Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

Santosha – Happy to Breathe.

by Jim Fraser

Attention to the subtlety of the breath gives an insight into contentment.

Sitting one day I felt very quietly contented within myself and as I sat there the word santosha came to mind and my thoughts started to elaborate on the word.  If you don’t mind I would like to share my thoughts on this with you.

When we start yoga there is a good chance it is postural yoga of one or another variety. With a bit of practice the penny drops and we learn to move our bodies according to the in and out breaths.  Beginners invariably admit confusion when they try to co-ordinate breath and movement. And some people don’t seem to ever get it. However, to progress in yoga postures it is necessary to develop stamina and that requires a good understanding of how to strengthen the breath. This consists of learning how to breathe more fully to sustain activity.

In the wider yogic understanding this use of the breath is at a gross level.  Breath awareness can be developed to more subtle levels and there comes a point when the breath is no longer trapped in external attention to the body and instead opens the attention to the internal mind-space.

Mind-space – what is that?

Let’s start from the perspective of doing postures. With a subtle understanding of postures you will recognise that when you move one limb there is a corresponding movement elsewhere in the body taking account of first movement so balance is maintained. Some teachers describe this in terms of spirals: that the muscular movement in the body operates in shapes akin to spirals.  That subtlety of understanding is fine so long as the attention is only for how the body moves.  But if you consider it more deeply then the question arises – what moves the muscles for the sake of balance? It’s the nervous system of course.

The nervous system works through the body largely unconsciously to maintain a sense of balance. And what is the nervous system? It is the mind through the body. In fact if it wasn’t for the mind and its extension through the body as the nervous system we wouldn’t know we have a body.  When we think we are moving an arm we are really moving the mind.

As we develop this awareness of mind we can learn to manipulate the body merely by concentration.  So, for example, in parvsa virhabdrasana we want to move the front knee so it tracks over the foot but stiff thigh muscles and stiff hips can defeat this intention.  We haul the knee into place or learn to rotate the thigh.  More subtly the same can be done by pressing the big toe down into the ground.  Then the thigh rotates externally, the knee tracks happily over the foot, the hip joints open provided the back leg doesn’t rotate inwards overly much and in addition the spine elongates in a further response.  More subtle yet: instead of pressing the big toe down to gain the effect and impress the teacher with a posture well done, just concentrate on the big toe and the muscles will shift in response, in exactly the same way as when you deliberately press down on the big toe or adjust the upper thigh but more quietly because there is harmony between the body, the nervous system and the will.  Then you will be so engaged in the awareness of the posture you won’t even be thinking about the teacher.

If this integration is recognised throughout the body and it is waiting there to be recognised, then the pervasion of the mind through the body becomes apparent.  It’s another step to recognise the mind-space; that we can rest in a simple whole mental sense, for that is what we actually do. It just seems that the external is other than mind.  Indeed it’s not a case of external or internal, it’s simply mind and in itself it is nether internal or external.  The brain is internal within the skull, the mind is not the physical brain so in reaching this state of awareness the mind is realised as possessing neither inside nor outside.  Space comes nearest to a description – so we have mind-space.

As we know, mind is intimately connected with and to the breath.  By paying closer attention to the mind it becomes apparent just how profound that influence is.  In an external example postures are difficult to maintain if concentration and breath are not settled.

It is even more difficult to meditate if the breath is not smooth. Where the attention is drawn increasingly to the mind as cause then stillness becomes indispensable.  This requires a good sitting position.  It is then that further practice and investigation of the breath begins as a preliminary to meditation practice or as part of it.  In either case the focus is in learning deeper and deeper relaxation within the mind-space.

The grace and kindness of breath

As the sitting posture is perfected there is less and less need to consider the body’s position as its steadiness gives rest to the nervous system.  Intentionality as in postural yoga is not required for there is no movement, one posture and that’s it.  The only movement is in the muscles connected with the flow of the breath.  Gradually quiescence informs these muscles too and mind and breath and body enter a state of kindness and grace. 

There is the scientific recognition that the muscles move to create a vacuum in the lungs and the air rushes into the lungs and subsequently muscular movement pushes it out again.  So there is a holistic relationship between respiration and the atmosphere and by implication with the entire Earth and by further implication yet, with the entire Universe.  That’s all very well and rational.  But there is a deeper apprehension which is summed up by Swami Rama:

Manifest energy has three aspects: neutral, centripetal (towards the centre) and centrifugal (away from the centre)… Nutrition and oxygen are taken into the body by the centripetal currents; carbon dioxide and other wastes are expelled by the centrifugal currents.  The vital force is the foundation and origin of all manifestations of the physical energy, and must not be mistaken for the functions of the brain, heart or any other part of the body that it creates: by doing so, we would confuse the creative force with that which is created. 1

In a quiet state we become aware of the breath flowing through the body: even, smooth, subtle and unhindered.  We watch the breath given and taken, given and taken, on and on.  Prana flows.  The very root of body and mind together depends on the breath and when it is apprehended in such a state of yogic silence contentment reigns and bliss is pervasive.  This is a state of being which can deepen through recognition.  It is the unveiling of our deeper nature and it comes with a deep sense of contentment.

The Niyama – Santosha

This state of pervading contentment provides insight into the second Niyama - Santosha – santosad anuttamah sukha labhah. (YS II.42)

Twelve translations are available of this sutra allon one page in Salvatore Zambito’s book The Unadorned Thread of Yoga.’2  The various translations differ in the words they use for the state of contentment: unexcelled mental comfort; bliss; superlative happiness; unexcelled joy; unexcelled attainment of happiness and so on.  You get the idea.

The commentary by Swami Satchitananda describes contentment:  Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness.  If something comes, we let it come.  If not, it doesn’t matter.  Contentment means neither to like nor dislike.3

This transcendence of liking and disliking is further emphasised by Swami Nityamuktananda Saraswati’s commentary to II.42:

Contentment means not only to know what is enough, it also involves neither liking nor disliking what’s on offer by the world. What the world offers simply has no impact on us anymore, as a result of practising santosha…There is no disturbance in the mind, everything is received as a gift of Divine Grace.  Unfulfilled desire causes unhappiness; contentment is the joy of renunciation – of not ‘needing’.4

Vyasa says pithily:

Contentment is the absence of the desire to take any more means than are present.5

In Scotland, at least before the rise of consumerism and burgeoning personal debt it was considered wise to learn to be content with ‘one’s lot’ or as Harold Macmillan said ‘You have never had it so good’.  But santosha is not just concerned with identification and contentment with one’s lot in the world.  Ultimately it is probably not even a practice in the sense of a yogic practice.  It is a state of being, of being content in being, not with anything we identify with intellectually or wilfully but with the process of the flow of life itself.  Fundamentally that is ‘one’s lot’ and it is there whatever we think and however we behave, just as the sea ebbs and flows, just as the universe contracts and expands.  And in the silence of meditation, if the breath comes to rest then there is the silence of consciousness from which and in which all movement comes into being.  That is something like the ultimate mind-space.

What are the conditions for knowing santosha?

The first condition is: Find a good teacher. 

The second condition is: Pay close attention to your practice.

The third condition is: Don’t believe a word you think.  It has nothing to do with ideas.

So following the sense of the third condition what you have just read is just ideas, so go instead to the insight your own breath may give to the deeper nature.

Jim is currently an HYT-TTP student with the Himalayan Yoga Tradition. This article was originally written for Yoga Scotland Magazine.

1 Swami Rama – Path of Fire and Light: Advanced Practices of Yoga. India; Allahabad, 1996 p.113

2 Zambito, Salvatore – The Unadorned Thread of Yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali in English: A Compilation of Translations.  US; Washington, 1992

3 Swami Satchitananda – The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. US, Yogaville, Virginia, 1990

4 Swami Nityamuktananda – Seeing Yoga: A Contemplation of Pañtanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Spain, 2005

5 Quoted from the commentary by Swami Veda Bharati - Yoga Sutras of Patañjali with the Exposition of Vyasa Vol II, p 495. Delhi, 2001



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