What is Santosha


“There is no end of craving. Hence contentment alone is the best way to happiness. Therefore, acquire contentment”.

Swami Sivananda

The term Santosha means satisfaction and contentment. Santosha appears in Ashtanga Yoga (the eight limbed Yoga) as an element of the second limb – Niyama (the rules of conduct between man and himself). It is the second Niyama, and it describes a very important yogic feature. Often, we feel content when we succeed, profit from some venture, or when something joyful and pleasant happens to us. But such joy is not Santosha because it relies on external circumstances that are prone to change. Santosha is an internal kind of satisfaction that is not contingent upon any external circumstances. Therefore, some interpret the term Santosha to be “renunciation of the need to acquire” and not “contentment”.

Santosha is accepting ourselves and reality as it is (and not as we think it should be …). When we accept ourselves and cease to judge, when we are satisfied with what we have and do not want to change anything – that is when we experience Santosha. When we see the glass as half full rather than half empty, when we are grateful and thankful for all we have, instead of thinking about what else we need, we are in Santosha. It is a central yogic feature, because without Santosha we will never experience peace; we will always stay restless and search for something else. The road to Chittah Vritti Nirodah (quieting the vibrations of the mind) passes inevitably through Santosha.

Proper practice of asanas brings about Santosha. Iyengar writes in The Tree of Yoga: “When we are performing asanas we make the blood fall on every one of our cells like water onto a turbine, to release the hidden energy of our body and bring new light to the cells. When the light comes, we experience Santosha, contentment, which is the second principle of Niyama.” (The Tree of Yoga, The Trunk, P. 50) Once we come out of the pose we are satisfied and content. There is a sense of ease and relaxation and we are happy to just be, unconditionally. We do not need to justify our existence in perpetual doing – an experience of Santosha; When we repeat this experience every day, it becomes a second nature, and we build a habit.

One question that often arises in this context is: if  we are satisfied, what is it that motivates us to practice and perform? What makes us want to improve? This is a noteworthy question. We all know about the village idiot – he seems happy, but there is a kind of dumb idleness to his joy, not genuine peace and satisfaction. The question is then, what drives a satisfied, moderate person to want to change himself for the betterment of himself and his surroundings?

Here comes the important distinction between the terms of motivation and ambition – these two words indicate a motive for action, but we sense that there is a difference between them. What is this difference?

Iyengar writes in his book “Light on Ashtanga Yoga that: “It is impossible to do any action without aim, but it is possible to do it without ambition. Aim and ambition are not the same. Aim must be for the universal good, for universal use and utility, but ambition always has a selfish motive and purpose. The desires (vasanas) are eternal in us. Ambitions are the sprouts of vasanas”. (P. 15)

Therefore, Santosha, despite its importance, is not the end of the yogic path – another motive is required, an additional motivation for yogic action. This motive cannot be based on ego and the desire to quench passions. Santosha describes the emotional state of the yogi – he is not subject to doubt, nor is he consumed by remorse and guilt – but in his intellect he understands that perfection is far. That does not violate his peace of mind, but rather provides him with the ambition to practice and progress in order to change things within himself. The yogi is satisfied with what he has achieved, but knows that the road is still long and that in order to completely free himself from suffering and help others break free from their suffering, he needs to reach a higher level.

In The Tree of Yoga Iyengar writes: “Patanjali divides the five aspects of Niyama into two groups. On the one hand, Saucha and Santosha: physical health and happiness of mind. On the other, Tapas, Svadhyaya and Isvara-pranidhana, burning desire for spiritual development, self-study and surrender to God. The first part of Niyama, consisting of Saucha and Santosha, allows one to enjoy the pleasures of the world and be free from disease. The second part, consisting of Tapas, Svadhyaya and Isvara-pranidhana is known as auspicious yoga and enables one to reach the highest state, to be free, to be completely disassociated from the vehicles of the body and become one with the soul. Patanjali calls these two stages “Bhoga” and “Apavarga” respectively. Bhoga means to have pleasures without disease; Apavarga means freedom and beatitude” (The Tree of Yoga ‘East and West’ P. 13)

Bhoga is practicing for worldly pleasure. Practice gives energy, making us healthier and stronger, more peaceful and focused. These are all positive things, yet the question is: where do we channel this energy? There is nothing wrong with enjoying life, on the contrary, the ability to rejoice in what life offers us is very important (that is what we actually call Santosha) – but this is still not the end of the road, because life cannot always be pleasant. You cannot go through this life without experiencing a profit, but also a loss; success, but also failure; praise but also a disgrace; pleasure, but also sorrow. The yogic ideal of liberation takes us beyond these pairs of opposites. This requires a deep and thorough perception of life, so Santosha cannot not be the end of the yogic path.

But on that topic, perhaps next time…


Pramana, Viparyaya and Vikalpa in Asana Practice

In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali discusses the five kinds of vrittis, or fluctuations of consciousness. Vrittis are different types of thoughts or mental activities. What are these five vrittis?

“(The mental activities) are caused by valid knowledge (pramana), illusion (viparyaya), delusion (vikalpa), sleep (nidra) and memory (smriti)” (Sutra 1.6 – from B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)

Incorrect knowledge is when we think we know something, but are actually wrong. Conceptualization, delusion or fantasy (vikalpa) is a condition in which our mind creates a perception that is not based on actual fact. A large portion of our thoughts are fantasies and images that are not based in reality. Our mind has the ability to create entire imaginary worlds.

In our daily life we are constantly immersed in these vrittis; Patanjali writes that “Yoga is the cessation of the movements of consciousness” and that once the activity stops, the “one who sees” or the conscious principle of our being “dwells in its own true splendor” (Sutras 1.2 to 1.3). One can engage in long discussions and come up with various hypotheses about the concept of “cessation of the mental activity” as well as exactly what Patanjali meant by it. In any case, Patanjali does not rule out all mental activity and indicates (in sutra 1.5) “that the mental activity…can be painful or non – painful.”

In our daily life we want our actions to be based on valid knowledge (pramana) and not invalid knowing (viparyaya) or empty images (vikalpa). While practicing asanas we can, through physical experience, awareness, observation and correction establish correct knowledge.

For example, when we stretch in Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana, we want to extend the entire spine, in such a way that the back part will be equally extended as the front. But often, due to lack of sufficient shoulder joint flexibility or lack of awareness, we extend the front edge of the spine at the expense of the back, so that the back is actually shortened. This is an example of incorrect knowledge. We think we are extending, while in fact we are shortening. ..In reality, we extend our front spine, and shorten the back spine. One of the reasons for this is that our body awareness is lacking – we are aware to a greater extent about the front of our body, simply because we see it – what happens in the back, is largely non-existent for us.

u. baddangulia with wall urdhva baddngulia

In order to bring awareness to the back, we can practice the pose with our back to a wall (or a corner of a wall). Then, we can use our sense of touch to understand the positioning of our back. By bringing awareness to our back, we can correct our incorrect knowledge, and learn how to equally stretch our front and back spine, and move from viparyaya to pramana.

Such practice that cultivates awareness can develop valid knowledge about an important part of reality – our body. By correctly perceiving our body’s positioning in space and the various activities we do with it, we are opening the correct perception of what is right and wrong in other parts of our experience. Therefore, correct practice that is done with reflective observation can repair and provide us, through physical experience, a sense of distinction between right and wrong. Such a capability is the basis for establishing pramana – valid perception of reality.

What make up Pramana?

Patanjali says: “valid knowledge is direct (pratyaksha), inferred (anumana) or proven as factual (agama).” When we start to practice, we have no direct perception based on sensory data and we have to rely on external evidence, that is, to listen to what the teacher tells us, or read books on yoga and learn from them (agama). Later, when we begin to recognize the issue, we can draw conclusions or to rationally infer about it (anumana). Only when we become skilled and mature can we reach direct intuitive perception of the reality we experience (pratyaksha).

Iyengar tells of his path of yoga (volume III of the Astadala Yoga Mala, p 67) and says: “By reversing the sutras 1.7 of Patanjali, I learnt the importance of the sadhana. I took each asana, whether it is Utthita Trikonasana, Tadasana or Vrschikasana as a spiritual scripture (agama). For me, each asana became a literary book. Knowing that each asana is an archetypical icon of the body, I worked to get that fineness in each one.  For this I used the middle guideline of Patanjali, to apply my own logical imagination (anumana). Then, I practiced using the pros and cons in different ways. Suddenly, I experiences naturalness, concord, grip and rhythm with various parts of the body, and lightness in mind. This feel of concord in body and lightness in mind led me to valid knowledge (pramana). This valid knowledge led me to intuitive perception (pratyaksha-pramana).”