According to the 8 Limb Path outlined in the Yoga Sutras, practicing gratitude is a key ingredient to health and happiness. The Sanskrit word for this attitude of contentment is: santosha.
Santosha is a lens. It’s a way of looking at your experiences through the filter of gratitude. When we embody santosha, we’re choosing to end the war with reality.
Much of our experiences are beyond our control. Rather than expend energy resisting and expressing frustration, the mark of a yoga practice is the ability to embrace your experience as it is.
Yoga is not, however, about spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual bypassing is when you use spiritual practices or ideology to ignore or deny pain or hardship. Rather than address valid struggles, a spiritual bypasser insists on oversimplified solutions or refuses to acknowledge the challenge altogether.
In communities focused on personal development, I’ve noticed a tendency to glaze over the real, challenging and sometimes dark aspects of life. This often comes in the form of trite phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or my (least) favorite catchy saying “good vibes only.”
News flash, if you’re a human being, you will experience the shadow side of life. The more you run from it, the more devastating it will be when it takes you out.
When we talk about santosha, we are not talking about ignoring the hard stuff.
One of the promises of a consistent yoga practice is the ability to hold two opposing ideas together, comfortably.
In time, it’s possible for the yogi to simultaneously acknowledge heartache and abundance. You can admit your feelings of disappointment, overwhelm, or fear and also choose to focus your attention on where you have power to influence your experience.
When you focus on the good, the beautiful and the gifts that challenges bring, those things magnify.
On the other hand, when you focus on things that are beyond your control, you expend an exorbitant amount of energy working tirelessly against yourself.
Operating from santosha means you recognize that your experiences are neither good nor bad, but rather opportunities. More often than not, the dark times in life are the greatest opportunities for growth, new perspective, and healing.
The beauty of santosha, this choice to soften into life exactly as it unfolds, is that you can experience a freedom and a peace that passes all understanding.
It wasn’t until I understood that I had the choice to change the way I frame the events of my life that I realized how much power I have to create joy in all circumstances! This is the mindset that allows me to move through days filled with obstacles in a way where I feel the abundance of life.
I wholeheartedly agree with the quote from Oprah Winfrey that says gratitude turns what we have into enough.
I recognize that I’m speaking from a place of privilege. There are tragedies and darkness and I’ve never experienced. This isn’t intended to undermine the reality of life and how dismal it can be. What it is is an experience of shifting the way I move through the world from things happening to me to things happening for me. I invite you to do the same!
Let me be clear: I don’t believe that it is necessary to be grateful for difficulty directly. I do however believe that there is always a gift to unveil, however deeply buried, from even the most difficult circumstances.
Pain, sorrow, anger, the full range of human experiences need to be given space and to be validated. If you’re currently walking through the mud, I hear you and I see you. You’re allowed to be where you are and feel what you feel.
At the same time, if you’re reading this you woke up this morning and you breathed in air. That alone is a gift! If there’s no other reason to feel grateful today, you have your breath you have life. How will you choose to use it?
I see it all the time: a yoga class full of people of various ages with different bodies, levels of experience and goals all doing the same movements at the same pace.
“What’s wrong with that?” You may be wondering.
A lot, actually.
You may be confused and thinking to yourself, “isn’t that the goal in a yoga class? To move and breath together?”
Many Yogis believe that a “good” student does what the teacher says to do. A “good” yogi inhales when they’re told to inhale and exhales when they’re told to exhale. They definitely don’t do their own thing in class because that would be rude, right?
First of all, there’s no such thing as a “bad Yogi”! There are beginner Yogis and more experienced Yogis, but neither one is better or worse than the other.
One big different between a beginner and a more experienced practitioner is this:
Seasoned Yogis give themselves permission to customize their practice.
It makes perfect sense that new students feel unsure and have the desire to do the poses “right.” Wisely, they want to avoid injury and maximize the benefits of the postures.
What they don’t yet understand, however, is that what makes a pose “right” for you is more than likely very different from what makes it “right” for me. The only way for you to discover what is right for you is to listen to your body above all else.
“Listening to your body” may sound hippy-dippy, but it’s actually very practical. It means that you pay attention to sensations in your body. Simple as that!
You’re the only one who has lived inside your body. Therefore, you’re the only one who could possibly know what’s best for you. No matter how well intentioned or experienced an instructor may be, they cannot know what’s best for you.
Instead of allowing any insight from a teacher to be law in your mind, use it to support your own inquiry. If something a teacher suggests feels good, go with it!
On the other hand, if a cue from the teacher doesn’t inherently feel right in your body, you absolutely have the right to choose something else!
Secondly, you have a unique breath pace and ratio between your inhales and your exhales. There’s no way that a group of 30 very different humans could all be breathing in sync if they are choosing the ideal pace for their body on any given day.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve taken yoga classes where the whole room syncs up with the instructor’s cues and the rhythm of the music, and it definitely feels amazing to groove together. The synchronicity elicits a level of connection that fills the room with palpable positive energy, and I’m a fan of that for sure!
What I’m not a fan of is a student feeling the need to compromise their breath connection in order to stay with the group.
Not only does this pressure to conform limit their ability to tap into the power of their full breath capacity, it often leads new yogis to criticize themselves.
“Why can’t I keep up?” the new yogi wonders. “I must be doing something wrong.”
If you’ve ever doubted yourself in this way, let me remind you: there’s nothing wrong with moving to the beat of your own drum in a group asana class. The teacher sets a pace, typically at a “middle of the road” rhythm, and you can move more quickly or more slowly based on the timing of your inhales and exhales.
Finally, we all come to the mat with different goals. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, you should choose the postures, breathing technique, and pace that will move you closer to your goal.
If our goals are different, our practice should also be different.
Are you looking to build more strength? Give yourself plenty of time to hold poses for multiple rounds of breath to challenge your muscles.
Are you hoping to relax your mind and create a more peaceful inner world? Focus on a breath ration where your exhales exceed your inhales by one or two seconds.
In order to know how to approach your practice to align with your goal, you first must get very clear on what that goal is! Then, explore which postures, styles of breath, and conditions create that desired effect.
The mistake that I see most new yoga students make is following directions from their teacher too closely.
The job of a yoga teacher is not to “fix” what you are doing “wrong.” The guidance of a well-trained instructor can provide insight and support as you discover what works best for you, however, it’s up to you to decide when to go your own way in honor of your goal for practice.
The beauty of this practice is that we have a variety of tools, all with different intended results. The more we practice, the better adept we are at picking up the tool that will meet our needs in the best way possible!
It takes courage to go against the grain, to trust your intuition and resist going along with the crowd. I assure you: if you are willing to be brave, you will experience a connection to yourself that you couldn’t otherwise attain.
Give it a try, Yogi, and then let me know how it goes!