Is Santosha (Contentment) Really Possible?

September 14, 2015    BY B Grace Bullock, PhD

Do you ever feel as though you’re undermining your happiness? Or that acceptance and contentment are as elusive as holding on to sand? If so, you’re not alone. While santosha, the niyama of contentment on Patanjali’s eightfold path, may sound blissful, it isn’t easy—particularly if you’re continuously running negative stories through your mind. But your yoga practice can help break the cycle. Here’s how.

Santosha can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, particularly if your personal story is filled with negative thoughts.

The Sanskrit word santosha is divided into two parts: sam, meaning completely or entirely, and tosha, meaning acceptance, satisfaction, and contentment. Together they create a word that means complete acceptance or contentment. Santosha can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, particularly if your personal story is filled with negative thoughts like “I’m not good enough," “I’m too this, or not enough that…”

It’s hard to see the goodness in yourself and others, let alone feel even fleeting moments of contentment, when you’re expending a lot of mental energy knocking yourself down. Perhaps it’s time to change your story.

Get to Know Your Story

Humans are natural storytellers. Next time you’re sitting in traffic, riding a subway or bus, or waiting in line, take a moment to check out the thoughts that are running through your mind. Chances are you’ll be knee deep in a story. It may be a newspaper article you read over morning coffee and are now recounting, plans you're making for the weekend, or a disagreement with a friend that you're rehashing in your mind. Either way, it’s a story. And chances are, it has a theme. 

Themes like “I am smart,” “I am pretty,” “I am unlovable,” and “I fail at relationships” are often the central plots to our story lines. What’s more, we often make choices that reinforce these beliefs, selecting relationships, careers, and situations that confirm our expectations and strengthen our stories.

You may not realize it, but these stories are the lenses through which we interpret the world. If your lens is green, everything looks green. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Likewise, if your story is negative, positivity is hard to come by. No wonder santosha can seem like a pipe dream.

Is your default “This is hard, I can’t do this,” or is it “This is difficult, let’s see how I do with it today?”

Yoga practices like asana (postures) and dhyana (meditation) are excellent places to examine your stories and observe how they affect your mood and attitude. Next time you’re on your meditation cushion or yoga mat (especially in the midst of a difficult pose!), take a moment to listen to your story. Is your default “This is hard, I can’t do this,” or is it “This is difficult, let’s see how I do with it today?” The way that you approach your practice is often a reflection of how you approach your life.

Once you begin to identify and familiarize yourself with your stories, you can start to see them for what they are—stories and nothing more. As you practice listening to your stories, you’ll become familiar with them. You may even discover that they’re not true for you at all. 

With time and practice, you will distinguish between the stories you tell and the reality in front of you. Then you can begin to create distance between your story and who you truly are.

As you begin to discern the difference between your story and what is actually going on in front of you, you will make the space to live in the moment, to accept what comes, and to create a brand new story about yourself—one that reflects your highest self, rather than a habitual or outdated yarn.

Once you shed your distorted lenses and self-doubting beliefs, there’s a good chance you’ll discover that you’re pretty awesome. And that the light burning within you is a far more accurate reflection of who you are than the stories you’ve been telling yourself. That is when santosha becomes possible.

B Grace Bullock, PhD
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, organizational innovator, inspirational speaker, science journalist, and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success - Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain (Handspring Publishing, 2016). She is dedicated to empowering individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication, and to... Read more>>