Now we come to the discussion of Brahmacharya. When Eddie Stern’s very good English translation of Guruji’s “Yoga Mala” came out we all noticed with wry smiles that in his discussion of Yama Guruji wrote a paragraph on Ahimsa, Satya, and Asteya and then over 5 pages on Brahmacharya. This showed how important he thought the practice of Brahmacharya was at the time he wrote (1958). It is interesting to me that Guruji was a strong supporter of marriage and family. In fact he stated that Ashtanga Yoga was “Householder Yoga” and said that having and raising a family was 7th Series Ashtanga. Much of what he writes about Brahmacharya in the “Yoga Mala” is how a married man, a householder, can practice it.
So,what is Brahmacharya? Literally it is seeking Brahma, seeking the Universal. In the context of ashrama, or the 4 stages of life it is the first (student) stage of ones life that is up to about 25 years old. In our context of the Yamas it refers to the virtue of celibacy when unmarried and fidelity when married.
In the “Yoga Mala” Guruji asks the question of whether it is possible to practice Brahmacharya when one is married. He goes on to give quite specific circumstances when it is allowable to have sexual intercourse with one’s spouse and maintain Brahmacharya. Of course, these are the times when it is most likely to result in pregnancy and the scriptures claim a fortuitous birth.
I take the attitude that we live in more liberated times and now recognise that sex is not just about procreation but also an important part of a loving and enduring relationship between two people. Vacaspati Misra wrote in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras that Brahmacharya is “not seeing, speaking with, embracing or otherwise interacting with members of the opposite sex as objects of desire”. For me the practice of Brahmacharya in a loving relationship is about fidelity and respect of the other person needs and desires. It is about the equal sharing of a beautiful gift, consciously and compassionately.
All the commentators state that the unmarried person must be celibate to practice Brahmacharya, but again, I wonder if we have not moved on somewhat from that. There is no doubt in my mind that the practice of celibacy can become very negative. There are too many examples of people who claim the moral high ground by practicing celibacy and yet secretly fail to sustain what they preach, with horrible consequences for others around them. Relating to your own sexuality in a positive and healthy way is supported by the asana practice, the essence of which is to promote a good physical, mental and emotional balance in the individual in all areas of life.
I think perhaps the essence of Brahmacharya is control or restraint. It is about whether your sexual impulses control you or whether you control them and it is also about how you allow your sexual urges to manifest. In these increasingly sexualised times when the objectification of women and impersonal sexual imagery is so prevalent it has become even more important to address this issue.
Guruji concludes in the “Yoga Mala” that “in truth, establishing the mind in the supreme Brahman, with allowing it to wander here and there, is Brahmacharya”. The practice of sexual restraint increases ones vitality and strength and without this strength then one cannot truly abide in the Self. This is Yoga.