Brahmacharya is much more than the popular notion of celibacy. While celibacy is a must for those choosing the life of monk and svāmihood, the rest who partake the sensory world, will certainly appreciate a simpler explanation of Brahmacharya. Living in a society permeated with pleasure, the principle of Brahmacharya presents a ground rule towards handling the world of senses.
Brahmacharya, celibacy, continence, is the fourth Yama, restraint, which appears in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda, of the Yoga Sūtras (2.38). Svāmi Prabhavānanda explains that sexual thoughts, acts & fantasies contribute to the dissipation of the vital force; while conserved energy through abstinence gets transmuted as spiritual energy intensifying the understanding of the sacred and preparedness to receive the Divine. Where does this leave us – householders, professionals and the like?
I thought it best to present commentaries of a few yogis who have shared their wisdom after years of practice. Their words have made these principles come alive, making it both a pleasure and bane to practice.
- To one established in continence, vigor is gained. (Rev. Carrera)
- When a man becomes steadfast in his abstention from incontinence, he acquires spiritual energy. (Svāmi Prabhavānanda)
Reverend Jagannath Carrera is the founder and spiritual head of the Yoga Life Society and a student of Svāmi Satchitananda of Integral Ashram, Yogaville, VA.
Spiritual pursiuts, make significant demands on time, attention and energy. In yoga, the only way to ensure success is to dedicate our resources to the goals we have set before us. That is why continence, the avoidance of non-productive expenditures of energy has always held a central position in yoga practice. When we don’t waste energy, we gain vigor. It is not simply that we will have more energy, but the quality of it will be more subtle, stable and healing.
A common rendering of Brahmacharya, the word is translated as continence, celibacy – an interpretation that may be a little misleading. While Brahmacharya includes sexual continence, it has a broader connotation. Translated literally, Brahmacharya is “path to Brahman“. Brahman means “greater than the greatest”, and is often translated as Absolute Reality or God. In practice, Brahmacharya means to expend energy on activities that are conducive to the attainment of Self-Realization (Brahman). Therefore, it is misleading to limit it to celibacy.
During a talk at Rutgers Universiry in 1974, Svāmi Satchidananda was asked, “Is it really necessary for a person who wants to practice yoga to be celibate?” His answer is well captured by Rev. Carrera in his book (#135-136). Here is a snipet. “Sex is not forbidden to yogis unless they have taken monastic vows, as svāmis (monks) have done. For the rest, the householder-yogis, it should be within a meaningful relationship with a committed partner with whom love, caring and a common life’s spiritual vision is shared.”
Many great masters past and present have lived a married life (householder/professional). Brahmacharya in this context is not about abstinence, but about not being bound by craving, observing moderation in sexual activity and finding other, richer avenues to express and receive love.
When sexual energy is intelligently conserved (not repressed), it is naturally transmuted to a more refined energy called Ojas. Ojas is potent healing energy that helps to overcome physical disorders and strengthens subtle and gross nervous systems. It bestows physical stamina and lucidity to the entire thought process and is therefore a great aid to concentration, making sustained, deep meditation possible. When conserved, Ojas becomes even more refined and is refered to as Tejas, (brilliance, splendor), which is a subtle form of prāna.
It is Ojas and especially Tejas that distinguish the teachings of great spiritual masters from ordinary teachers. Spiritual teachings are different from any other form of instruction in that it is not the mere imparting of ideas or even methods of analysis, but the transmission of the most subtle and precious vital energy from teacher to student. It is a process that awakens the forgotten truth of the Self in the student. Tejas is the serene radiance and compelling glint in the eye of those that are spiritually realized.
Hence, sexual energy should be treated with respect and care that it desrves. We are dealing with very powerful and refined energies – the wasting of which can impede our growth, overuse of which can harm us, but whose conservation brings immense spiritual growth.
Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga under Svāmi Rāma, in the United States and India. He began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987.
When the mind is freed from the domination by the senses, sensory pleasures are replaced by inner joy. When the senses connect with the pleasures of the world, they offer us plenty to delight in, but they can also throw us off balance and squander our energy. Maintaining equanimity while living in the world of senses is a pivotal task for yoga practitioners – it helps us restore harmony to the body and mind. Practically speaking, this means that Brahmacharya turns the mind inward, balances the senses, and leads to freedom from dependencies and cravings.
In Vedic India, the word Brahmacharya denoted the first of the four stages (āśrama) of life – that of a student. In this stage, the aspirant spent all his time with a spiritual teacher and that was quite naturally, a celibate time. The word also refers to vow of celibacy taken by a sannyasi, or a renunciate – one walking in God-Consciouness. However, in the context of the Yamas, Brahmacharya refers to the middle path of restraint. Both overindulgence and repression can delplete your vital force; both can leave you insecure and anxious.
In the world overwhelmed by stimuli, making wise choices about the books we read, the movies we watch, and the company we keep will help us conserve energy and keep our mind focused and dynamic; and staying committed and faithful to one partner in a relationship that is mutally supportive is the middle path of Brahmacharya. The middle path allows you to enjoy the control of your senses rather than letting uncontrolled senses spoil your enjoyment of life.
As a beginner, I was uninterested in the study of Brahmacharya. Not knowing how to approach it, and being embarrassed by the topic, it succumbed to neglect. During the teaching cycles at the studio, there seemed an occassional new understanding. Deep study of this ethic happend during teacher training fifteen years ago. Although it was an eye opener, I can shamelessly admit that it did not lead to deeper understanding, and after graduation, I was still embarassed to present it due to my inadequacies.
The following questions (and more) that were set during my intial Rāja Yoga training to become aware of this difficult ethic continues to be at the forefront in the practice and teaching of Brahmacharya.
- To watch my inner conversation: Am I weakening my will power each time I delve in sense pleasures? Am I able to give up cravings for sweet and savory without complaining?
- To observe my behavior: Am I aware that certain behaviors such as binge T.V. watching, or eating a whole bag of chips feed the senses and cause restlessness? How does my mind react to see a scantily clad women/men in advertisements?
- To monitor my words: How often do I comment on someone’s clothing with a desire to buy one for myself? How often do I criticize another for their choice of clothing, make-up or movies? Do I participate in “loose sexual talk” through jokes and innuendos?
- To notice how I deal with consequences: Am I aware of how I feel after binge eating or shopping or feeding a craving?
- To perceive that I am part of a whole: How am I contributing to sexual remarks or jokes in social settings? As a wife and mother what role am I playing to ensure that my child learns to respect this energy as she grows up?
Years ago, I chose a life of a householder and professional which immersed me into the world of sensual pleasures. A decade later, having been initiated on the path of Raja Yoga, the test to apply the yoga ethics began. I could only make small adjustments with family and friends without imposing. I had to identify my cravings (food and habits) and monitor them daily when everyone around me was indulging. It was challenging and frustrating. If I were to succeed, I had to understand why I chose to do this practice – at home and socially, without the feeling of supression.
Daily prānayāma, and sitting (meditation) helped in calming my mental restlessness, dealing with failures and the added disappointment of weak will power. It was a lonely practice. But I survived, and still a householder-practicing-would-be yogi. Now, surrounded by like-minded people (Satsang), I can confidently say that I am stronger for – ‘swimming upstream’, as Eknāth Easwaran of Blue Mountain Center for Meditation puts it – and am enjoying a few rewards of persistent practice.
A valid question: Does it mean that a person established in this ethic never indulges?
According to Taimni, ‘real yogic life’ cannot be combined with self indulgence and wasting of vital force, especially if one is interested in advancing to higher yogic practices. A person who is a slave to his passions is unfit to embark on this sacred adventure unless he is willing to systematically prepare to give up completely not only physical indulgence but even thoughts and emotions connected to sensual pleasures. For a would-be yogi, attraction to seemingly innocent enjoyments are harmful, not because there is anything ‘sinful’ about them, but because they carry with them the potentiality for constant mental and emotional disturbances.
The trouble lies not in feeling the pleasurable sensation which is quite natural and in itself harmless, but in the craving for the repetition of the experience. Bottomline, the attitude of abstinence, Brahmacharya, essentially is promoting freedom from craving all sensual enjoyments (Taimni).
A true yogi moves among all kinds of objects in the world like you and me, but the difference is – his mind is not attached to objects which bring pleasure or repelled by objects which elicit pain (Taimni). A person established in this ethic, Brahmacharya, having – through severe self-discipline and non-attachment – trained his mind to be his slave, lives freely within the phenomenal world with undisturbed peace and joyous contentment.
And I, keeping in mind the broader connotation of Brahmacharya, will continue to walk the path of God- consciousness and let it’s essence assimilate within through disciplined practice.
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