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Like the Pirate’s Code in The Pirates of the Caribbean, yamas and niyamas are more like guidelines than rules. They provide guides for living which deal with our experiences with others (yamas) and within ourselves (niyamas). They can be seen as the behaviours or thoughts that we should attempt to dissolve from our lives in order to move forward (yamas), and the behaviours we should strive towards (niyamas) in a yogic life. Santosha is one of the five niyamas and means ‘contentment’. It is important to not conflate santosha with happiness. While happiness and (and sadness) may be connected with events, objects or things, santosha is about being content with where you are in the present moment.
In understanding santosha I have found my understanding of Sara Ahmed’s writing on happiness particularly useful. In her book “The Promise of Happiness” feminist cultural studies theorist Sara Ahmed critiques the emphasis in western culture on the attainment or pursuit of happiness, noting the way in which achievement of happiness is attached to objects, such as marriage (Ahmed, 6). Ahmed considers the ways in which people who choose to live lifestyles not viewed as ‘normal’ or which differ from the expectations of those around them may be viewed as causing unhappiness for others. In considering the experiences of those people who choose to live in ways that defy their communities’ and families’ expectations, Ahmed notes peoples’ need for ‘aspirations’ as a reason for connecting happiness with objects. And yet in arguing this, Ahmed comments ‘We could remember that the Latin root of the word aspiration means “to breathe.” … Having space to breathe, or being able to breathe freely, as Mari Ruti describes (2006: 19), is an aspiration. With breath comes imagination. With breath comes possibility’ (Ahmed, 120). In this way the importance of the present moment can be seen within Ahmed’s work.
Ahmed connects breathing and aspiration, placing a focus on the present rather than always striving for the future. And yet to breathe is to move forward; it does not indicate an absence of planning, but a reluctance to place all hope, or excitement, or enjoyment in the expectation of that future. My understanding of santosha emphasises a need to enjoy and be content with this present. As such, one technique that may guide us towards santosha may be to come back to the breath, noticing it, finding time to breathe.
Ahmed, Sara (2010) The Promise of Happiness, Duke University Press: Durham and London.
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