Balancing Discipline & Contentment
(Tapas and Santosha)
“Discipline is remembering what you really want.” ~ Doug Keller
“There is contentment and tranquility when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire.” ~ BKS Iyengar

Discipline and contentment are powerful, necessary elements in one’s yoga practice. Separately, they grant us motivation and acceptance… and together they help us maintain our balance in life. At first glance though, they can appear to be at odds together. Like oil and water, discipline and contentment seem to contradict each other’s very nature.

Tapas is discipline, as well as the fiery ability to overcome the obstacles in our path. Tapas is the ability to stay focused on one’s highest aims in life, as well as the burning up of the ego and its distracting desires. Tapas has a very powerful, intense nature. Even in the face of distractions and obstacles, tapas reminds us about what is most important… and gives us the motivation to stick with our practice through the thick and thin.

Because of this fiery nature… tapas can nearly burn a person up if one isn’t attentive. Tapas can be overtaken by the ego, and a person’s practice can become full of extreme measures which are unhealthy and ego-driven: pushing too hard, starving one’s self, excessive exercise, and so on.

To prevent this unfortunate state, we must keep contentment close at hand. Contentment provides us with the ability to accept the current state as it truly is… and to work with the resources available to us, rather than forcing or pushing to achieve the goals of the ego.

Some of you might remember that old TV show called “MacGyver,” in which the hero was always saving the day by using whatever odd trinkets and objects he could find. For example, he might use a paper clip and his watch band to prevent a bomb from blowing up, or something like that! Of course, “MacGyver” was just an action show on TV, but the premise is a good analogy for contentment. When we set goals and aims for ourselves, we must look at the situation of the present moment and see what we have available that can help move us closer to our goal. If MacGyver just sat around waiting for a bomb-stopping-kit to arrive, it surely would have been too late!

The ability to accept and see the present moment clearly is contentment, santosha. From the vantage point of santosha, we can more clearly see the whole landscape – like being atop a mountain. We can see our biggest life goals off in the distance, and we can see our immediate goals closer on the horizon. From the vantage point of contentment, we can also see more clearly which goals have arisen from the heart, and which goals have their origins in our status-hungry ego. In contentment, we are able to keep all the fiery power of tapas, without singeing ourselves by pushing too hard.

Like the tortoise and the hare, the ego (hare) is eager to jump out of the gates at full speed and is always looking for shortcuts and distractions, while the tortoise (discipline and contentment) steadily moves along without changing course. When they are balanced and working together, tapas and santosha give us the traits of patience and persistence: the faith to continue onward toward our goals, and the patience to move steadily at an appropriate and realistic pace.

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Updated August 22, 2006