Santosha is a very powerful niyama. Traditionally translated as contentment, I don't feel that this translation gives the full power of its meaning. Contentment as we know it in the English language can be seen in positive or negative lights. In the positive, it can imply a total peace that comes without any need for things external to ourselves. In the negative it can imply almost a complacency or indifference that can develop due to the non-attachment of all things. In this way, contentment can be a double edged sword. It is worth while to examine this niyama with more scrutiny and discernment.
I believe that in the highest light, from an absolute perspective, this niyama of Santosha can be translated as "perfect OK-ness of Being". This translation is fairly liberal, I realize, but it takes into account the deepest possible level of contentment that we can have, that of perfect OK-ness. What does this mean? It means that everything is perfect as it is. Some might balk at this and complain that everything is NOT ok, that we need to fix, that we need to change things. However, I believe that from the ultimate perspective, everything that exists, AS it exists is all part of divine plan and order. To fully have santosha, we must at some level be ok with this divine plan, we must have a deep, deep level of acceptance. This is not easy, but if it can be done our world transforms around us.
If one is able to fully come to the deepest light of acceptance in one's life, then one has a place from which to move which is unimpeded. The will is released from guilt, shame, and fear and can move forward to act with full range of motion. This allows for the deepest level of creativity to blossom forth in the material world. This allows for all of the pathways to function in an unobstructed way. One realizes a depth of freedom that previously had only been defined conditionally.
There is also a second mode of santosha, a more relative mode, which relates to the three prime qualities we call the gunas. This form of santosha is the contentment that arises when our energy is frenetic and busy. This form of santosha is like a balancing and grounding anchor, that steadies the intensity and movement of our mental, emotional, and bodily energies. This santosha is like a beacon that calls us back to our home ground when we become lost in the display of the moving wheel of life. This santosha attempts to balance the intensity of our pendulum-like swings of emotion and thought energy.
This second level of contentment, the relative santosha can
be useful to ground and balance out the intensity of the rajas guna.
When our minds and bodies are highly rajasic, our ability to concentrate
and to become still is compromised. Our judgements and decisions and
movements can be unclear. It is akin to being lost in a storm. So the
calming power of santosha is extremely useful here. Santosha helps us
overcome the patterns of deep attachment, aversion and fear. All of
these qualities will ultimately interfere with our lives and practices
if we are not attentive to them.
I would argue that to have this second type of santosha, the first form of santosha should be realized first. In other words, if one cannot return again and again to the deepest level of acceptance of one's self and the world, then it will be difficult when our different energies become excited to know where to ground.
We might be tempted to "just be content" when we find our energies are highly rajasic. This way of thinking has the potential to be problematic though as this mode could be coming from the place of thinking "calm mind is good, busy mind is bad." Many forms of modern spirituality tend to place a certain negative emphasis on the movements of mind and emotion. Even though it might not be stated explicitly, implicitly these negative judgments are laced throughout western and eastern traditions. In this way, our idea of simplifying and becoming more content come more from a place of "should" than a genuine place of actually seeing the full "OK-ness" of what is.
To summarize, it is useful to recognize whether santosha or contentment is coming from a relative or absolute place. The absolute place is already "OK". The relative mode is always a balancing act, which can be useful if we have swung really far "out there" but we have to be very careful not to swing too far in the other direction in coming back. The first level of santosha discussed above is more in the absolute vein and from this perspective, the swinging of the pendulum doesn't matter. From the second level or relative level of santosha, we try to find balance in the swinging.