I set out to climb the whole mountain but I stopped halfway and enjoyed the view. That is as far as I went. This is how I practice santosha, or contentment – the second niyama in Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path of Yoga.
Often when people hear the term content they think it is complacency, or a lack of ambition. If you’re satisfied with where you’re at you’ll become stagnant. Our society has conditioned us to believe that our success is dependent upon our ability to produce results and advance in a system of our own creation. We must always be striving for the next benchmark – a raise, a promotion, a step up the social ladder. But if you don’t make it there, if you aren’t successful, that must mean you’ve failed. You become dissatisfied and deflated, using hateful language to blame others or criticize yourself. You fall into a powerfully negative thought pattern. Where will that get you?
In truth, contentment is actually a force that keeps you moving forward, but with a joyful and grateful attitude. It means setting goals for yourself and working toward something, but your success or your value is not dependent upon actually meeting that goal. Regardless of the outcome, you tried. You had an experience. You learned something. You grew. I believe it is OK to set your sights on something bigger and better, so long as you your soul will be better off for having worked toward it.
This is true in all facets of our lives, not just financially or occupationally. We do this on a daily basis with every action, thought, and feeling. By carrying an attitude of contentment we can become our own biggest fans, rather than our biggest critics.
I recently had a functional capacity test done to measure my current levels of disability accrued in various physical categories. Overall, I’m in great shape. My flexibility and balance are still above average, not in anyway disabled. My fine motor skills and dexterity are only mildly impaired. I manage just fine, but don’t ask me to separate the opening of a plastic bag from the produce section. Last, but not least, the most shocking and disheartening category: endurance. My cardiovascular fitness leaves a lot to be desired, and falls into the category of moderately impaired. This was determind by measuring my heart rate during and after various physical activities like walking up and down stairs, pushing items across the room, and lifting different weights. Once numbers were crunched and results compiled, I was given the following recommendation: the most vigorous, sustained activity I should do is anything equivalent to walking. Not running. Not jogging. Not even speed walking. Just walking. The athlete in me was immediately ashamed, questioning, “how did I let this happen to myself? How did I let it get this bad? There’s no excuse for being this out of shape!” Thankfully, I shared these thoughts with the physical therapist who had given me the results. His response hit hard.
He assured me that this was Not My Fault. There is something metabolically wrong with my system, likely a result of the MS or medication I take for it.
His response released me from responsibility and control. Once I shed that, I was able to move toward contentment. I’d finally reached a point in my life where I chose to stop keeping tally of the things I was losing and focus instead on what I still have and what can be gained.
Consequently, the second part of my reaction,”how do I fix this?” turned into “what can I do with this?” The only way I’ve ever known to train is running to the point of exhaustion, finding my second wind, and running some more. Thankfully, I again shared my thoughts with the PT. I asked him to explain to me what could happen if I ignored the recommendation and trained as I always have.
When you are still, your heart beats at its resting rate. When you engage in physical activity, it beats faster to pump more blood and provide the additional oxygen your muscles need. More vigorous activity leads to a higher heart rate. Subtract your age from 220 and you’ll find your maximum heart rate. Your heart COULD beat faster than that, but it shouldn’t. If it does, you create the conditions for increased risk of a cardiac event or mortality. When you work out, you should try to stay at or below 85% of your max. If you are regularly going beyond that number, over-training, the effort it takes your body to keep up and then recover actually begins to weaken your systems rather than strengthen them. More succinctly, pushing myself too hard, too fast to get back into shape could make me worse instead of better. Add in a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disorder that can be triggered by fatigue, and you’ve got a sure recipe for catastrophe.
I needed a trusted source to drive that point home, to be the voice in the back of my head each time I have to make a choice about how hard to push. Stopping or slowing doesn’t make me a quitter. It doesn’t mean I’m not trying hard enough. It makes me wise.
Galavanting around the woods and climbing mountains probably doesn’t seem smart, given what you just read. But here’s the thing – I do it differently now. My first step was to commit to wearing a heart rate monitor during these activities. (I use my Apple Watch) I know the numbers to watch for and I respect them. When I begin to feel my heart pounding or my breathing labored I check it. If it is too high, I stop to rest. Resting for me includes drinking water and taking pictures – still making good use of my time. When my heart rate has slowed to an acceptable range, I’ll continue on. I also recognize that sometimes my plans have to change. I am a romantic idealist, so my sights are set high, but I have to be realistic. For instance, my climb today….
At some point, a short break isn’t going to cut it. I’ve asked too much of my body and if I go any further I won’t be able to feel my legs for the rest of the day. They’ll turn into jello that won’t support me going down a flight of stairs. My hands will shake uncontrollably when I try to hold my glass to drink. I’ll feel dizzy and nauseous the rest of the day. Even though I feel OK now and could do more, I have to consider future me. To continue would just be cruel.
It is taking practice and patience to learn to be ok with this – to not feel like I missed out or failed. I have to stand still and listen for the whisper in the back of my mind telling me that I made a wise choice. I look at the data from what I DID accomplish, and I marvel at the photos I took from each place that I stopped. It doesn’t matter how far I got. I started. I learned. And I grew. I climbed part of the way to Pikes Peak. I am Out Living It for sure. In this way I take ownership of my situation and work to improve it in the healthiest way possible. I honor and celebrate my body by exploring its potential. I respect my body by working within its limits. I accept it. Contentment. Santosha.