By far, this has been the trickiest yama to get a handle on. Definitions of what it means vary widely – from total celibacy at one end, to the application of moderation towards all sensory experiences at the other.
Some also define it according to the literal word meaning itself, which provides another spin altogether.
Brahma literally means the ‘divine consciousness’ and charya, in this context, means ‘living’ or ‘one who is established in’. A literal definition of the fourth yama becomes not ‘celibacy’, nor ‘moderation’, but ‘being established in divine consciousness’, or ‘being established in the higher (form of the) mind’. Or even, ‘walking with God’.
For your average Western yoga student, living in a sex-obsessed, God-wary, materialistic, consumerist society, this has to be the most difficult yama not just to understand, but also to follow.
Who wants to be celibate? And what for?
What does moderation actually mean?
And how on earth does one become established in Divine Consciousness? I mean… come on!
From the study and application of the first three yamas, I’ve observed in my life how powerful and real living out the yamas can be. They’re not guidelines for living because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. They’re observations of ways to live that create certain results. I know therefore that living out brahmacharya must have a great result on one’s life. And knowing what that benefit is can be a powerful motivator to taking action.
Of course, you can’t experience the result without first doing the action, all you can do is read about it. And that’s mostly what I’ve done over the last ten days – read about this yama and contemplate what it means in my life. There haven’t been any big instances of ‘a-ha’ moments like in other weeks. There have been moments when I’ve realised how far away from living out this yama I can be.
If we look at it first from the perception of moderation – in all things, we can see that living this yama completely undermines our usual way of being in society. Living in brahmacharya means we have control over our impulses of excess, whether that’s in shopping, food, sex, drugs, tv… anything. Whatever it is that we like to indulge in, lose ourselves in or obsess over… gone!
Sex in the City comes to mind. All those shoes that Carrie loved to buy… and the clothes… examples of not living in brahmacharya. Samantha and her men? Not brahmacharya. Charlotte and her endless quest for the knight in shining armour? Hardly brahmacharya. And finally Miranda. Workaholic Miranda? Needs to apply brahmacharya to her career.
These women represent, in some way, shape or form, women of western society. Ok, not all women! But most of us can see some element in there that we relate to – that’s one reason why the series was so hugely successful. So why are their various obsessions something to be let go of on the yogic path? Why does it matter?
It’s pretty simple really.
Think about how much time and energy those women devote to their various obsessions and quests. Now think about what would happen if that time and energy were freed up and available for use in other things – like the spiritual journey. When we commit to yoga, in all its aspects, we’re committing to self-realisation, and that requires time and energy. Wasting time and energy on excess and obsession of any kind takes us further away from our path and our goal.
Swami Sivananda has this to say about the practice of Brahmacharya:
Practice of Brahmacharya gives good health, inner strength, peace of mind and long life. It invigorates the mind and nerves. It helps to conserve physical and mental energy. It augments memory, will force and brain power. It bestows tremendous strength, vigour and vitality. Strength and fortitude are obtained… He who is established in Brahmacharya will have lustrous eyes, a sweet voice and a beautiful complexion.
Or, direct from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras ii:38:
Brahmacharya pratishthayam virya labhah.
Upon being established in brahmacharya, there is the attainment of vital energy.
In my own life, I’ve seen this most clearly in my obsession with making my relationship work. When things are tough and there’s drama going on, all my focus and energy is absorbed into worrying about the relationship, trying to fix the relationship, making the relationship work… it’s relentless!
As I discovered this week, letting go of the relationship and just letting it be what it will be has been enormously freeing. Both for me, and of my energy. Suddenly, I’m able to devote myself whole-heartedly to my yoga practice again, and to the work I’m doing for the yoga community through this website. It’s such a relief to realise that I don’t have to control the relationship. All I need to do is stay open, loving and present.
Letting go has also freed me up to observe other things that can sap my energy. Eating too much chocolate. Doesn’t feel good. Even half a glass too much of wine is energy sapping. Sleeping too long. Or not enough.
It feels like truly understanding this yama will take time, and being able to apply it to daily living will be an on-going practice for a long time before it becomes second nature. But without the commitment I made to explore the yamas on this website, it wouldn’t have happened, not right now anyway.
What about you – what comes up for you in your life when you start diligently applying Brahmacharya to it?
Next week I’ll explore the application of the fifth and last yama, apigraha, the non-accumulation of worldly objects, caused by covetousness and attachment. It’ll be a goody!
Read the first articles in this series here: