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YS II.42 samtosad anuttaman sukha-labhah

By contentment, the highest happiness is attained.

Santosha is the second of five niyamas described in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras. It means “contentment” and is said to be the road to happiness.

How interesting that the path to reach something is so similar to that thing itself. It’s like saying, “Practice makes perfect” or, as my teacher Sharon Gannon always says, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” What she means is that until we are able to perfect a quality we seek, we should endeavor to embody that quality to the best of our ability in that particular moment, where we are at present. If we keep doing this with intention and over an extended period, eventually we will attain our goal. The nature of practice is that its effects are cumulative, each effort building on the previous one, and it becomes easier over time, with repetition and perseverance. We are not the same from minute to minute. We learn and grow and expand.

Contentment is not just a feeling; it is a practice. It may be easy to feel content when you are lying on a beach with a blue sky overhead and a warm ocean breeze caressing your skin. But what about when you’re stuck in traffic, late for a meeting, and you get a flat tire? It is during situations like this—which a yogi sees not as a problem but rather as an opportunity—that we must strive to overcome habitual reactions such as anger, annoyance, and frustration and instead practice acceptance, which is at the core of contentment.

There are simply some times (many) when things are out of our control and nothing we do is going to change the situation. Using the example above, there is nothing we can do to make that tire not be flat in that moment. We can’t go back in time to avoid running over the nail that may have popped it, and we can’t snap our fingers to fix it. We must go through the necessary motions: put the spare on if we have one and know how, call AAA or the insurance company if not, wait for someone to come change it, call the boss to say we’re going to miss the meeting. Shouting, crying, kicking the tire…none of these things are going to help. In fact, they are only going to exacerbate the situation by worsening our mood (and maybe break a toe). What if, instead, we choose to accept the facts as they are and get on with what needs to be done in a calm and collected fashion? We take a deep breath and realize it’s not the end of the world. It simply is what it is—a flat tire, in this case.

It’s not always easy to catch ourselves before we fall into negative thinking. We often get caught up in the related emotions unconsciously. Recognizing when we are feeling discontent is the first step to reversing it. Taking control of our own reaction is the next. We don’t have to give in to the storm of our emotions. We can choose to step back from them, and even to replace them with a different, more neutral attitude, such as acceptance. Eventually, we may even learn how to cultivate contentment. When this is no longer an effort, when contentment arises naturally, it becomes one’s permanent state of being, and this we call happiness.

by Laura Golden