner who is trying desperately not to jump out and run from our conversation. Once every three weeks we talk to a therapist via the phone to help us navigate the challenge and opportunity that is US and today, the talk is particularly frustrating. The therapist asks me if I can invite more space into my voice….what she is really saying is that I need to breathe. The quality of my voice is all that she has to go on as far as the subtle subtext of communication and my speech is compressed and shrill. Yes, thats right, 15 years of yoga and I’m still forgetting to breathe.
The first thing you learn in yoga asana and meditation is that the breath is the defining tool of the practice. Why? It is the link between the the conscious choice and the automated functions of our stress response. According to yogic theory it is the bridge between the corporeal and energetic aspects of our being. The breath is also an organizing agent for our structural alignment. If you check in with your breath you will undoubtably readjust your posture to allow for more easeful and fully expressed breathing. That means the spine finds greater alignment and prana flows better.
I remember reading somewhere that when we hold the breath, we hold the soul. In other words, our breath is innately linked to our capacity to connect to our higher self (the aspect of the self that is not as caught in limiting beliefs). When breath flows, our perspective is wide and there is room for conflict and space for resolution.
As a Rolfer, I can tell by watching someone breathe how relaxed or present they are and so, how receptive they will be to the work of structural integration in that moment.
Suffice it to say that the “invitation” from my therapist/teacher to find my breath is a powerful reminder of where I am lacking integration in my yoga practice. If what I do on the mat isn’t translating into my relationships then, Huston, we have a problem!!
Here is my advice to myself as well as any one, new or seasoned to yoga on bringing the breath to the foreground:
PRACTICE AND ALL IS COMING
Patabi Jois famously said this. Now, I don’t mean that you need to do chaturangas 7 days a week at all but daily intentional practice that incorporates conscious breathing is a must. Meditating and breathing exercises as a part of self care can change a lot. Make it a morning practice just after you wake up. Do a few minutes of Pranayama and a short seated meditation. If you have trouble sticking to it…get an accountability buddy. People do that for working out so why not for waking up? Since opening Mission and becoming a Mom, my meditation practice has been spotty at best and I can see the absence of it has had a real effect.
PRACTICE WHEN IN AUTOPILOT
* Its easier to do it in these circumstances than in the most challenging practice of human relationship.
PRACTICE WITH HUMANS
We can not access the love we hold for others or ourselves when our core patterns are in the drivers seat and if you’re human, they usually will be. The breath is the tool always at your disposal that can be the feather that starts a landslide of shift in perspective and communication but we have to be so practiced at tapping in to it that we can remember in these hard times that it is right here…nearest of the near.
DO IT WITH ME NOW…..BOTH FEET ON THE FLOOR, FILL THE LUNGS, BREATHE DOWN AND BACK TO CREATE A MORE BALANCED POSTURE, FEEL THE INVITATION TO CREATE SPACE AND RECLAIM YOUR CENTER……REPEAT.
“The Peace of Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Mantra of Wild and Authentic Nature:
Welcome to Spring time energy! This is the real New Year for me as I shake out the winter aches and tap into the rising sap of creative life force. Spring is a powerful and sometimes violent time of year. Life is explosive! Here are some thoughts on ways we can navigate the shift.
The Meridian pair for this time of year is the Liver/Gallbladder in the Chinese Medicine system.
Liver is associated with the Wood Element (Think about the stability and flexibility of a rooted tree filed with sap that can yield and respond with fluidity to outside pressure).
The Liver is called the general of the army and it governs detoxification…if the chi is imbalanced we will see a lot of frustration and anger and equally if we are marinating in anger often, we will deplete our liver chi. When our Liver chi is balanced we have smooth emotional transitions and a sense of energized ease.This is the time of year to lay off the booze and add in bitter greens and more fresh earthy foods. Our friend Lexa Keane of Sacred Circle Herbal recommends using an herbal tonic for about a week to support the liver. Yes, you can get the good stuff from her if you aren’t yet your own herbalist:) (more about Lexa and her products here!)
The postures to favor this time of year are hip openers to liberate and stir the primal energy of the second chakra and core work focusing on bandhas to direct that unbridled sexual force into refined creative energy in our lives.The Chakra most associated with this meridian pair is Manipura (the naval chakra) which governs our will. It is very important to consider your reactivity as all this energy gets moving. The force of Spring is, as I said, explosive and when circumstances block our rising pulsation we can get very aggressive. Meditating on compassion and loving kindness can temper the intensity of this season.
Remember that each season has its own beauty and that through our conscious choices we sow the seeds of our future seasons. As always, movement, meditation, inquiry, creativity, and community are central to our practice of awakening in the Mission Yoga family.