The yamas and niyamas are introduced in the second book of Patanjali’s sutras. This book, Sādhanapādah, offers instruction as to how we might cultivate the quality of attentiveness in our practice. Brahmacarya, our fourth of the five yamas, is the virtue of self-restraint. But it’s more complicated than that. This self-restraint asks for celibacy in the single person, fidelity for the married.
But it really couldn’t be all about sex, could it?
Judith Hanson Lasater wrote a series of beautiful essays about the yamas and niyamas. She breaks down the meaning of brahmacharya like this:
“The actual definition of the word,” she writes, “is based on the translation of the syllables of the word. Brahma comes from the name of the deity Brahma; char means to walk and ya means actively. Thus brahmacarya means ‘walking with God’.”
Yet I still find this yama far more complex and nuanced than ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth-telling) and asteya (non-stealing) – especially when I try to place brahmacarya in a 21st century context.
It’s one thing to be called to celibacy but what about sexually active individuals who are not married yet in a loving, committed relationship? Are they to be denied a yoga practice? And by ‘yoga practice’ I mean one that is not limited to asana. A living, breathing, walking-in-the-world yoga practice.
And assuming Lasater’s deconstruction of the word is correct, what does this mean for individuals who don’t believe in a god? Is belief in a deity a pre-requisite?
I am in a loving, long-term, committed relationship with an atheist to whom I am not yet married. Once deeply religious I am now agnostic at best. But our yoga practices are thoughtful and strong. Is it possible they are fraudulent?
TKV Desikachar’s translation speaks of the vitality and strength we can gain through self-restraint and moderation. Framed like this, brahmacarya has more resonance for the 21st century yogi. It becomes something I can happily embrace and apply to my daily practice. And yet this lightweight acceptance of simple moderation seems a little too easy. It lacks power of a disciplined approach.
What if the celibacy we’re asked to practice has less to do with our relationships with friends, lovers, husbands and wives and more to do with unbridled compulsion, selfishness, blind ambition or extremes of emotion? If I consider these ideas and pay attention to how I walk through life I can become aware of when I am compulsive, selfish, ambitious to the point of unfeeling blindness and over-reactive. I can pay attention. I can step back. I can moderate my behavior.
I can see my world with clear vision.
The promise of brahmacarya.
As yoga teachers, a personal practice of brahmacarya energetically influences our students. Our clear-headed and calm demeanor will instill a sense of trust. Furthermore, our practice of brahmacarya will encourage the same attitude of restraint and moderation in our students’ practice.
Most of all, our practice of brahmacarya will conserve our energy. That means we’ll be able to teach our last class of the day with the same open heart as the first.