The Yama and Niyama form a key part of one of yoga’s foundational texts: The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali. Loosely, the five yama are guidances for interactions with things external to the self, and the five niyama are personal observances to help us live well.
The second niyama is about contentment. Iyengar writes that “a mind that is not content cannot concentrate” (1) and anyone who practises yoga or art knows that the ability to concentrate is imperative for both. It makes sense: a lack of contentment means the mind is likely to wander.
There’s a sense that there are things missing, and so it’s hard to stop trying to fill in the holes. If we are content, we’re able to be present. In the moment. Only here. And if we’re able to be present, we’re able to devote the whole of our concentrative power to one thing (which means we’ll probably do a better job of that one thing). Being discontented means that our attention is divided. But yoga teaches that contentment can be learned; it’s not dependent on what we have, but on the attitude that we take to what we have.
Samtosa and Creativity
Working with samtosa as we create things allows us to enjoy the process, rather than always looking ahead to the final product. Rather than rushing to finish something - to have the ‘thing’, and the satisfaction that comes with having finished it - we can be content with every step along the way. With samtosa we learn to appreciate each moment.
Coming back to contentment as we do our making-of-art allows us to remember why we’re doing it; why we love it, and how lucky we are to be able to do what we love. To have fun, too. To play a bit and experiment with ideas that may or may not turn into anything other than a part of the process, but that are interesting to experiment with. And it’s about being able to see the bigger picture, and know that not everything needs to be better or to be fixed;
For after all, the best thing one can do
when it is raining, is to let it rain. (2)
Accept what comes. Accept what is. Patanjali teaches, in the Yoga Sutras, that the biggest obstacle to contentment is judgement. Human beings have a tendency to judge every situation, whether negatively or positively, and in judging situations we also have to compare them. To judge something as wonderfully beautifully good we have to compare it with something that we judge to be bad, and then it’s hard to be content with either.
Instead, contentment suggests a steadiness of mind. Appreciation of the good without the need to cling onto it; acceptance of harder times with the knowledge that we will be able to manage, and that it will pass, and different times will come.
Samtosa in Practice
In a physical yoga practice, contentment means accepting the abilities and limitations of the body as it is on any given day and one of the simplest benefits of this is that we’re less likely to injure ourselves. If you accept that you’re not quite ready to move your body into that very deep backbend, you won’t do it, and you’ll protect your back from the dangers of pushing too far too soon. It also means that you can be content with your practice on days when it’s harder, and when your body is stiffer or less strong than usual - because you’re not working to a goal, but working on being comfortable with wherever you are on any given day.
This concept applies to the skills that an artist might have as well. Someone who makes art with wood can know that there are new woodworking skills they have to learn, but they can still be content with the place that they’re at and the things that they’re able to make at the present time. Someone who plays the guitar knows that they’ll always need to practise, but they can still be content with what their playing sounds like today.
Being content with the present doesn’t mean that you’ll become lazy, but amidst all of the learning and striving and dedication, it means that you can enjoy where you are - and being able to do that makes it all more worthwhile.
1. Iyengar, B.K.S. 1991 (revised edition). Light On Yoga. pp. 37. Schocken Books Inc.
2. HENRY WADWORTH LONGFELLOW from poem The Poet's Tale; Birds of Killingworth
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
zzy Arcoleo is a yoga and meditation teacher and a writer, currently based in London. She specializes in the relationship between yoga and creativity, using her background in social anthropology to explore how movement and meditation practices can support creative practices, by developing confidence as well as practical methods for working through obstacles.