Ah yes, everyone’s favorite yama. Brahmacharya.
Abstinence, chastity, moderation, proper boundaries, self-restraint, celibacy, energy-control – these are just a few of the words used in modern yoga lingo to describe this essential tenet of yoga philosophy laid out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra over 2500 years ago.
Brahmacharya is essential in yoga philosophy because yoga is about transcendence, not sense gratification, despite what you might be told out there in Wanderlustland.
Yoga requires discipline and boundaries and structure and this is where brahmacharya comes in to play.
Traditionally the hardcore yogis of the Himalayas were celibate. And for a good reason. Rather than using vital energy for rampant sex, the yogis channeled this powerful creative energy (that we all contain) into the higher chakras to achieve elevated consciousness to experience Self-realization and Divine Union.
Perhaps that sounds a bit wild for you. But just observe the simple fact that in life every activity you engage in requires energy – informed by brahmacharya, the yoga practitioner must determine how he or she wants to direct that energy and then act accordingly.
There’s no denying it; sex can be a serious distraction from spiritual progress. Of course, sex sometimes has its place in spiritual practice too. For example, ritualistic sex is performed in Tantric sects in pursuit of transcendence. (Side note: I’m talking about a very complex tradition here. You going out and getting wasted and then screwing some hot dude wearing mala beads does not make you a Tantric yogini. So don’t even go there. Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken, k?)
For a good overview on brahmacharya and the connection with the other yamas as a guide for conscious, balanced and healthy restraint, please read this article by Paul Dallaghan.
Nowadays most yogis, myself included, are householders and not celibate ascetics so you might wonder where does brahmacharya play in here? We have a number of good examples of modern masters of yoga who were householders themselves – Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar come to mind.
I think it’s fair to say that most everything, including sex, has its right time and place.
In fact, in Vedic culture, there is a system for this called “ashramas”. In this system, it is understood that there are specific years in one’s life that will be dedicated to certain pursuits and aims, whereas different years will be oriented towards different focuses – school, raising a family, spiritual austerities, etc. This really makes a lot of sense to me. I know I would have been a better student if I hadn’t been constantly thinking about how to get the attention of the cute boy across the classroom from me.
For a nice overview of all of this and some good insights on brahmacharya please read this piece by Mark Francis Mullen.
Why is it important that we have a grasp on brahmacharya as modern yoga practitioners?
Firstly because as I said above, yoga is about transcendence from identifying with the body, whereas sex is normally about satisfying some bodily urges and thus reconfirms your attachment to the body. We live in a culture that is totally sex-saturated. It’s everywhere. Our modern Western “yoga” world is no different, that’s why John Friend scandals are a dime a dozen. It’s really sad because sex is a wonderful and important part of life, but it is not the be-all end-all. In excess, just like anything, sex can be incredibly disruptive and destructive and we see that every day on the news and all around us.
Sex can be used positively (loving intimacy, making cute babies, deep personal connection) and it can be used negatively (rape, incest, pedophilia, emotional manipulation, disease). As a yoga practitioner, you are trying to live in the mode of goodness (sattva guna) as much as possible, and therefore your relationship with sex needs to be in accord with this.
Sexual restraint does not equal sexual repression and I think this is a crucial point. You can healthily decrease your sexual activity without repressing it. Sexual energy can be channeled through yogic practices (in particular Kundalini Yoga) into subtler forms of creative energy and potential that are ecstatic and uplifting. Feelings of passion and love can be directed to the Divine in the form of chanting, kirtan, and dancing – Bhatki yogis have figured this out.
Sex can be enjoyed consciously and mindfully in a healthy, moderate and loving way.
I think that “moderate” really is key though. At least it has been for me.
In our modern Western culture we are constantly bombarded with this message that if you aren’t having sex that something is “wrong” with you. Young girls are taught that sex = love. Just pick up a typical women’s magazine and you will see examples of this. “If you and your boyfriend are having sex less than 5 times a week, it’s time to have a talk” – (a.k.a. he is cheating on you or he doesn’t love you). I want to call BS on that.
Part of my maturation process in life and in relationship has been coming to this point where I can deeply and joyfully experience intimacy in non-sexual ways. I’ve been in sex-filled relationships and honestly, they were very shallow. They didn’t last and often I felt manipulated and hurt by my partner. Sex is powerful stuff and it’s really messy when it gets thrown around so nonchalantly.
Perhaps this is a more personal detail that you were looking for today, but I can say very sincerely that having less sex has been incredibly beneficial to my relationship and my happiness. I am not saying I am anti-sex, but rather that I’m happy to be in a relationship now that isn’t centered solely around it. Sex can be beautiful, fun and bonding – but only if it’s treated as something special and not just some casual activity.
There are so many ways to experience love and intimacy with a partner beyond just sex.
Go for a stroll together. Hold hands. Cook together. Meditate together. Play a game together. Snuggle. Give each other foot rubs. Share a super long hug. Tell each other what you remember from your dreams the night before. Take a shower together. Travel together. Prepare a meal lovingly for your partner and enjoy it together. Tell your partner what you love about him/her. Discuss your dreams and goals for the future together. Share with one another the things that make you smile. Laugh together. Talk about all the things for which you feel gratitude.
These are just a few things that have brought me into a more loving, conscious and intimate relationship with my partner.
Perhaps I’ve gotten a little of the point of the yama, but I just wanted to take this to a very real-life level since the idea of “celibacy” isn’t practical or desirable for most modern yoga practitioners, and honestly, that’s OK. I imagine that there are certain times when living celibate is the most positive and productive lifestyle for a person, but this is not the case 100% of the time for all people.
Relationships can be spiritually elevating and instructive. When it comes down to it the quality and meaning of sex and relationships, like everything else, is determined by the intention of the energy and focus it is given.
Being a yogi means making wise choices. Choices that uplift and inform you and others. Choices that bring you greater clarity, health, peace of mind and joy. In this light, practice brahmacharya in a manner that is most beneficial for you.
I would love to hear your thoughts and insights on all of this.
Love and Light,
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