Giving Thanks, Cultivating Contentment

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At Thanksgiving, we pause to gather with friends and family to express gratitude for the year’s blessings. Although this North American holiday is usually associated with the pilgrims’ first successful harvest, dating to nearly 400 years ago, the idea of setting aside a time for giving thanks has even older origins in spiritual and cultural traditions around the globe.

Great teachers from Aesop to Oprah have taught how cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” can lead to a sense of well-being and fulfillment. In the yoga tradition, gratitude is related to samtosha—most often translated as contentment and counted as one the five observances or niyamas outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Samtosha is the antidote for attachment (raga), which gives birth to desires or cravings, and which, in turn, lead to envy or frustration over unmet expectations. These are all symptoms of what meditators call “monkey mind,” uncontrolled, incessant—and usually unhelpful—thoughts. Whatever we focus on has a tendency to magnify and define us, like a negative whirlpool that drags us ever deeper.

One way to calm the swirling thoughts and feelings of dis-contentment is to focus on what we are grateful for. Cultivating samtosha is one of the most important practices for calming the mind which is the very essence of yoga as defined by the sage Patanjali in his second sutra (“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind waves.”)

While you may associate Thanksgiving with yoga more in terms of a brisk vinyasa to burn off the extra stuffing and gravy, consider making the holiday the beginning of an everyday gratitude practice. It’s by cultivating contentment daily that the seeds of serenity and peace will grow and blossom outward. In sutra II:42, Patanjali says: “From contentment, supreme joy is attained.”

What are some ways you’ve integrated contentment or gratitude with your yoga practice?

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