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Yoga Sutras For Modern Life: Are Desire and Contentment Enemies?

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:42 By Contentment, supreme joy is gained

Defining the Sutra

“There were times when, for this or that reason, we had temporarily ceased to feel anxious; when we lived-as we seldom do-in the depths of the present moment, without regretting the past or worrying about the future. This is what Patanjali means by contentment.”-Swami Prabhavananda, Patanjali Yoga Sutras

Modern Day Application

Warning: This post contains the overuse and abuse of oversimplified examples because it is really hard to explain contentment with words.

Contentment is more easily explained by example.  Think of times in your life where you were so fully engaged that you lost track of time and nothing was on your mind except what you were experiencing at that moment.

Some examples that may come to mind:

-Playing outside when you were a child


-Reading a good book

-The day your child was born

-Spending time with your lover

-Watching a good movie

-Good conversation with friends

-A day at the beach

You were perfectly content. Wanting for nothing. Just present.

Santosha/Contentment is not an act but a quality.


“Whatever joy there can be had in heaven, is not even a sixteenth of the joy that is experienced when one’s desires cease.” Qoute from the Puranas found in Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy by Gregor Maehle



Many feel that without desire, life would be boring. It would not be fun. We would be zombies. However, in the above examples, there was no desire. When we are in the moment, head thrown back, dancing to our favorite song, there is no desire.  When we played hide and go seek or freeze tag until the street lights came on, there was no desire yet we felt completely alive. If you chose to play Simon says, the decision was made in the moment and there was still contentment. There was no angst. When the next song comes on at the party, you keep moving and dancing until 3AM in the morning. No angst. Just joy.

There is nothing wrong with desire. However, what many see as desire is really just anxiety. It is similar to the feeling that addicts get when they want their next fix. The desire has been tainted with attachment. It is tainted with the idea that maybe you just won’t get it or that you cannot be happy or whole until you get it. For example, have you ever been in the middle of doing something you love and it is lunch time? The thought comes to the mind, “I desire to eat but I really want to finish this.” You finish up with no rush or anxiety; still loving and enjoying the moment. When you are done, you go eat.

I am like this when I practice Yoga in the morning. My last meal is usually between 2PM and 4PM and I don’t eat again until around 10AM the next day. I absolutely have the desire to eat in the morning but usually….most days…not always, I am so present with my practice that the desire does not turn into anxiety or a longing so intense that I cannot be content or present. Does that make sense?

Another example would be taking a two hour drive to the beach. A person who practices Santosha, definitely has a desire to go to the beach or they wouldn’t be driving there.  However, the act of driving is taking them towards that desire so they can enjoy the ride. They may look at the scenery, stop at interesting restaurants, take pictures and just enjoy the act of getting to the beach.  On the flip side, someone who does not practice contentment, may have road rage, drive recklessly and speed the whole way. If you ask them to make a pit stop, they may get angry and impatient. They may not notice any of the beautiful scenery.

For someone who practices contentment, desire itself can be joyful. They can find contentment in the midst of desire. For example, the climb up the mountain to the top is exhilarating, baking the cake is soothing  and as enjoyable as eating it or the sweet tiredness that you get in the Yoga practice as you work towards taking rest also brings contentment.

The point of this discussion on contentment vs desire is that desire is just another way to experience the world. It is not a necessary component to happiness or aliveness. You can be content in the moment with no desire like when you are dancing and you can be content in the moment with desire like in the beach example.

Why it is Important

Contentment brings joy!!! Being fully involved and content is the happiest you can be, really.  Think of all the happiest moments in your life. You were fully involved. You were fully content. What the Yogis are telling us is that we can have this contentment without the planets lining up and everything happening perfectly. This contentment can be had regardless of external circumstances. What is eternally within us is eternally content. Yoga is the act of removing all the stuff that keeps us from being fully present in all the moments in our lives. Wouldn’t it be awesome if every day felt like dancing? If every day felt like having a good conversation with friends? If every day felt like being in love? What thoughts are keeping your moments from being this way? Anxiety? Worry? Shame? Fear? Hate? Anger? Yoga is asking us to take a look at that.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

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