Santosha: the yoga of cat
I think names are significant & so whenever I have an animal come into my life that requires a name, I try* to do best by the animal. So when I needed a kitty to get rid of the mice that started showing up in January, I decided to call my little 6 month old ginger adoptee Santosha, which is one of the yoga niyamas, or practices of yoga, written about by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. I had just finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training program, and the yamas and niyamas were all fairly fresh in my mind — but of all of them, santosha (contentment) stood out most.
When most of us yoga loving western folks think of yoga, we think of the physical practice — asana, and no more. It’s how a lot of yoga is taught and practiced in our culture & society. I first started going to Ashtanga classes as a way to stretch after rock climbing, and then as my life got busier and my climbing tapered off, I kept going to yoga classes because I fell in love with the way it made my body feel: strong and flexible, but also quieter, more peaceful. That was about 16 years ago, just after my ex & I split and started navigating our long co-parenting relationship. It was hard and rocky and sad and confusing, and yoga anchored me — gave me a grounding I needed so badly in order to get back on my feet and find some balance in my life as a 20-something single mama of two little boys at a time when everything felt like a struggle.
It’s been many years since then, and my yoga practice has ebbed and flowed, and I still sometimes feel like I’m struggling all the time, which seems totally unfair because I’m 40 and kinda thought I’d have it all figured out by now, ya know? But for the past couple of decades, yoga has been where I go when I need grounding or contentment or just escape and I’m sick of drinking wine. We all have something: faith or God or science or art or drugs or shopping or literature or work or Pokemon Go or reality T.V., or more likely a combination of all of the above — but one thing is usually the thing that sets you feeling right, or at least a little bit better than before. And the trick, of course, is to find a thing that makes you feel better without fucking up other things in your life too much, which is why I’m pretty happy that I found yoga instead of, say, heroin or fundamentalist religion or extreme body modification.
For most of my years of yoga practice, it’s been about the physical and the mental, with the spiritual/philosophical elements of the practice taking a back seat. But I’ve also become aware that the physical/mental and the spiritual elements are inextricably linked, and the philosophical helps to make sense of it all. Even when I was going to yoga classes to simply stretch and strengthen my physical body and to relax and calm my mental body — even when I chanted OM without understanding fully its significance — those asanas changed me. Those sound vibrations moved my spirit & my soul. Those brief moments of clarity or concentration when I have been able to dive fully into the practice of yoga have been deeply healing simply because through them I learned to be present, fully and without fear. To let go of things I can’t change. To love what I have in front of me. To be patient.
I have so far to go to in my practice of these lessons. The yamas and niyamas are demanding, and I’m under no illusion that I’ll master any of them in this lifetime. But if there is one that I’ve come back to again and again, it is santosha — the practice of contentment. I understand santosha much in the way I think those who ascribe to the Serenity Prayer understand surrender in a Christian sense — not as being passive or not fighting to change what needs to be changed, not as never struggling with anything.
Rather, I think my cat Santosha embodies the principle amazingly well. Shortly after I adopted Santosha, I adopted a little puppy that I fell in love with on an epic 3-day horse/bicycle pilgrimage we took into the mountains in May. I’d already had Santosha for a few months, and, as is likely to happen with two babies of roughly the same size, her and the puppy, Chata, fell in love with each other immediately. At first I was amused that Santosha let the puppy manhandle her, jumping all over her, dragging her around by the neck fur, etc. I would try to separate them, but Santosha kept going back for more — to the point where she was losing her fur where Chata kept grabbing her.
It’s better now, but I’ve been watching those two a lot and thinking about contentment, about not fighting it. Santosha can easily find places where Chata can’t get her, but she loves the love and accepts it, teeth and all. She is the ultimate in contentment: a cat rescued from the streets of a Mexican barrio, in love with a puppy with razor-sharp teeth. It’s a lovely relationship, and I hope these two have each other for a long time. I’m grateful to have both of them: I haven’t seen a single piece of mouse poop since Santosha moved in, and she’s even killed a few scorpions. Chata is the most adorable little brat of a puppy who I thought was going to be a Chihuahua but who has turned out to be an awesome mix of some kind that looks like a tiny Doberman. She’s small but sturdy, a perfect puppy for a toddler (although let’s be honest, she’s really mine), and a top-notch cuddler once she’s got her wiggles out for the day dragging the cat around by the scruff of the neck.
Contentment: getting comfortable with the knowledge that all toddlers eventually sleep, and sometimes love comes with sharp little teeth. Just go with it.
*My current foster-puppie-mama, Itchy, might disagree. Her mange is getting way better and she’s turning out to be a sweet brindle hound-dog-looking girl, but the name is sticking for now.