Brahmacharya - I think it's fair to say the least popular of all the yamas and niyamas. Why so? Well, because this yama is often translated simply into celibacy and abstaining from sexual activity, including thoughts and fantasies. Say what?!
I know what you are probably thinking, "I just want to do some yoga, not become a monastic, celibate monk". I get ya! Me neither! But with all of these virtues or vows we are exploring, there is so much wisdom and important guidance when we really dive below the surface value of them and into their essence. So let's dive in.
First, let's look at the etymology of the word Brahmacharya.
Brahma or Brahman can be translated into : the creator, God, the ultimate teacher, absolute consciousness, ultimate reality, Truth
Charya ( carya) can be translated into flow, following, behaviour, engaging with, going towards, to conduct oneself as.
So in turn, perhaps we can understand Brahmacharya as the behaviours that lead to Brahman, or perhaps, controlling the flow of our energy to achieve higher consciousness.
Ok, but get to the sex part, I hear you say.
Well, let's talk in terms of energy, and the power of that sexual energy. It is after all, an act of creation, therefore, it is dynamic, intense, captivating and it is magical. Think about it. Remember that time where you had a strong sexual attraction to someone. You could almost feel the electricity between you, running through you, it was probably almost tangible. You probably felt invincible, a bit like a superhero. I bet you couldn't focus on much else at that time either. Concentration and cognitive functioning seems to decline when we are in such states. You probably didn't even think about eating either, seems food isn't needed to sustain ourselves - magic. This stuff is potent and it is all consuming, and if not managed and controlled, can also be very destructive.
When we are young and still naive, we have not yet learned how to control this new magic we suddenly find ourselves bestowed with. It just hits us one day, and admittedly, makes us behave very strangely and sometimes out of character. I have seen kids who were very intelligent have no interest in school work as all of their attention went to the boys or girls in the class room instead. I've seen honest people destroy relationships and trust because they had yet developed enough strength and maturity to fight the pull of others alluring energy. The word Brahmacarya in the Upanishads refers to the stage in life which is associated with the student/ learner. Wouldn't you agree that a lot of our youth revolved around trying to figure out, understand, control and develop our maturity over our sexual/ romantic relationships and a great deal of our energy was consumed by it. This studentship of mastering our sexual energy sometimes ends in our teens to mid twenties, but it can often spill over into a lifetime of learning. We all know that person.
What does this have to do with yoga, with reaching higher levels of consciousness, with following the path of the Brahman?
One of my favorite sayings is...
Where our attention goes, our energy flows...
I remember learning this lesson very clearly myself when I went to a month long meditation retreat in Bali. I was just 3 months into a new relationship and it was all very exciting. I had fallen madly in love and my mind just couldn't resist the strong urge to use up any spare moment to think of him. All of my attention went towards thinking what our future would be like, his smile, replaying all the little moments we shared so far in my head, waiting for his messages and texts and planning for when I would see him again. All of my energy was going outwards towards him and the relationship, and very little was left to go inwards for meditation. I traveled all that way to Bali and paid all that money to really learn how to meditate, and like most yogis my goal was to reach a state of higher consciousness, to reach a state beyond the ego and to truly experience a profound state of peace and oneness. However, I was far far far from this place for sure. I knew I was in trouble, how on earth was I going to still my mind and free myself from such an all consuming distraction long enough to reach these heights? Any time I closed my eyes, all I would see was him. I was even breaking the rules and sneaking in a quick face time every morning, rather than starting the day in silence and reflection. The only reflection I was doing was checking mine in that little box in the corner to make sure I looked OK. I couldn't keep focused and it was preventing me from fulfilling my purpose there. So, I started to feel like I had only one choice, if I couldn't have the two at the same time, perhaps I had to let one go. I remember 'meditating' on whether or not I could have a relationship if I ever wanted to be a 'serious yogi' and if I wanted to continue this path of yoga, perhaps I could only commit to one of them.
One day in a lecture we got to this exact topic and it for the first time made so much sense to me, because I was living it in that moment. We talked about the powerful creative force behind sexual energy and how the masterful yogi doesn't need to run away from it, abstain from it and ignore it, but how to learn how to control that energy and point it towards a greater good. Think of it like a laser. Before it becomes a powerful laser beam, all of those light particles must be organised, concentrated and lined up in the same direction. Then you have something that went from scatty to fierce. There is so much prana, charge, life force in this sexual energy all you have to do is learn to point it in the right direction by re-directing your attention and taking back authority. He also explained it like riding a horse. You are on top of this extremely powerful animal and either you let it control you taking you on a wild and often dangerous ride, or you take the reigns, get it under control and take back the lead.
Maybe you like the wild ride. Sure, it's thrilling, exciting but also dangerous and eventually someone get's hurt if we can't get control when needed. But for a yogi, who's goal is to be the best version of themselves, to live a peace-filled life, to reach higher states of consciousness, some restraint and discipline is necessary. That doesn't mean one has to be celibate in order to achieve this. One just needs to develop a maturity and understanding of this subject. When used rightly, this energy can actually lead to transcendence and oneness, not stray us away from it.
So perhaps the moral of this yama, is to use our energy in the right way, for the right reason. Learn how to command the horse, and then enjoy the ride.
Thank you for reading 🙏