Santosha: A Shared Search for Contentment

I thought, as I had always been told, that success would bring happiness. I thought money and power were the benchmarks of success. Of course, I thought wrong…

Contentment doesn’t come easy. Or, at least not without practice.

As we collectively process the loss of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and countless others who threw it all away while seemingly having it all, I’m grateful for honest conversation with friends and clients around what it means to be happy. What is it we’re all aiming for if traveling the world, having more money then we can spend, and living a glamorous lifestyle is not enough?

In yoga, the word “santosha” is one of the Niyamas, the second of eight limbs of Yoga. Santosha means contentment. To me, contentment represents the ultimate end goal: Happiness.

My journey toward contentment

I’ve always known exactly what I wanted. The perfect internship, university, boyfriend and new city served as guideposts on my journey through life. My direction was solidified by my pursuit of the American Dream: success, money, power. And, I almost always got what I wanted. 

That is, until I didn’t. Until I finally “had it all” and realized I had nothing. In fact, I was far from it.

In Yoga, this is the moment of “removing the veil [of ignorance].” Like Pandora’s box, once you peak inside, there’s no going back. In this way, you may have heard people say – myself among them – that yoga “changed my life forever.” But how? And in what way?

When I moved from Boston to Los Angeles in 2013, I was an idealist 23-year-old, newly appointed as Chief of Staff to a Senior Vice President of a major insurance company. I was sure I could handle it. I was smart and confident with a New England work ethic. I settled into my Santa Monica apartment and made friends with ease. I was set. I was on my way.

I thought, as I had always been told, that success would bring happiness. I thought money and power were the benchmarks of success. Of course, I thought wrong.

When I found my dream job to be less-than-fulfilling, the same idealism that led me to leave a great job and friends in Boston once again took over. Gratefully, my parents were in full support. My Mom and I nodded in emotional and spiritual agreement: I had to follow my intuition. Where would I land if I let my heart lead the way? I wasn’t sure. But, feeling let down by my former pursuit for success, I knew this is where I was headed.

I thought, as I had always been told, that success would bring happiness. I thought money and power were the benchmarks of success. Of course, I thought wrong.

After six years of daily yoga practice, I was passionately attuned to the mental and physical benefits of yoga study and practice. I wanted to learn and embody more. This was my heart’s true desire. Peace. Self-love. Contentment.

Yoga changed my life by allowing me to be in control of the trajectory and well-being of my body and mind: mitigating anxiety, managing depression, eliminating food and diet obsession, ultimately caring for myself in body, mind and spirit.

Today, I spend my time creating, managing and instructing teacher trainings, yoga classes and community events to spread the word about yoga as a valuable practice both on and off the mat. This includes working with private clients to develop a daily practice to suit their individual needs, as well as working with Veterans, recovering addicts, social workers, nurses, and others.

At times I still struggle to stay above the current. Sometimes, life seems to win as I flounder with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, restlessness, anxiety, depression and stress. The difference now, is I have tools to re-engage and reset. Through Yoga, I’ve unlocked the code of how to stay above water.

Here’s what I learned:

Contentment is more complex than sitting on the couch on a Sunday, grateful for no place to be. (Although these moments are precious too!) Contentment means seeing the good in the bad. Seeing the truth in the chaos, and the light in the dark. Contentment is knowing impermanence as the only consistent theme of life and embracing each moment as if it were the only one. This is a practice. We are lucky in life if we experience moments of Santosha.

Nothing outside ourselves can give us contentment; not money, power or fame. Only we can find contentment through a commitment to being open, to seeing opportunity and to Loving ourselves and others unconditionally.

As we collectively process unfathomable loss and confusion, I feel inclined to share the wisdom I’ve gleaned from five years of yoga study. Here it is:

1) Go easy on yourself and on others. Rather than getting frustrated, take a breath and have a conversation. 90% of the time you’ll be surprised with the outcome, if you can keep your cool. Difference disappears when one person has the courage to find commonality. The rest of the time, you’ll rest easy knowing you tried your best by keeping an open mind and heart. This is truly peace of mind.

2) Love unconditionally. Not just your family and friends, but also yourself. Don’t only give love to those who are like minded but also to those who you struggle to understand. Imagine you met someone at your favorite store or place of work, your instinct might be to connect. That’s the basis of humanity, to save ourselves but also to keep one another alive. The world and all that’s difficult depends on our individual ability to be the bigger person. This means to Love freely. If that feels uncomfortable, sit with why that might be. We’ll all be better off if we can learn to Love indiscriminately. And yes, that means even yourself on your roughest day. Let that shit go.

Nothing outside ourselves can give us contentment; not money, power or fame. Only we can find contentment through a commitment to being open, to seeing opportunity and to Loving ourselves and others unconditionally.

Santosha may be closer than we think. A professor in Yoga once described the practice of Santosha as simply making the time to “sit outside and watch the wind blow through the trees.” Dismiss it as fluff and nonsense if you like, but when was the last time you did this? If you can’t remember, humor me and try. Then notice afterwards, how do you feel? (Curious about the physiological response of this practice and why it works? Message me or check out my short book on the Science and Practice of Mindfulness.)

The answers to life’s biggest problems are simple, if we take the time to listen. We are all connected. Solace comes from one another, from Nature, and from ourselves. If only we are quiet enough to hear. And, if we allow Love to win.

No matter your path, happiness is possible. Rich or poor. Homeless or privileged. Be with it. This moment is beautiful. Don’t miss it.

Seeing the opportunity in challenge, the light in the dark…This is the practice of contentment.

xx

In Yoga,

Amy

Challenging Concepts of the “Western Yogi”: Part I

Challenging the “Western Yogi”: Part I
By: Viviana Vallin, M.A.

Imagine walking into a magazine shop and all of the covers concerning yoga have a woman who is of brown skin, has a full curvy body type and thick dark hair. All of the covers had this image. Imagine walking into a yoga class and all of the yoga instructors also fit this image. This image is all around you, and yet this is not you; this is not what you look like. The majority in the class also fit this image. Perhaps, you consider whether you should stay or go.

What thoughts or feelings arise in your body?

It probably depends on how closely you resemble that woman. If you are also a woman of color, a woman with a fuller body, a woman with thick curly hair maybe you would breathe a sigh of relief or maybe you would also feel incredibly uneasy, like what is going on here? Is this a trick?

If you are a woman who is Caucasian, slimmer body type and have blonde straight hair you may also be feeling uneasy. How comfortable and easy would it then be for you to walk into a yoga studio space and be able to jump right into focusing on your practice when you are a blatant minority in that space?

This example is simplified, but I want to highlight the discomfort and not-so-subtle message of what is and is not the “normal” yoga practitioner. This is what people of color experience not only in the yoga studio but in other spaces where Whiteness is the standard. It is not only people of color, but really anyone who does not fit that image or standard who may be more aware and made to feel uncomfortable by pronounced difference.

Since I started practicing yoga eight years ago, I have been on a journey to deepen my understanding of yoga and to explore the ways in which, within the U.S., it has become a mainstream physical practice for a select group of wealthy, white and educated individuals. This past year, I undertook a thesis project for my final year in the Yoga Studies Masters program at Loyola Marymount University. I was the only Latina student in my cohort and one of only a few students of color in the cohort overall. Here and elsewhere, I felt the very subtle but also very real messages that yoga is not for me, or for people that look like my family members in most yoga studio spaces. Most of the women in my family for example, are closer in image to the women I described in the opening imagery.

I never experienced direct discrimination from anyone when taking a yoga class. This is because, in most cases, these impacts are happening outside of the studio space. Media images, commercials, clothes, high costs, and the mainstream profile of the typical yoga teacher, as well as an overall lacking of yoga studios in most communities of color, are all messages that people internalize. They [the media] tell you that yoga is not meant for you; so you naturally might wonder: Why would I even go try a class?

For my thesis, I conducted a survey of people of color who practice yoga in Los Angeles. I was able to collect over 40 surveys within just a few weeks. Although this is a small sample size, it is not meant to be representative of all people of color; however, there are some very strong common responses. The majority of the respondents did not report experiencing discrimination in yoga spaces. They did however share a similar feeling of unease, discomfort and anxiety over not “fitting in” or looking like the “typical yogi.”

These doubts tend to increase self-criticism and so, feelings about not fitting in are powerful barriers that often prevent individuals from exploring yoga or attending a class in a studio. We cannot see this type of exclusion and discrimination, but the results are evident when you look around most yoga classes in Los Angeles. Here and most everywhere, yoga is equated with Whiteness.


So, what can we do? To reclaim yoga as something that is representative of its natural integrity, history and essence; by encompassing and including all persons regardless of race, sexuality, disability or any other ‘difference.’ This is our shared goal and the ultimate goal of yoga, to achieve a real understanding of Oneness.

Photo Cred: People’s Yoga, “Yoga Seeds Family Class” held each Sunday

In Part II…
By Vivi Vallin

The story about how yoga came to be this way is both simple and complex. In a way, it feels like our nation has corrupted yoga. Yoga in itself is a practice of self-awareness, self-inquiry, self-liberation. It is not inherently exclusive or discriminatory. Yoga is just highlighting what is already present in America.

A Changing Tide

“I’m sorry I haven’t written,” seems to be a theme of my posts lately. So, as often as I think of writing, I don’t want you to think that you’ve been forgotten. I wish I could even give a reason, but other than fairly consistent writer’s block and a fleeting awareness of some sort of tension, of being in the eye of the storm in the midst of change, I got nothing.

While it has been over a year of mental, mindful, psychological, and spiritual metamorphosis, in a constant awareness of change, the year ahead promises to be one of materialization; but not without hard labor. I feel like I’m shifting – into adulthood, into independence, into my relationship, and all the wonderfully complicated things that go along with all those rites of passage. And, at the same time, I’m actually shifting. I am noticing the way I once behaved or phrasing I once used, no longer seems to fit me right in the moment. The style of my clothes over the past year has evolved, and become cubbies full of mediocre thrift store finds, yoga apparel, authentic India kirtas and remnant college t-shirts. But what will I be when I finally surpass my self-instated, grad school budget thrift store mandate? Will I still shop at Ann Taylor Loft, Express and American Eagle? (I think AE is taboo after 20, but their jeggings are genius.) But, who is this person I’m growing into? Who will that be? Will I like her? What can I do to help shape her, the future me?

All we can do is surround ourselves with the best of what we find in the world, and hope that a little bit rubs off on us.

A bout of high anxiety lately has reared its ugly head, just in time to disturb my peace of mind on a regular basis. There are so many things to keep track of these days; so many things to do and loved ones to tend to. When it all starts to spin, as minds sometimes do, I recently find myself gently putting my hand on my heart, and just feeling my heart beat. It’s a simple practice that brings me back to the moment. To where I’m situated in the room, wherever I am. And it reminds me, of my aliveness. As individuals, we’re prone to errors, complex, fragile, and very much alive. After this practice, you might find as I often do, that you move forward with a different perspective. A lighter, more grounded perspective. (This is a practice of mindfulness).

As my perspective evolves, I’m finding the content I’d like to post is as well. This means the possibility of guest posts, more creative prose, and the potential of more well-intentioned, but real discourse. My hope at this moment, as it always has been, is to share what “yoga” (broadly, or “yoga studies”) has taught me as a variety of tools to help make daily life easier, happier, and lighter. It doesn’t mean subscribing to a religion, political party, or an activist group. Yoga is free and you can call it whatever you want: hatha, vinyasa, bikram, kripalu, hot yoga, meditation, mantra, free movement/dancing, prayer, asana/yoga classes, kirtan, moving, walking, or eating meditation, for instance. Or, just placing your hand on your chest and practicing mindfulness by observing your heartbeat, and listening to your breath. Or, just closing your eyes and listening to the ocean, hearing the birds over head, and allowing yourself to feel a part of Nature for that single moment. Or, just catching a wave, going for a run, hiking through a national park or going through an asana class – any of these can be your yoga; when you practice mindfulness and your awareness turns inward (i.e. you become aware of your thoughts) as a result.

For all the definitions of yoga I have given over the past year, I also want to clarify that I have likely too casually adopted the Indian popular norm of: “Yes! But, also no.” Yoga, for me, and as it’s represented through yoga studies, includes and encompasses many, many things in the realm of psychology, experiential physics philosophy, language, physicality, subtle anatomy and beyond. Yoga is very much still a mystery. It’s large, it’s all encompassing, and yet it’s very specific, carefully articulated, and traditionally austere. In a modern Western context, yoga means “asana” or the physical practice of yoga. Yoga has been so widely popularized, that it has essentially claimed itself the name with it’s own meaning of “yoga” as asana (& of course, Lulu Lemon). Yoga in India, yoga in Tibet, yoga in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Russia may be very different depending on religion, sect or lineage (i.e. Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Islam, Muslim, natural healers and indigenous populations, to name a few). Yet, they all share an experiential or internal component that we, in the West, entirely lack. Possibly the first self-proclaimed American yogis were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as the Transcendental movement closely parallels and directly incorporates key Hindu yogic literature (i.e. Bhagavad Gita, Upanisads, Samkhya Karmika). Yet, Transcendentalists have little mention in society today in connection to yoga. Not to say this is wrong or inappropriate; cultural appropriations occur organically and are a reflection of contemporary societal norms. And, we’re ever evolving.

How will yoga look in the West in twenty years? Fifty years? Will I still be practicing? Teaching? Studying? I look forward to finding out (not too soon!), but hope I might help promote a “middle road” concept of yoga that is all encompassing, personal and creative, that can serve as a moment of optimistic rejuvenation in your day and mine, every day. For thousands of years, these practices have been used for centering, for finding peace and balance (among other things). Why not now, during such a troubling time in our world, wouldn’t we want to find a more peaceful way of being personally, for ourselves and others.

I hope you’ll stay on as my creative reinforcement and encouragement through this crazy journey – and my hope is that I might say something that you find helpful in your own evolution. As Jack Johnson once said, “We’re Better Together.”

Spread the love!

TGIF (Almost), xx
Amy

Photo: Taken at sunset on September 12, 2015 – San Onofre Bluffs, CA

My Hymn to Wisdom: Surrender (+ Excerpt)

Longer than I’d like has passed since my last note! This month has been quickly gobbled away by an upcoming Editorial deadline for Worldviews (my first edited issue was published this week & is available to read online), and my first [15-page] paper due in my [boss’] class, Yoga Philosophy: Text & Practice. Despite my scattered priorities, I was able to write what I felt was a kick-ass paper – Even if it meant checking a bit of my sanity. (Shout out to my bf and roomie, Matt, for handling me with love and grace!)

Overall, my lesson from the past several weeks has been: Surrender. In those moments when everything seems to be exploding in my face. When I’m moving so fast that I’m tripping over myself. When I can’t keep my eyes open, but I know I have to keep on going. In those moments – we all have our own versions – I’ve learned to just surrender. What this means physically (aka ‘in my body’), is just to stop. Pause. Inhale deeply. And, exhale deeply. Now that I’ve stopped: Is the world still moving? Are the walls crumbling around me? No. Well, then I guess I didn’t have to hurry as much as I thought I did. And then, I surrender. I either suck it up and keep on going, if that’s what I’m feeling. Or, I suck it up and go to bed, if that’s what I’m really needing. Either way: I surrender. It’s not worth the hassle of a meltdown, or a freakout. The world will keep on turning, either way. (Pass or fail, good or bad, finished or not…it all, always works out.)

My essay for Dr. Chris Chapple’s class focused on my personal interpretation of a hymn from the Rg Veda. My inspiration was a beautiful poem embedded within the ancient text, which divulges the essence and evolution of humanity through an individual’s own self-expression of the spoken word (or Vac). You could say this hymn spoke to me on several levels (the rhetorician, the advocate, the academic…), but I think its resonance on a purely human level makes it worth sharing. What’s more, inspired by our cohort’s recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Month by hosting the Day of Play Yoga Festival this Saturday Feb 28th at LMU (@ 1pm — details below), I thought I would, and should, share part of my personal interpretation of the hymn, explaining how I continually find strength and surrender in yoga.

You can find the Hymn to Wisdom (Rg Veda) below, along with a brief overview of the Rg Veda and an excerpt of my personal application of the hymn to my own life. From my corner to yours…

Excerpt: The ‘Right Path’ of Vac: An Exegesis Review of the Rg Veda 10.71, “Hymn to Wisdom,” Feb. 15, 2015

Introduction: Context & Meaning

The significance and impact of the Rg Veda, a foundational text of yoga and Indian philosophy dating back to 1500 B.C., is most evident through its longevity and its undying relevance to contemporary life. The Rg Veda is one of four major texts that together form the foundation of Vedic philosophy. The Rg Veda’s inclusion of sacrifices and hymns to guide readers’ successful completion of ancient rituals demonstrates its historical value; however, arguably even more significant is the text’s meaning and relevance for contemporary readers (who, notably, are not likely reading for literal reenactment). The complexities of life, love, relationships, and the human condition, among other topics, are divulged in poetic simplicity across the pages of the Rg Veda, particularly throughout its series of over 1,000 hymns.

Nine families are credited with writing the hymns, which brings our attention to the plurality of hands, minds, and thereby, perspectives at work in its creation. The majority of authors of the Rg Veda were poets and seers, or those advanced on the path toward enlightenment, often said to tote psychic abilities or magic powers (siddhis). Similarly, brahmans, as referenced in the particular hymn I will examine here, are representative of the highest priestly caste or social class in Vedic society. “Brahman” is also frequently used throughout late Vedic literature to reference the divine aspect residing within all living things, which I interpret as equal to one’s “soul.” Veda, in and of itself, is literally translated to mean “knowledge” in Sanskrit. Through what is likely the oldest philosophical text of this depth (even pre-dating Plato in ancient Greece), contemporary readers are able to find new resonance and wisdom to guide them through the most complex philosophical conundrums spanning the existence of humanity.

The power and complexity of human expression, as well as its interpersonal and social implications, are explicitly explored in Rg Veda 10.71, Hymn to Wisdom:

When men, Brhaspati [Lord of Speech], by name-giving
Brought forth the first sounds of Vac,
That which was excellent in them, which was pure,
Secrets hidden deep, through love was brought to light. 

When man created language with wisdom,
As if winnowing cornflour through a sieve,
Friends acknowledged the signs of friendship,
And their speech retained its touch.

They followed the path of Vac through sacrifice [ritual],
Which they discovered hidden within the seers [wise men].
They drew her out, distributing her in every place,
Vac, which Seven Singers her tones and harmonies sing.

Many a man who sees does not see Vac,
Many a man who hears does not hear her.
But to another she reveals her beauty
Like a radiant bride yielding to her husband.

Who forsakes a friend, having known friendship,
He never had a part or a share of Vac.
Even though he hears her, he hears in vain;
For he knows nothing of her right path.

.

  1. One man recites verses,
    Another chants hymn Sakvari measure.
    The brahman talks of existence, and yet
    Another sets the norms for the sacrifice.1

Personal Application

As a successful graduate from a private university in Boston, I quickly secured a job out of college with an impressive title, and had loving friends and family who supported me unconditionally. But, I was very unhappy. What right did I have to be unhappy? And yet, I couldn’t deny it, seemingly without cause. Despite my decision to seek guidance from a nutritionist and weekly meetings with a therapist, my eating habits became increasingly disruptive and unhealthy as a result of my unhappiness. My therapist informed me that I was classified as having ‘disordered eating,’ characterized as being on the verge of an eating disorder, but not (yet) having fully taken the plunge. When she asked me why I didn’t [take the plunge], I hesitated. Truthfully, I wasn’t quite sure. “I guess, I couldn’t do that to my body,” I responded. “Or to myself.” My therapist suggested that I was a “psychological prodigy,” given my ability to self-analyze and discern unhealthy thought patterns to choose my course of action, or “right path,” accordingly. When I didn’t gain what I’d hoped from my sessions with her – I still didn’t know what was ‘wrong’ with me – I ended them after six months. Soon after, I moved to California, in search of whatever it was I was missing. Today, my daily rift with depression is gone. I eat whatever I want without fear or anxiety. I am the healthiest I have ever been without the stress or self-loathing that characterize disordered eating, or an exercise obsession. And, most importantly, I am the happiest I have ever been.

You would think this is the end of the story; but in truth, it depends on which story we’re telling. Yes, my struggle has subsided to reveal a happy ending: I am healthy, I am happy, and I have conquered (at least a few of) my demons. But the real catalyst for this positive transformation wasn’t any event in singularity. Rather, it was learning to consistently listen to and cultivate my own intuition or Vac, and to leverage this wisdom in guiding my actions and learning self-love. This is an instance of how surrendering and harmonizing with my inner guiding principle proved to remedy a source of suffering in my life. However, this is just one instance and one moment in my life, while realizing Vac [as real peace] requires cultivating inner harmony throughout a lifetime. And so, in truth, my story continues…

*This is not to suggest, by any means, that this is an easy feat, or that yoga is the only or best way to address disordered eating, depression or an eating disorder. These are just some of my personal thoughts and observations. And, of course, when these types of thoughts do arise, it’s a continuous battle – not to be discounted. But, learning to control your own thoughts, to cultivate positive thinking, to practice yoga (of the body and mind), in my experience, is a wonderful place to start.

With love, Amy

Day of Play Yoga Festival
Sat / Feb 28 / 1p-5p
Sunken Gardens, Loyola Marymount University

Day of Play will bring together Yoga, music, movement, and discussion in order to cultivate awareness, self-care, a supportive community, and positive feelings about one’s body. This event is donation based and open to the public. Activities include a group Vinyasa Yoga class, AcroYoga, Yoga Slacklining, vendor booths, food trucks, a discussion panel, and a mindful sound bath meditation.

For more information please visit: http://www.gofundme.com/kjtxzo.

  1. deNicolas, Antonio (1976). Meditations Through the Rg Veda: Four-Dimensional Man. Stony Brook, NY: Nicolas Hays Ltd.