This week we are looking at the yama of brahmacarya. Brahmacarya is often known as the ‘sex one’ and to the naked (no pun intended…) eye can appear to be about celibacy. When we look closer though, this yama is dynamic- and as with all things in yoga requires looking at it through a balanced lens. We will let the brilliant Jenna Baker explain this one:
Bramacharya is one of the hardest of the Yamas and Niyamas to accept/process/practice/grasp in my opinion. Part of this is the realities of modern society vs ancient or at least Middle Age India, part of it is a cultural difference between the West and the East. The idea of Brahmin classes and what it took to maintain their direct access to god – to perform various rituals and things – doesn’t mean much in a world of dynamic Western householders. We in the West also have few modern examples of an entire family and clan based class managing the religion of the society we exist in – short of possibly the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and the practice of sending second and third sons to the church. Does the idea of simple celibacy on a mass level have meaning in 2019?
Bramacharya strictly from Sanskrit means “conduct consistent with Brahma” or sometimes “to walk with Brahma”. The common sutra definition is “continence”. My personal approach has always been “conservation of vital energies” and this is the approach we take through the rest of the month as well.
What is it that often distracts us from our highest self or even simply our practice? It’s not simply the debate of sex or celibacy but the nature of addictions and excess of the physical self separating us. Where are we addicted to things that are draining our ability to exist with higher consciousness? Where are we spending energies not engaged with conscious attention and awareness. The answer lies with understanding the self – who are you, how is your life structured, how is your practice best supported, where are you going? For some folks even today, a bramachari vow is their expression of yoga. For others it’s ethical engagement with physical energies. Know your truth, and continue to refine the approach to a balanced and moderated, but rich, life.
BKS Iyengar comes to the same conclusion in Light in Life:
“I come lastly to the fourth Yama, continence or celibacy, because it raises such strong reactions among the public. To most people, Bramacharya simply means that if you want to be a spiritual person then you should be permanently celibate. However, since it would presumably be a good thing if the whole world wanted to become spiritual, we would soon have a planet populated only by dogs and cats and cows. If God has intentions, I cannot believe this is one of them.
Sexual self control is something else. I always wanted a wife and family. I also wanted to be a Yogi. In all Indian tradition there has been no contradiction here. When my wife was alive my bramacharya was expressed in my fidelity to her. After her death desire weathered, and my bramacharya has been that of a celibate. I followed truth during the first volume of my life and I followed it in the second. Because both were founded in truth and integrity, both bore fruit.”
Nischala Joy Devi defines bramacharya as simply balance and moderation and sees it as potentially full of deep joy: “through this practice [of Bramacharya] we are able to orchestrate the glorious dance between our divine nature and human nature. Each is fueled by the vital energy that is generated as we emulate, rather than resist, nature’s beautiful patterns.”
In your own practice, who are you? How can you move through a householder reality in the most connected way? How can you honor and support yourself while maintaining spiritual discipline? How can you find joy and connectedness in this practice? That is the real ask of brahmacharya. The knowledge and expression of your truth with respect to the vital energies of life, and, in walking with Brahma, creation.
Our homework assignment for you this week is to create a To DON’T do list. What is it that you need to restrict or stop in order to balance or even invigorate your own vital energy? If you’ve jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon, you’ll find that often the less we have, the more we appreciate it. The more we budget, the more joy and fulfillment we find in spending our money or saving for something we are anticipating.
As a society, we are often encouraged to buy more, take more, be more. Brahmacarya invites us to do less, hold back, restrain, consider, think, pause and then do only what we need to maintain our energy. It also takes a deep level of self-knowing. When Prohibition was enacted, drinking increased 60-70% due to the restrictions placed. In order for self-restraint to be successful it needs to be consentual and in service to something higher than ourselves. Without consent and service, it becomes Puritanical at best and often addiction at worse.
So, make a To Don’t Do list. What will you hold back from this week, month, year in order to afford you more vital energy- or better utilization of it?