I just returned from teaching a great morning yoga class. There was a sense of calmness in the atmosphere today. I went up to the yoga platform to prepare for my class and practice my Pranayama breathing exercises. As I was breathing deeply to absorb all the life-giving force, Prana, and serenity provided by nature, a thought manifested in my mind about how everything in nature is in perfect balance. Thanks to the fact that in a native state, every living creature takes what it needs from the environment and gives back what doesn’t need for other creatures’ benefit. This natural cycle creates and sustains life.
It seems that all living creatures have been able to follow this simple cycle effortlessly. Every living entity — except humans. Our way of life, our ideas of “progress” and the perception of what we think we need doesn’t go hand in hand with this cycle, and therefore we are breaking the perfect balance and abundance found in nature.
A society-deep problem
There are certain terms we can associate with this foundering: climate change, global warming, pollution, endangered species, lack of clean water, deforestation, to name a few human-created catastrophes. At the same time, we are constantly reminded about the multitude of changes, guidelines, and practices we can abide by to live “sustainably” and “lower our impact”. Despite those reminders, we keep taking more than we really need and disposing more than we should, ultimately failing at the simple task of living in peace with nature.
I remember a marketing professor in college stating that the key element to generate profit was to “create a need” so you could persuade others to buy your product — so in this modern market-driven world, we are required to be in a constant state of unhappiness and discomfort with our lives and who we are, so that we will continue acquiring stuff in order to fill up this human-created void inside ourselves. Our society depends upon an industry that is sustained by products whose aims are to fix an endless string of problems, and when the problems run out, new ones are thought up.
Changing the system, from the inside out
So how can we really change this? It would be like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound to continue to apply “best practices” to a system that cannot continue to work because it is, by virtue, unsustainable. Maybe the problem is actually below the surface, ingrained so deeply in our egos, that it has systematically changed the ideas of what we as humans think we need to be happy; that in order to finally participate in nature’s cycle, we need to free ourselves up from the preconceived notions that were planted in our heads from the earliest stages of our lives. Perhaps what we need the most is to “emancipate ourselves from the mental slavery” that has made us so attached to material things, money, and the desire for recognition. The first step is to recognize the problem, the second is to make a conscious choice to opt out of the system and release those thoughts and desires of wanting more, and the third is to allow ourselves to be content with living simply, having less, and most importantly, wanting less.
Applying Santosha to our lives
The yoga philosophy has what is called “the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga” — the first two limbs are the Yamas (external observances) and the Niyamas (internal guidelines). The second Niyama is Santosha, a Sanskrit term to define “contentment”. The practice states that inner peace and happiness is already inside each of us and non-dependent of external gratification. I found an accurate definition of Santosha from Yoga Chicago:
Contentment is serenity, but not complacency. It is comfort, but not submission; reconciliation, not apathy; acknowledgment, not aloofness. Contentment is a mental decision, a moral choice, a practiced observance, a step into the reality of the cosmos. Contentment/santosha is the natural state of our humanness and our divinity and allows for our creativity and love to emerge. It is knowing our place in the universe at every moment. It is unity with the largest, most abiding, reality.
The practice of yoga tries to bring us back into our natural state, just as we were when we were babies or children: content, present and satisfied with the way our lives are. Yoga intends for us to be more present and aware of our internal state, thoughts, and emotions, so we can use this as an instrument to find clarity and be able to distinguish the difference between what we truly need and what we think we need.
Going back to nature, as Gandhi once said: “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” Santosha is a choice, and while it’s not always the easiest one, it is one that can help us live in harmony with nature, ensuring the wellbeing of our planet and ourselves.