Staying in Balance


By Craige Roberts

In his classic Yoga Sutra, written around the second century BCE, Patanjali recommends a number of self-disciplines to facilitate progress in yoga: the yamas and the niyamas. Among the niyamas, for example, are svadhyaya, self-study, and saucha, cleanliness. Perhaps the importance of self-study to spiritual growth seems obvious-though we should recall that not all spiritual traditions recommend it. And cleanliness is certainly healthy. But I fear that in our society, which tends to foster obsession with self-improvement, it is too easy to misconstrue what Patanjali may have had in mind by recommending that we study ourselves and keep the mind and body free of the burden of moral and physical dirt. To us, these may seem to echo the advice we get from popular magazines, recommending that we tame our personalities—or in the absence of that, at least drug ourselves into submission—and keep ourselves terribly fit and healthy-even to the point of starving ourselves or submitting to liposuction to create the illusion of perfection. What's the point in striving for perfection? So others will love us? So we'll beat everyone else in the rat race of life? And what would those things buy us? I always think of an old neighbor of mine in the boondocks of southern Indiana, Wilford Smith, who told me when I tried to pry myself off his comfortable porch to go work in the garden or clean house: "What's your hurry? You're runnin' to your grave!"

I feel certain that Patanjali would agree. And here's one piece of evidence: He put equal emphasis on another niyama that is the antithesis of all that perfectionistic striving: santosa, contentment.

Now, it's easy to agree that there's wisdom in accepting what comes and appreciating what we have. But I have to say that in all my years of working with the niyamas, I find santosa perhaps the hardest of them all to live. Though we are in one of the wealthiest societies ever on earth, we get so caught up in our desires and our goals, so anxious about our deadlines or the potential for failure, that we lose sight of all else. I realized recently one reason why it has been hard for me to appreciate santosa: I had confused contentment with complacency. Certainly complacency is incompatible with what Patanjali presents as the ultimate fulfillment of human life. His yoga is a vision quest, to come face to face with our own deepest nature. The search for this lofty vision follows a sattvic path: light and calm and focused. Complacency, on the other hand, is tamasic, heavy and cold and inert. But why contentment?

Most of what agitates us, what draws us on with desire or drives us away in fear or repulsion, is the known or the already imagined: Our own oftenrehearsed mirage of happiness, popularity and success, or our old nightmarish boogey men. But a vision quest is a search for the unknown, a mystery. We’ve heard about the value of the vision, on apparently good authority. Others who have gone before, Patanjali among them, have given us lots of clues; but they say you can’t explain the experience in words. If we get obsessed with the known, we can be fairly sure that this will distract us from what’s important. To follow an enlightened path, we have to put away that disquiet, the mirages and nightmares, and walk lightly, liberated from their burden.

This requires patience and courage. Things we seek don't come just when we want them. And in giving up our familiar chase, we risk losing the known and still failing in our quest. But this is not an arcane lesson, whose truth and value can only be known to advanced practitioners of a secret art. It’s what keeps any life fresh and wholesome. Don’t get stuck in your rut: Practice contentment, and open your mind to the beauty beyond all our striving! Yet, how do we practice santosa? Here's a humble start: Working with what we actually experience in the body, moment by moment. Even in pain, but certainly in the discomfort of dissatisfaction, coming home to the body, to the breath in the body, is one of the best ways of coping, of coming to terms. You might try it in child's pose, following Janice George's suggestions in her article. Practice makes perfect. The hard part is to give up trying to make things other than they are. Once we have done that, there is always great beauty.