Discipline regarding one’s indulgence in sensory/sensual pleasures, moderation, chastity
brahmacaryapratishayam viryalabhah – Yoga Sutra II.38
“At its best, moderation produces the highest individual vitality”
Nothing is wanted by us if we seek to develop moderation in all things.
Too much of anything results in problems. Too little may be inadequate.
-- Translation and commentary by TKV Desikachar
Brahmacharya translates literally as “walking with God” or “prayerful conduct.” Brahma is the Hindu deity of creation. “Charya” translates as “to walk actively.” Each of us holds a set of aims and goals for the person we hope to become. “Walking with God” means that as we go about our daily lives, we work to direct all our energies toward these highest goals – either in the eyes of a religious deity or in our own reflection; it is “walking with Intent”.
Historically, many yogic texts and many yogic practitioners interpreted brahmacharya as strict sexual celibacy. This practice is found in many different religious traditions, the principal idea being a thorough devotion of one’s energies toward spiritual pursuits, and away from temporal distractions. Today there are some schools of yoga and some practitioners that include celibacy in their practice. Some of these yogis may choose to commit to a temporary vow of celibacy, setting aside a week or a month or even a year to devote their attention and energy inward. This pre-determined period can provide an opportunity to become aware of one’s attitudes, dependencies, habitual behavior, and emotional relationship to sexuality.
However, it is worth noting that throughout history there have also been many knowledgeable and influential yogis who have chosen to marry and raise families, whilst remaining committed yoga practitioners. Just a few of these include Sri T. Krishnamacharya, BKS Iyengar, and Sri Pattabhi Jois. In such an instance, it is emphasized that one should remain chaste – devoted to one’s partner, respectful of sexuality and the gift of human love, and attentive to how one’s sexual energies are used. We are always meant to avoid using our sexuality in any way that hurts ourselves or – especially – others, and to avoid making lewd jokes and comments about sexuality. All of this instruction is working with the assumption that we, as yogis, are searching for the self-knowledge and peace of mind that are the fruits of a devoted yoga practice.
Another aspect of brahmacharya is the discipline that it requires. For each of us, sexuality has a unique expression, and so it is surely a much larger obstacle for some than it is for others. Some people are rarely consumed by sexual thoughts which might distract them from their goals and chosen direction, while for others sexuality can even be a troubling addiction. However, there are many other sensory and sensual pleasures that distract us and temporarily take our thoughts away from “walking with God:” food, sleep, entertainment, television, and so on.
A recent Yoga Journal article about brahmacharya included this quote, from a practicing brahmachari (one who practices brahmacharya) named Adrian Piper: “If we don’t realize there’s an alternative to being driven by our desires, we don’t have any choice in how we act. Our culture does a really good job of encouraging us to indulge our desires and ignore any signals beyond them.” The practice of yoga provides us with many opportunities to become conscious of our habitual actions. We use asanas (postures) to find habitual strengths and weaknesses in our physical bodies. We use meditation to find habitual actions and tendencies in our minds. Over time, we are able to become aware of increasingly subtle habits and sensations.
In this way, brahmacharya really gets to the heart of yoga. “Walking with Intent” gives us a reminder to keep our sights set on our ultimate goals in life, and also an opportunity to view desires that arise with some detachment. This discipline gives us a moment to pause, and reflect on the nature of our desires. We can ask ourselves, “Does this desire reflect a movement toward my highest goals? Or does it take me temporarily off-course?”
Very often sensory and sensual pleasures are attractive because they tap into deep emotional memories within us. Sweets are brought out to celebrate special occasions and happy events, so our minds are clouded by that impression. Because we have enjoyed sweets so many times in the past, and with such happy memories, it is especially hard to figure out when our bodies actually want or need something sweet – or when we simply want a connection with something happy and comforting.
As Piper suggests in her quote, our culture has filled us all with a great appreciation for indulgence. We often hear people say “I really wanted to do something nice for myself, so I just went ahead and did it!” (bought a car, went shopping, ate a huge dessert, spent lots of money, etc). By comparison, we rarely hear “I wanted to do something nice for myself, so I went and volunteered” or “I wanted to do something nice for myself, so I spent a few quiet hours alone.”
Fortunately, this does not mean that we must abandon all pleasure and lead silent, boring lives! As the quote at the top of the handout mentions, moderation can be our guide. If we choose to indulge, let us have it be a choice and let us be honest with ourselves regarding our motivation.
If there is an area of indulgence that feels particularly out-of-control for you, consider a realistic time frame of “celibacy” – not eating chocolate for 3 days, not pushing the snooze alarm for a week, not taking a second serving for a month. This time is not meant to be merely endured. Rather, each time the impulse or desire arises, reflect on the source of that feeling. Reflect on what needs would be met by indulging in that desire. Ideally, this process can grant us more control over our desires, and lessen the control that our desires have over us.
Yoga is a process of self-knowledge, and in this way moderation and discipline are great allies.
Many thanks to the Yoga Journal article "Life Without Sex?" and Judith Lasater’s essay "Beginning the Journey" for their inspiration and guidance in writing this handout!
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