Two summers ago I spent eight weeks in yoga teacher training and sat in daily reflection with Patanjali’s eight-fold path. Patanjali is know for being the father of yoga philosophy, and his writings are used like a Bible in the yoga community. That summer I felt like everyday was an opportunity to practice living more fully into the niyamas (things to do) and working on ridding myself of habits that were reflective of the yamas (things not to do).
Not surprisingly, once yoga teacher training ended, it became harder to live quite so mindfully. I tried to keep up good study habits: reading yoga books and journaling before bed, setting Patanjali-influenced intentions in yoga class, and being generally attentive to my actions in terms of how they do or do not reflect general yogic energy. Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of all of that amidst the small and large sorrows of living.
When I was in Minneapolis last week, I was punched hard in the gut with the trappings of a nostalgic heart. I had been somewhat prepared for this since the same thing happened to me when I first started visiting Chicago after I moved away. Revisitng a place that was once home unleashes ghosts. They are the worst kind of specters because they force you to come to terms with the fact that you maybe never fully processed the end of whatever you lost (the place, the person, the thing). This was definitely the case for me. I was surrounded with dear friends, but all I could think about was memories of what I no longer had (and how I would have to leave these moments and eventually return to Boston, a place that still doesn’t feel like home). I had so few moments of being fully present.
Missing the past (and lamenting that the future will never be the past), is a sure sign of failing at Patanjali’s santosha. Santosha is the sanskrit word for “contentment.” It has also been described as a “peaceful kind of happiness in which one rests without desires.” For someone who is taken out of time and space with a smell, or a song, or a food, (or a million other things), it’s hard to feel totally a-okay in the present. There is always something or someone to miss from the past. There is always something to worry about for the future.
I’ve been back from Minneapolis for about a week now, and still haven’t gotten out of the funk it put me in. So, last night, I decided to start back at some of those habits I set that summer two years ago. First step was opening up my bedside book, Meditations from the Mat. The page I opened up to? An entry about santosha.
Thanks, universe. I get the hint.
It’s not an easy niyama. Being content with what you have and where you’re at, regardless of circumstance, is tough stuff. It’s about breaking the mentality of, “I’ll be happy when ______ happens,” and instead saying, “I can choose to be happy now, even without ____.”
Even though, more recently, my struggle with this has manifest in the form of personal relationships and connections to my sense of “home,” I know that this completely applies to how many of us approach body image and weight loss. I have absolutely had the thought, “I will be happy if I can lose ten pounds, then I won’t have anything to worry about.” Of course, we all know that this is a completely messed up thought. Anyone who has lost or gained weight surely knows that happiness is not a given in either scenario.
I’m often reminded of this when I look through old photo albums (and as an aforementioned nostalgic person, this happens kind of frequently). There’s this particular photo of me from about six years ago where I look legitimately skinny. I have never used that word to describe myself before. I’ve looked thinner or fuller, but given my not-going-anywhere hips, thighs, and bootie, “skinny” is not something I ever identified with. But in this picture, my arms look like pencils and my stomach curves in.
The picture was taken during one of the lowest periods of my life. I was getting out of what felt like an extremely toxic and unhealthy relationship and was completely miserable. I had a faint smile on my face in the picture, but I remember vividly talking the whole night about how I was still so depressed about the situation with my ex.
In this example, my “skinny” body was indeed directly correlated to happiness–the lack of it. I was too depressed to take care of myself properly. I may have been thin, but I was sick all the time and was convinced I would never feel joy again. When I look at that picture, just as quickly as the thought, “I wish my body looked like it did then,” creeps into my brain, I shoo it away with a reminder that I would never want to be back in that part of my past, even if it did mean having that body. (And I’m at a place now where I prefer my muscle arms to pencil arms, anyway…)
Whether it’s relationships, homesickness, job stuff, or body stuff, we are not served by dwelling on the past or longing for something different in the future. This is a deeply challenging truth to accept, but it is one that I know can ease so much of the sadness we carry with us. And sadness is a heavy thing to hold. When we carry past and future-oriented sadness, it becomes even harder, because we have so little control over what has past and what might happen tomorrow. All we can control is how we approach this moment. Now.
Do you struggle with feeling content in the present? Do you have any nostalgic tendencies? How do you cope?