One spring day a few years ago, a friend and I took a break from our stressful jobs to share a walk in the our local botanic gardens. On our arrival, we bounded out of the car, still discussing the day’s dramas in the workplace. After a few minutes on the path, we stopped, looked at each other, and burst into laughter, recognising that we had carried into the garden the same sense of urgency we had felt in the office. What a relief it was to let go, slow our pace, and truly see the beauty of flowering trees and ducks floating on a pond. Even now, I remember that day when I walk in the woods. It reminds me to honour sacred moments in the natural world by practising the art of really being there—and not somewhere else.
Slowing down to experience the fullness of the moment is one way to practise samtosha, or contentment, one of the five niyamas (observances) that make up the second limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga. To practise samtosha is to become aware that contentment is enjoyed in the present moment. When you feel discontent, it’s often because you’re wishing that your current situation were more like something that happened in the past or because you’re anticipating how you’d like it to be in the future. Samtosha asks you to be satisfied and to maintain your equanimity right now, regardless of circumstances. That doesn’t mean you give up the motivation to make changes in your life; rather, with each changing moment, you embrace the reality of who you are.
You’ve probably noticed that when you spend time in nature, happiness, satisfaction and peace become more readily available. Perhaps that’s because the natural world stimulates your interest in the present moment. Your awareness is drawn to the warmth of the sun, the sound of birdsong, the sight of clouds gathering for a storm. You’re not distracted by chores or attention-demanding electronics. You don’t focus on trying to change anything, since clearly you can’t control the environment outside.
Practising samtosha means living your yoga ethics in a way that fosters a sustainable planet today and for the future.
The contentment that comes from simply being in nature can, in turn, inspire you to stop seeking contentment from things that harm the natural world. The urge to buy a new pair of shoes, sheets, or whatever else it may be often arises in response to feelings of discontent. But when you let your unhappiness talk you into a quick-fix shopping spree for stuff you don’t actually need, you are contributing to the degradation of the environment—depleting our natural resources while filling the air, water, and soil with life-threatening emissions and waste.
When you experience true contentment, even just a moment of connection with nature, you find yourself not needing “extras” to make up for life’s dissatisfactions. Viewed in this way, practising samtosha means living your yoga ethics in a way that fosters a sustainable planet today and for the future.
The walking samtosha practice in “Get on the Path” (this page) offers a method for experiencing samtosha while immersed in the beauty of a natural landscape. It provides an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of contentment while simultaneously renewing a loving relationship with the earth.
Get On The Path
The heart of this practice is a walking meditation using the mantra “walking samtosha, I am contentment”. The experience consists of three parts: preparation, the walk itself and the conclusion.
Quiet Time. Select a location outdoors where you can practise in silence and without interruption for 20 to 30 minutes. You might choose a path in the woods, along a beach, or through an urban park. During this time, allow silence to teach the lessons of contentment. Replace the chatter of the mind with the inner voice of the mantra and the outer symphony of nature sounds.
Begin by taking a few minutes to warm up the body and quiet the mind. Do some gentle movements like rolling the shoulders, reaching the arms overhead and out to the sides, stretching the back and hamstrings. Then close your eyes and sink into the present moment through body awareness and breath. Finally, turn your attention to the sounds of nature—wind rustling the leaves or waves crashing on the shore. Allow yourself to feel a connection to the landscape and its living beings, and to enjoy a sense of oneness with creation.
Mantra Walk. Now begin to silently repeat the mantra: “Walking samtosha, I am contentment.” Once the mantra is established, open your eyes and begin to walk. Step quietly with both an internal and an external focus. Pay attention to the inner repetition of the mantra while simultaneously being aware of the world around you.
Slow the pace to about half the speed of your typical stride. Notice the sensations in each step. Become aware of the earth under your shoes and the breeze against your skin. Observe the mantra’s rhythm: “Walking samtosha, I am contentment.” Experiment with synchronising that rhythm with your movement and breath.
Allow the mantra to move through you, its teachings penetrating your being. Be alert for insights that emerge or messages from nature that inform your understanding and experience of contentment. Repeating mantra, movement, and breath while absorbing the gifts of earth, you may even feel the urge to smile.
Bask in Contentment. At the end of your walk, sit in stillness and reconnect with your breath and inner awareness. Then expand your consciousness again to embrace the world around you. Soak up the experience of natural contentment.
A Kripalu Yoga teacher and professional coach, Pat Daniel is also the associate director of Ceres, a national coalition of investors and environmentalists in the US.