Saturday, September 21, is an auspicious time to mark World Gratitude Day. For many of us in North America, this is a time of harvest, when we are enjoying the summer’s bounty, with a glorious full moon leading us into the autumn equinox. We can take a cue from nature’s fullness and transition into the next phase of our lives with an attitude of gratitude, not just for a day, but as a way of being.
In the yogic tradition, gratitude springs from samtosha or contentment. When we achieve samtosha, we are freed from desires or cravings, able to quiet the mind and focus—in other words, we experience wholeness. But contentment doesn’t always drop from a tree into our hands like a ripe fruit. In yoga, samtosha is a discipline, one of the five observances or niyamas outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
How can we call up this feeling of contentment or wholeness, so that we can practice it until it becomes second nature? How can we embody an abstract concept like gratitude during meditation or asana? “Count your blessings,” people say, but all too often, affirmations of gratitude don’t resonate with us because we can’t align mere words with physical experience. Begin to shift this by focusing your awareness on something easy to recall or imagine, something you associate with fullness or completion: the moon rising above the horizon, the ripe flavors of a peach, a friend’s welcoming embrace.
Easy, right? Next, bring this awareness into your physical practice. Notice a sensation of completion where your hands press together in namaste mudra. Savor fullness as the expansive quality of the breath entering your lungs. Feel grateful for the way the earth cradles you in Shavasana. Relax the muscles your face into an inward smile of contentment during meditation. (These are only a few examples of how yogis can use the senses to go beyond the senses.)
Continue to cultivate fullness as an inner experience rather than as an outer appearance. In asana, the Sanskrit word for full or complete is “purna,” often associated with an advanced variation, one beyond the reach of all but the most flexible students. This focus on how a pose “should” look can lead us away from contentment into comparisons or feelings of imperfection.
Instead, on or off the mat, seek the depths of your own experiences. It doesn’t matter whether or not you touch your hand to the floor in Utthitta Trikonasana or rest your torso on your thighs in Paschimottanasana. Even if your forward bend looks more like a right angle than a fold, you can still practice samtosha—free from judgments or desires, perfectly imperfect, absolutely whole—by being fully present in the moment. In asana or in life, when the mind is serene, gratitude arises naturally.
When have you felt gratitude flowing most during your yoga practice?