Brahmacharya: Celibacy, non-indulgence, moderation, divinity

This is a fascinating sutra with a variety of translations and interpretations depending on different backgrounds and belief systems. And here many Yoga students start to worry that they have to say goodbye to sex to reach enlightenment. And some students of Yoga do take the path of celibacy and automatically imagine they are divine.

B.K.S. Iyengar in his Light of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali reminds us that the great yogi Vasista had one hundred children, yet he was called a Brahmarchari, and our teacher, Mr. Iyengar himself, is a Brahman and has six children.

Rohit Mehta in Yoga the Art of Integration says, “Brahmacharya is commonly translated as celibacy but this is not its real meaning. It really means the cessation of the frittering away of one’s energies.” Let’s look closer at the complete sutra, Brahmacharya – Pratistayan Virya – Labhak which Rohit Mehta translates as, “When one is established in Brahmacharya or non-indulgence, one is endowed with inexhaustible energy.”

So what do we tend to indulge in? We often indulge in food, drink, sleep, work, play, exercise, sex, social life, etc. And why do we indulge? We have had a pleasurable experience in the past and we have a memory of it and desire to re-experience it. And when we experience it, we try to hold on and cling to the sensations of the experience.

For example, we remember the pleasurable, sensational experience of eating a Haagen Dazs ice cream and want to re-experience it. We crave the Haagen Dazs and then with the ice cream in hand, we cling to the sensations, lick after lick, wishing it would not end.

And where there is pleasure, there is always pain. Pleasure and pain, indulgence and resistance, are two sides of the same coin. They always go together. We either hold onto the memory of pleasurable experiences, or we resist. It’s the process of holding on or resisting that drains and fritters away our energy.

Instead of trying to hold onto past experiences or trying to control the natural passages of time and flow of life, Brahmacharya is a process of meeting each new moment fresh and new. Mehta says, “When no continuing is sought to be given to an experience, then it ends, leaving one free to meet another experience afresh.”

Vimela Thakar in her Glimpses of Raja Yoga looks deeper into the meaning of Brahmacharya: the root meaning of Brahma being the supreme intelligence, the ultimate reality, the divine, and the core meaning of Chary being to move, walk, to live. So, she explains that Brahmacharya is the way of living in which you are always aware of the divinity, of the supreme intelligence. And she concludes that Brahmacharya is dedication to the perception, understanding, and awareness of divinity.

In Yoga we train our minds to “be here now,” to clear our perceptions, to deepen our understanding, and expand our awareness to life. It’s in the process of expanding our awareness that we move into our inner true needs. We listen to the divinity within and follow the path of moderation.

So, how can we bring Brahmacharya to the Yoga mat? What poses do we indulge in and which do we resist? Often people indulge in poses that come with ease and that they have good memories from previous classes or practice, and we resist the ones that are challenging from past experiences. Some people indulge in standing poses, inversions, and backbends. Others resist these poses like the plague. On the contrary, some people indulge in forward bends, hip openers, and reclined poses, while others resist them in general.

In your Yoga practice, try going into each pose like you have never done it before with a fresh, open mind and a receptive body. Listen and trust your intuitive voice within that always seeks balance, harmony, and peace in every movement and moment. As you let go of the bonds of the pleasures and pains of the past, you might discover hidden abilities, energy, and joy in your practice.

Mehta concludes: “To stop pleasure seeking doesn’t mean the end of joy; actually, joy comes when pleasure seeking ends.” In our daily life we can practice Brahmacharya by letting go of past memories and experiences and meeting each new moment fresh and new, while going to work, hugging a loved one, or simply taking a deep breath, experiencing the heart of mystery in each moment.