“Are you happy in your heart?” Cultivating Samtosha or Contentment through Yoga

Recently, during a practise on the dock comprised of some simple asanas or postures, the late day sun sparkled on the quiet lake. And suddenly, a sensation of immense gratitude flowed forth. These feelings were for the universe for having provided me with all that it had over the past few months, and in particular to B.K.S. Iyengar. Just prior to embarking on my yoga studies in Pune, India this past June, I had experienced a very disturbing process with some members of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada and left feeling unsettled. It wasn’t the yoga process or the Iyengar methodology that was unsettling but rather the lack of yogic behaviors that was experienced first-hand and what I perceived as an apparent disconnection to the legacy that B.K.S. Iyengar was creating for his practitioners and teachers. My decision to try to share some of this with him during my time in India was made although I wasn’t sure how he would respond. Thankfully, he answered with kindness, compassion, support and guidance, and was my teacher in every sense of the word.

It was several weeks before I began to absorb the meaning of my interactions with B.K.S. Iyengar and to really appreciate the gift bestowed upon me by him. In these late day moments during my practise on the dock, when these strong feelings of gratitude spontaneously arose from my unconscious, I was touched deeply by the experience because the feelings that surfaced were honest, raw, uncensored, and welcomed. As I sat in gratitude, tears flowed for the understanding that Grace had placed me at the Ramamami Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute at this time. The understanding had evolved that B.K.S. Iyengar, or “Guruji as he is affectionately called by his students, was now truly my Guruji, providing me with exactly what was needed – guidance and hope.

Samtosha or contentment is one of the five niyamas or personal practices that we are encouraged to use. The niyamas are one of the eight limbs of yoga. Ultimately, contentment is one’s responsibility and part of this task is to maintain a focus on the gifts that life brings us. Patanjalli’s yoga sutra “Samtosad anuttanamah sukhalabhah” tells us to cultivate contentment by bringing satisfaction to whatever unfolds and by accepting that there truly is a Divine flow of life even if it doesn’t always go according to our plans. This sutra (chapter II, verse 41) states that from the continued practise of contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness. This verse guides us and gives hope and joy and suggests that through following the path of contentment, happiness is indeed attainable. My experience with Guruji and my recent spontaneous response illuminates and reflects for me this sutra, and my interactions with him seem to have been connected to other things in a unified and profound manner.

During the day at different times I attempt to focus on my blessings even amidst the not so positive moments, and then to touch down and sit with gratitude even when I am not sitting down. Through our immersion in yoga studies, we learn how to remain present moment-to-moment, and to accept that which is unfolding, breath-by-breath. When we inhale, we receive the breath with an acceptance for this Divine gift of life and for what each moment offers. With each exhalation, we surrender and there is also an acceptance for whatever is occurring, including embracing equally both imperfections and perfections. When we remain cognizant of practicing samtosha or contentment, we develop the ability to remain present – and happy – with the circumstances of this moment. We become more willing to live in this present moment with acceptance of whatever it brings and to more easily let go of the desire or need to change anything or anyone or the wish for it to be different than what it is. Then we are able to focus on gratitude.

One of the outcomes of practicing samtosha or contentment is that the moments during which feelings of longing for something other than what is or those moments when coveting for one’s self what others seem to have occur less frequently. Naturally, from time to time such feelings do arise but through my ongoing practise of svadyaya or self-study (another niyama or personal practise), I am generally more able to identify when I am experiencing jealousy, greed or dissatisfaction or when I have succumbed to the temptation to look outside of my self or the moment in order to feel content or happy. With this self-awareness and understanding comes the opportunity to consciously choose how I will respond. I return to Patanjali’s sutras, and this one in particular, and recall his suggestion to simply be content with the “whatever”, thus living in joy regardless of what will next occur.

Yoga’s recent surge in popularity during the past decade is well timed for more and more people report feeling disillusioned, disconnected and discontented while also searching for balance and satisfaction in their lives. Although the more common physical benefits of yoga are experienced almost immediately, over time there are other subtle or not so subtle positive changes that occur. For example, in addition to observing when the previously mentioned base emotions of jealousy, greed and dissatisfaction arise, the tendency to react with greater acceptance for the way things are has developed. This change has been fueled by the belief that we are provided with exactly what we are meant to receive at any given moment and by maintaining a simple trust in the universe. These changes are also because of my committed practise of samtosha or contentment.

I believe that one of the most beneficial outcomes of sustaining a long-term yoga practise is the natural evolution of this practise of contentment, and the concurrent feelings of happiness and gratitude that are experienced. Simple phrases such as: “whatever”; “it is what it is”, and “it’s all good” have become more common in the popular lexicon and are spoken more frequently albeit at times in a seemingly flippant manner. But with the continual and ever evolving practise of cultivating samtosha or contentment, I have observed that these phrases have definitely become more entrenched in my speech and are spoken in a truly heartfelt manner. More importantly, through the practise of this niyama and the guidance of this sutra, I regularly experience samtosha and gratitude, and thankfully, happiness resides in my heart.


 “Samtosad anuttanamah sukhalabhah” (chapter II, verse 41)

“From contentment unsurpassed happiness is obtained.”


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The Art of Finding Balance and Unity in Everyday Life

The first instruction children hear when learning to cross the street is “Stop, look both ways and wait until the road is clear.” However, if children in India listened to this advice they would grow old waiting to cross! There is an order to the endless flow of traffic (cars, scooters, rickshaws, bikes, cows, buffaloes, goats and people) that ensures safety. Once one has started to cross, one must keep going and crossing on the diagonal seems to work best! Indeed, there is a balance underlying the chaos.

My time in India continues to be filled with several hours of yoga each day – in class, one learns and thinks while during practise, one studies and feels. The yoga process is about evolving consciousness and here in India, learning to mitigate the contrast between my inner world and the outer world is a part of the learning experience. The quietude of the mind, the stilling of consciousness and the intense inward focus one strives to maintain during practise enables one to penetrate deeply inward and block external distractions in spite of the ongoing honking, birds or voices that came be heard through the open windows of the pavilion. Thankfully, yoga has taught me how to access my center so that I am better able to merge my inner world with the outer one without losing my balance or stability regardless of the intensity of the situation at hand. My center is like the fulcrum of the teeter-totter.

Studying here at the source of yoga, and with the source of Iyengar yoga is a double blessing. While assisting in daily Medical classes, Mr. Iyengar has had his eye on the woman that I have been working with this month. He has been designing sequences for her and I have been actively involved in implementing these sequences including his prop setups and verbal instructions. During Medical class, poses are fully supported with multiple props and many of the therapeutic postures are restorative ones. Although there is a bustle in the Hall filled with dozens of patients and teachers, there is also a sacred quiet focus. Stepping out onto the street afterwards, one experiences an immediate sensory overload of the never-ending cacophony and constant motion. The 6 p.m. rush hour after Medical class is such a contrast to the inner sanctum of the Institute. And again, yoga’s lessons on how to remain calm and contained even in these contrasting moments of extreme intensity are applied and appreciated! Yoga, or Yug, means unity. Without the valuable lessons of yoga which include being able to experience unity of mind and body, walking down the main street at this hour would likely result in a very jarring effect on the nervous system. This balance is the baseline upon which I walk.

When the desperately needed monsoons arrived ten days ago, a driving relentless rain persisted for four days straight! My daughter and I were walking through a local market called Lakshmi Road when the rains came and we were caught in it, unprepared. Finding a store to purchase a rain slicker for her we stood four layers deep with people doing the same thing. Unable to find a rickshaw to take us home later that evening and laughingly trekking through what seemed like small lakes instead of streets, we were caught up in the energy of the monsoons. Lying awake that first night listening to the rains, walking around with wet clothes and wet feet (and with a broken umbrella to which I have since become very attached), and hearing words of gratitude spoken by many local people for the arrival of the monsoons fully awakened me to how very precious water is for the billion people of India. It also served as a strong reminder to appreciate our blessing of the abundance of fresh water available in Canada. With the arrival of the monsoons, I again noted extremes, and the balance to the inhospitable dry hot climate that had prevailed for so long.

Over the past several years, I have casually studied the science of Ayurveda medicine. My friend Sonali, a very accomplished Ayurvedic doctor in Pune, gives me treatments when I am visiting. Ayurveda has been practiced in India for at least 5, 000 years and is a form of alternative medicine – it is the oldest surviving whole body system of healing and health. Ayurveda seeks to prevent and treat illness by maintaining balance in the body, mind and consciousness using a comprehensive holisitic approach that emphasizes diet, lifestyle, yoga, meditation, massage and herbal remedies. Because of the importance of balance and promoting positive health, the universal principals and practices of Ayurveda holds great appeal for me. It is also the other side of the yoga coin.

A few years ago I had a very interesting conversation with a family member who did not agree that balance was attainable. However, it is my belief that by embracing the Eight-fold Path of yoga and by implementing Ayurvedic practices, the possibility of successfully creating a state of balance on a day-to-day basis is within reach. During the past few years, I have had to navigate difficult challenges including various hospitalizations of three different family members, and a very disturbing experience with a professional association. But by practicing yoga and utilizing Ayurvedic principles, I was better equipped to access inner strength and maintain my stability while managing these life hurdles. Studying yoga in India, while it nurtures my passion, solidifies my commitment, and deepens my understanding, it also enables me to restore and rejuvenate my mind body and spirit. In my ongoing quest for integration and balance, I continue to learn how to trust in the universe and experience the interwoven fabric of reality.

Temporarily pausing normal routines and responsibilities requires support and resources and spending time studying in a foreign country is a veritable treat to be savored. Learning the valuable lessons of how to merge our inner world with the outer one, identifying personal imbalances and symptoms in order to take care of one’s needs and promote positive health, and recognizing the underlying balance to everything, need not only occur when visiting a foreign land. Attempting to maintain one’s awareness of the yug, or unity of all things is an ongoing process regardless of where one is. But travel is an exercise in mindfulness training and provides a way of shifting perspectives with open eyes and an open heart. With new eyes that are wide open we are able to find or rekindle a balanced way of moving through our days and of observing the unity that exists everywhere.

When I return home I will no longer be wearing my travel lens but I will continue my efforts to maintain the perspectives that India has helped me to have. Undoubtedly many things will arise that will require balancing, including my own state of being. Starting the day with a very mindful sip of coffee and returning over and over again throughout the day to this kind of quiet and appreciative focus and presence – be it on my mat, in my creative pursuits, or in my interactions with others – will continue to be very important. Engaging in the simple practise of being mindful during my daily activities and practices combined with maintaining my intention to evolve consciousness and health will help me to create and experience unity and balance in everyday life – yoga, both on and off the mat.


“Pilgrim, pilgrimage, and road – it was but myself toward my Self,

and your arrival was but myself at my own door.”

-Rumi


Meaningful Moments in Muskoka

In their late eighties, my parents have also continually reinforced for me the understanding that yoga truly exists off the mat as much as on it, for countless actions of compassion and kindness are frequently executed by both of my parents. Many deeds of pure generosity illuminate the essence of my father’s spirit: his innate goodness. My mother’s devotion to him and to her family, combined with the ease of acceptance of health issues, reflects an individual who is accepting and patient, flowing with grace, and at peace within herself and her life. Unbeknownst to them, they are constantly practising Karma Yoga.

At the start of my vacation at our cottage, my son went to rest, and my father suggested a ride on the pontoon boat. Going along with my parents on this hot July day, we travelled very slowly along the water’s edge through three adjoining lakes. Cherishing the beauty of the moment – both the exquisite natural world surrounding us and the time spent together that late afternoon – I felt blessed. The lake was very quiet and calm, and we were too. Three hours later, we returned home. I was filled up with the sacred.

A few weeks ago my brother downloaded a Solitaire App on my iPad for my mother and it quickly became an ongoing source of pleasure for her. We have enjoyed watching her embrace today’s most current popular technology. Teasing her about her new addiction, or sipping our glasses of Amaretto, or spending a few silent moments sitting with my father as he pensively gazes at the lake, I am given invaluable opportunities to practise remaining present which arises authentically from my deepest essence. In so doing, I feel my vibrant connection to my parents. To sit comfortably in silence, to listen with an open heart, to hear their stories and share their memories, and even their dreams — these are golden times.

Yesterday morning my father shared with my mother, my husband and myself the dream that he recalled upon awakening. He spoke of his deceased sister, and the address “1188 Bloor Street” where she had run her poultry store with her husband. He stressed the address and was curious about the strong impression it had made on him. Intuiting it’s possible meaning I suggested, “1188: you were eleven when you moved to Royce (and Dupont), and you are eighty-eight as you move your office out from there.” His roots of seventy-seven years are currently being transplanted for the move that began a few weeks ago and is still underway. Possibly feeling uprooted, the address in his dream may have symbolized for him the importance of home, family, and neighborhood and of the significance of roots during the passage of a man’s life.

A mysterious and exquisite experience occurred during a recent Scrabble game with my mother. On my second turn, I discovered a six-letter word hidden in the tiles that was so personal and meaningful to my mother at this time. “I have a word,” I stated sheepishly and placed the tiles down. She then built on the word. We looked at each other and shook our heads in amazement. Perhaps the letters that I picked simply illuminated the closeness and connection that my mother and I share. Reminded again that all things are interrelated in beautiful ways, it is during these moments of compassion that I feel most seamlessly connected to the infinite energy of the universe.

And when this beautiful summer of 2011 stirs in my consciousness in years to come, my recollections will include remaining balanced while perched on the centre of the plateau watching my teenagers emerge into adulthood as my parents move through their senior years. Standing in Tadasana at fifty, I align myself and stand rooted in the unshakeable steadiness, grandeur, and peace of the mountain. I try to remember to breathe slowly, to love fully, and to remain receptive to the radiance of each moment. With this intention, I embrace yoga’s tenets and experience the contentment and steadiness that it teaches me. As I unfold my yoga mat to practise in the same spot at the edge of the dock that I have practised in for three decades, I embody the light, and the learning continues.

“Yoga is a light which, once lit, will never dim. The better your practise, the brighter the flame is.”

– BKS Iyengar