Like the lotus, live joyfully among the sorrows of the world.
Last week as I sat down to write about Santosha, I was side-tracked by the dramatic news story of the furling (taking down) of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. The furling of this symbol of racism was a result of years of hard work by many. Although, more than likely, the final push was due to the grace of the family members of the slain victims of a racist crime. The perpetrator of a horrific church shooting was often shown heralding the Confederate flag, extolling ideas of racism. On June 17, he walked into the Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal (EAME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine worshipers. Days after the slaughter, family members of the EAME victims stood before the killer and forgave him. Over the next few days, momentum built, including a 15-hour dramatic legislative debate.
On July 10, the flag was lowered from its place of distinction as thousands cheered. As I watched politicians describe their role in this historical event, I heard one pundit say, “There is little doubt of the significance of their (the family members of the victims) act of forgiveness in bringing the flag down. If those nine had not had the grace, love, mercy and strength of their convictions, that flag would not be coming down today.” Looking at the peaceful faces of the family members standing arm in arm, I saw the personification of Santosha. They were not angry or bitter, they were at peace and their peace gave them strength.
As I returned back to my writing, my thoughts shifted from their original trajectory. I had planned a discussion of the yogic and Buddhist concept of acceptance, gratitude and detachment, but now I wondered.. if these nine strong grounded people had simply been content and detached, would this important social evolution occurred? Or does being grounded in our beliefs, in ourselves, give us the freedom and the strength to evoke change. Revisiting Parmahansa’s words about joyfully rising above the muck, I thought he’s not talking about detachment….rather, he’s asking us to find a place of Santosha from which we can rise to cultivate peace.
I referred to one of my favorite Yoga Sutras, Sutra 2.1: tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah. To me, this means, do the work (tapas), observe and study (svadhyaya) and then surrender to what will be (ishvarapranidhana). This sutra is often compared to the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. This is a mantra used by numerous religious groups, including AA and others to remain grounded through life’s turbulence.
I see Santosha as the serenity to accept, to be content with what is or “to want what you have,” as Erich Schiffmann would say. This is much more than the passive “whatever”. It is the work and self-study that leads to serenity. Santosha provides an underpinning of peace, as opposed to fear which gives us the strength to rise up. We root down into our peace to be able to rise up and get through the day. The Emanual AME family members exemplified the power of true Santosha as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr and other freedom fighters.
Thich Nhat Hahn also tells a story about the power of Santosha during the VietNam war. At that time, many Vietnamese died as their boats capsized in their panic to escape. He explains that if just one person onboard was able to maintain a sense of peaceful stability, Santosha, the entire boat could safely move out of the turbulence.
Ancient yogis emphasized the importance of being grounded in their chakra system which begins with the root earth chakra (muladhara). Much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the chakra system recognizes that stability is necessary before we can move on to the second (individualization, creativity), third (strength), fourth (love, compassion), fifth (expression), sixth (choice) and seventh (connection). Santosha might not equate directly to stability, the first chakra, but being rooted is necessary to rise up through the higher chakras so that we can truly “live joyfully amidst the sorrows of the world”.
Connecting with our roots and being grounded allows us to reenergize, rebuild and restore by freeing us from the energy sapping obstacles (kleshas); loneliness, fear, want and greed. Only if we feel rooted, can we find Santosha. In my teaching, I invoke the 5 B’s to help students find this “root to rise” action. As I introduce each B early in the practice, I ask students to keep them close as we move forward, much like fellow passengers on a boat crossing turbulent waters. The 5 B’s (Blueprint Pose, Breath, Balance, Bandhas and Bliss) will help them navigate the practice from a place of Santosha.
The first B, Blueprint Pose, is seated mountain, a strong but comfortable seated pose. I ask them to see themselves as a mountain, maybe visualize and internalize their favorite mountain. The visualization goes on like this:
See your hips as the base of the mountain, strong and connected to the earth, then build the mountain slopes up the side of the arms, shoulders and crown. Visualize your mountain exposed to all that happens during the life of a mountain; seasonal change, hours in a day, years of existence….and see the mountain remaining steady, stable, strong, grounded. I ask them to Seek this shape and feeling in every asana introduced throughout our trip.
The next B is our breath. Like the Blueprint pose, this is also first chakra work, letting go of fear, connecting with stability. There’s a reason we take a deep breath before we do something scary, physiologically it is grounding. A deep exhalation signals our nervous system to chill out, to let go of the fight or flight response. Focusing on our breath also allows us to become centered, to let go of distractions.
Balance is the third B I ask them to invite along. I ask students to get settled much like a dog or cat centers before they settle in. I ask them to rock back and forth, side to side to find their true center. I ask them to find a position that feels natural, sweet but at the same time strong and stable. This is the balance of sukha (sweet) and sthirra (steadiness) Pantanjali speaks of in Sutra 2.46. It’s a tendency to default to one side of balance, sukha or sthirra, front or back body, right to left and so on. As we look at our tendencies and balance them, we find our center.
The Fourth B represents the bandhas, a topic that deserves much more attention than I can give now. I have many metaphors for introducing them which could be a topic for another post. For now, I’ll just say, I explain how they provide internal support as they help direct prana.
Finally, but most important, is the fifth B, the Face of Bliss. I take this to mean we try to maintain a sense of bliss throughout the practice. Whether we’re in simple seated or “advanced” balances, we maintain a blissful face, a sense of equanimity. Think of the look of peace on the families of the slain worshippers or the peaceful person on the boat. I tell my students, if you cannot maintain the blissful face, you are no longer doing yoga; return to the place where you feel bliss again.
So with the 5 B’s, we can practice grounded peace, Santosha on our mat. This practice can help us take it off the mat so we can live like the lotus, joyfully, unscathed by the muck of fear and ignorance. Practicing Santosha can help us root to rise throughout day. It can also give us the peaceful foundation to create change like the EAME nine and others who’ve helped end racism and hate. On our mat, when we practice Santosha, we are practicing not just for ourselves but for the betterment of all living beings.