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Being Content with Burning Desire: Santosha and Tapas in Life

Photo courtesy Rene Carrillo

Lately I have been coming back to my study of yoga to fuel my yoga teaching with something more than asana and ujjayi (to this day I still can’t spell this word).  I am incorporating more varied types of pranayama to see their varied effects.  I am also interjecting the thoughts of the Yamas and Niyamas into class to see how they mingle through the flow. I admit that it does sound like I am doing a bit of an experiment.  But really, I think large concepts, or even simple ones,  are best to be offered for contemplation rather than preached.

This week, I have been ruminating on santosha and tapas.  These are two practices to be observed according to Patanjali’s eight-fold path.  Check out a cool depiction of it here by Alison Hinks.  Santosha, simply put, is contentment.  It is the non-striving, non-pushing, non-pulling, “it is what it is”- ness.  It is living with what you have, finding the simple things pleasurable, loving the one your with mentality.  Not always easy, but I can see the freedom in it.

Tapas, on the other hand, translates to “heat”.  It is the fire that burns inside each one of us.  It is the higher purpose, the spiritual desire, the deep zeal and zest we have for life, for yoga, for making the world and ourselves better.  It is the feeling of alive-ness.

Santosha…tapas.  Tapas…santosha.

I think for my entire adult life I have been swinging from one branch of this tree to another.  In western culture we are raised to desire and acquire.  And whether through nature or nurture, I have deep longings  and things that make me come alive, just like most of us.  I also find it ever so liberating to take the given situation and be content with it.  Not just accept it but genuinely find some simple joy in it.  To be content means your are in the present moment, neither looking forward nor back, and that is in fact the only moment in which anything actually happens. It is the here and now.

Perhaps it is impossible to achieve our desires without being contentedly lost in the present moment. The best athletes and artists are in “the zone” during peak performance.  And we all stand in amazement.  Their zone, their flow, is the present moment.  It is really being in it, so much so that time falls away, breath becomes deep and smooth, and the heart beats to a new rhythm.  Malcolm Gladwell talks about this phenomenon in his book, “Blink”.

The thing that makes you come alive will be the vehicle for contentment, not because it leads you to your destination but because it allows you to be lost in the present moment, and one experiences content in the present.  Conversely, being content, being present, will allow you to passionately create, work, live, and breathe.  And in this way I think these two ideas, santosha and tapas, are a positive feedback loop.

As for yoga…Iyengar has a lovely quote, “yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured, and endure what cannot be cured.” Yoga stokes the fire, and it also teaches us to sit, to find the comfortable seat in any situation.