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Brahmacharya: Mindfulness of Sexual Energy

Brahmacharya: Mindfulness of Sexual Energy

We continue our exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with a look at the fourth yama, brahmacharya or mindfulness of sexual energy. As with our previous principles, we’ll look at brahmacharya in both the direct and subtle forms in which it can be understood, as well as concrete ways we can apply it in on the mat and in our lives.

The Meaning & Context of Brahmacharya

Of all the ethical principles, brahmacharya is perhaps the one that requires the most “contextual translation” in order to understand fully. It is typically translated as celibacy, which definitely has some accuracy to it, but as you’ll understand from our discussion this is actually far from a correct representation of the full idea. Let’s begin with the origins of the term and the context which led to this translation so you can understand the greater ideal brahmacharya in fact represents….

The first thing to remember is the teachings of Yoga as we generally encounter them were in fact composed for renunciants or those who had already had a more conventional life and were ready to focus on the spiritual. Obviously, in such a stage of life, a “healthy” relationship to sexuality is in fact celibacy, which explains where this understanding of brahmacharya comes from. But of course, if we are not monks, obviously a very different approach is called for.

It’s worth noting this audience is something it can be helpful to keep in mind when considering how to interpret many of the traditional teachings of Yoga. For example, we know Yoga classically advocates a minimum of possessions and a very simple and minimal diet. But, as my teacher frequently reminded us, these clearly do not apply if we are raising a family or working a more active job. The key, he pointed out, is to understand the principles behind each guideline so we can then apply them as fits our particular obligations and place in life, and clearly the same is true of brahmacharya.

To explain a bit more of the origins, classically in Hindu culture brahmacharya refers to the first of the four ashrams or stages of life: student, householder (grihastha), retired life (vanaprastha), and renunciation (sannyasa). It literally means “to follow Brahma” – that is, to focus our life on the divine – and is traditionally a time we put our attention on learning and set aside issues like career and sexuality with the understanding they will follow in due time. Obviously, if we either choose to skip this next stage or have lived a full householder life and are ready for the next stage, we enter a parallel state of being “outside sexuality,” as it were, which is how brahmacharya came to be understood in the monastic Yogic world as celibacy.

But, that much said, it’s important to realize even in classic Yoga the householder or grihastha path is considered every bit as valid a spiritual path as choosing to become a monk. And because the life of a grihastha clearly involves love and marriage and family, celibacy would in fact be inappropriate. So now that we understand a bit more about how brahmacharya came to be understood in this far-from-complete way, let’s take a look at how it can be understood by those of us who are on this more “conventional” path….

Understanding Brahmacharya in Literal & Subtle Form

To look more deeply at the direct and subtle forms of brahmacharya, the foundation begins with the Yogi’s understanding our sexual energy can of course be very powerful. Just like food, sexuality can provide great pleasure, but unlike eating it generally involves others – an aspect of our sexuality that as we know can be more or less healthy depending on our mindset. Simply put, the Yogi’s realized if we act on them without thoughtfulness, our sexual desires can lead us to unhealthy ways of treating others or allowing ourselves to be treated. Understood this way, brahmacharya is clearly not a call to celibacy but rather an encouragement to stay mindful of the very real biological and psychological power of our sexuality, including the ways it can at times distort our behavior or skew our actions.

The most direct form of honoring this would be the avoidance of casual sexual activity – even if that activity is consensual. Again, the Yogis like many other spiritual traditions realized our sexual energy is very powerful and represents a significant investment and therefore should never be taken lightly, even if the other person is equally content to do so. Beyond this more direct level, again brahmacharya has its more subtle forms. For example, even if we would never act on it, the Yogis realized when we fantasize about a sexual encounter or objectify another person we effectively disconnect from their humanity and also our own. An extension of this is when we alter our appearance or behavior to consciously or unconsciously use the sexual feelings of others – not just in the more conspicuous forms such as flirting or dressing “provocatively,” but even in more subtle forms of using our sexuality to manipulate or control a social setting.

Mindfulness vs. Repression

Understood fully, brahmacharya therefore is ultimately an encouragement to stay mindful of and maintain the integrity of our sexual behavior. That much said, it is important to reiterate it is not a call for celibacy – except, of course, in those situations where celibacy is the right way to act – nor should it be understood as encouragement to suppress or deny our sexual nature. In the Yogic view, our sexuality is a completely natural part of our humanity, just like the joy of eating, and is essential not only for the continuance of humankind but even our spiritual evolution – after all, in the Yogic view, without new lives coming into the world, it would be impossible for us to continue to take new births in order to continue to learn and grow. Understood this way, our sexuality is both natural and healthy and something we are meant to enjoy. And so, brahmacharya is not meant as a discouragement of sexuality or a call to “hold it down,” but rather an encouragement to stay in touch with its very real power and act in a way that honors and maintains the beauty and integrity of this natural part of us.

Brahmacharya On the Mat & In Our Lives

To conclude with a brief look at some of the practical applications of brahmacharya, again we can start with the practice of asana. We all know, because our practice is very physical, it can be easy to fall into focusing on our own bodies or those of others around us. Again, clearly when we do this we essentially deprive ourselves of the chance to see ourselves or others beyond the superficial. Further, when we either worry about how we look or are proud of it, in either case we effectively rob ourselves of the presence we could otherwise be enjoying.

Beyond the mat, of course, brahmacharya clearly has numerous applications throughout our lives – especially in this day and age. We know in a consumer society it is natural to use the power of sex to build business and even simply for the sake of entertainment. Again, in the Yogic view this is in no way “evil” or “bad,” but it does involve a significant truncating of life – that is, the more we think of ourselves and others as sexual entities, the less we connect with the deeper and far more important aspects of who they and we are.

This is particularly important because with any entertainment, novelty has a tendency to wear thin, which in turn leads to escalation. This is a process we see in many areas, especially with food – our longing for variety leading to dishes that are increasingly stimulating while becoming less and less nourishing. If we can stay mindful of this natural part of ourselves and do our best to make healthier choices in what we focus on, we can avoid this tendency for sensationalization and preserve the inherent beauty of this inherently rich and wonderful part of ourselves.