A Yogic Lesson in Contentment

In the yoga classes I taught last week, I talked about the niyama (ethical observance) of santosha (contentment). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tell us that if we want to be happy, we must find serenity with who we are right now, accepting gracefully our current position on our path. We must be patient and find peace with where we are at every step along the way to where we are going. This kind of contentment is the foundation for joy. First, we find contentment, and only then can we discover true joy.

Until I was laid off in December of 2009, I was a miserable corporate lawyer practicing regulatory law in Washington D.C. I am now a joyful yoga teacher and vegan chef living along the sunny - and much more relaxed - Gulf Coast. Not long ago, I suffered from a crippling case of anxiety. Now, I know what peace is. Every day, I make choices that reflect my true self. I can see the progress I have made from the past. I am moving in the direction I want to move, moving closer to my heart.

Still, on both a personal and on a professional level, I am not, today, where I hope to be in the future. I am trying to practice patience and santosha with where I am today. But nevertheless, there are still frequent moments in many days when I find myself losing the battle, feeling impatient, frustrated, and dissatisfied, wanting more, wanting to be better.

For the last few months I’ve been working on some more advanced arm balances, feeling an amazing sense of potential and accomplishment every time I find that micro-adjustment in the posture that allows me to flow almost effortlessly into a pose I once believed was permanently beyond my capacity. I tried for months to get Eka Pada Galvanasana or “flying pigeon,” planting my face firmly into the mat dozens of times before one day just lifting off. I learned that I can rise above myself if I practice, and have patience, let go, and breathe. What an incredible high that is!

When my elbow started giving me some problems a couple months ago, I tried to ignore the signs my body was giving me to go easy, continuing with my strenuous routine until I developed tendonitis and was forced to give myself a rest. As I slowed down and took a break from the arm balances, I was aware of the need for patience and felt good about treating myself with more compassion.

And then I had one of those days where the old insecurity and impatience busted back in. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by how far I felt from the person I want to be, from the good in the world I want to do, from the joy inside that the sutras promise. My gentle routine of the preceding weeks suddenly struck me as lazy. I had no time to waste! I wanted scorpion now! What had felt soft and kind the day before suddenly felt mushy and weak.

It was the first warm, sunny day the Gulf Coast had enjoyed in months, so my dad and I rounded up our dogs, hopped in dad’s mini-van, and drove to the beach. As soon as the doors opened, the dogs leapt out of the car and tore down the pier out to the white sand beach, running into the waves, wagging their tails in joy. We had the beach mostly to ourselves, except for the graceful shore birds, the herons, storks, and egrets wading in the surf. I looked out on the stretch of white sand expanding out to the sea and watched the birds, so light and graceful, so free. Without much thought, just an inexpressible yearning that came from deep within, I planted my outstretched palms down onto the sand and tried lifting off into flying pigeon, wanting to fly, I suppose, like those birds.

But my gentle routine of the last few weeks had left my abdominal muscles weak and my hips tight. More importantly, my dissatisfaction had left me impatient and unfocused. Before I knew what was happening, I was falling forward. I tucked my head to protect my neck, as if falling out of headstand. The world spun upside down, and when I poppep up, dizzy, my eyes eventually found the confused look on my father’s face. He shook his head.

I sat there stunned for awhile, then tried to stand up, but my left hip felt like it had been beaten with a baseball bat. The pain was excruciating and shot up my lower and mid back. I crumpled back to the sand, lying motionless awhile. I tried to stretch it out, rolling around in the sand while the dogs all came over to drench my face with sandy tongues. I moaned, and no matter how I twisted, I found no relief. I limped back to the car, and by the time we got home, I had stiffened up so much, I could hardly walk. Lifting my left leg one inch off the ground was nearly impossible. I wrapped an ice-pack around my back and hip and called the yoga studio to tell them I would have to cancel my class the next morning. The pain in my back was shocking, but as I lay in bed feeling like a wounded bird, I became aware that it was my ego that was really torn-up.

I tried to handle the pain with grace, breathing deeply into it and trying to understand what happened. As I lay on my back, my body crippled, I knew I wouldn’t be flying again anytime soon. I felt utterly deflated. I felt like a failure. I felt that I, as a human being, was only as good as my flying pigeon. When my flying pigeon crashed, so did I.

Convalescing over the next few days, I did a lot of reflection. I realized that after I gave up practicing law, gave up my big salary, went through the trauma of a relationship with a beautiful man who struggled with a life-threatening drug addiction, and at the age of 37, moved back in with my dad to heal and to rebuild my life, my self identity and sense of self-worth had become disproportionately wrapped up in my asana practice. I had lost most of what my ego identified with in the past, lost most of the external objects and the main relationship that had made me feel whole. I had simply swapped egoic attachments.

I try to go inward every day, to reconnect with the Self that the Upanishads says “dwells in the cave of the heart.” And when I’m in my cave, when in my heart, I do feel whole. I feel compassion for all beings, and I feel peace and joy inside of that sense of love. But, I realize that often, too, when I’m feeling bad, instead of mindfully seeking the roots of that feeling, I flip upside down into a twisted up arm balance, and like a magic drug, I feel invincible.

Suddenly, it is clear to me how much my behavior looks like that of an addict. The pattern is this: I feel bad. Rather than looking deep within for wholeness, I go for the quick-fix, seeking fulfillment in something impermanent, which is hurting me, but it feels so good, I can’t stop. “Hi, I’m Tracey, and I am an arm balance addict.”

I tell my students all the time that we should strive to find ease, balance, and grace in all asanas. I tell them to always listen to their bodies and remain aware of their minds, to try to push through those false, self-limiting ideas that tell us we cannot do something just because we’ve never done it before, or are afraid to try, but respect their bodies and avoid being driven by the ego. I remind them that we use the body to tap into something deeper. I encourage them to let go of identification with the body, because we are so much more than that, and the body is impermanent.

I became a teacher because my teacher told me I needed to teach to find my own inner guru. I think it was my inner guru who toppled me that day on the beach, took my ego, and did some yoga jujitsu on her. I trust that is what I needed.

Still on the couch days after my crash, ice-pack wrapped around my back, one of the dogs lying peacefully in my lap, I realize that I am actually grateful to be exactly where I am. I have found santosha, at least for the moment. I am content. I am grateful for the lesson, grateful that I wasn't hurt any worse than I was, grateful for the opportunity to face what it is deep within that is still driving me to prove myself, to push myself beyond where I am ready to go in the first place. I am grateful for the opportunity to confront the cause of my dissatisfaction, to discover the source of yearning, and to remember that fulfillment - at least the kind that endures - will not come from anywhere outside of my own heart. I am grateful for the reminder that I am perfectly whole whether I can balance on my hands or not. What matters is that I open my heart and love all beings. That is what brings me true joy. That is what gives me purpose and a sense of peace. That is what truly allows me to rise above myself and fly with grace, ease, and freedom.

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