The fourth yama, brahmacharya, is the one that often attracts the most discussion – not to mention misconception, which can result in some resistance to it. Many people think of brahmacharya as meaning “continence” or “chastity,” which can feel constricting or irrelevant today. In the strictest sense, it’s about conserving one’s sexual energy (in particular, one’s semen) so that it can be transformed into a more powerful form of energy, or prana. But the yogis I asked about it said this translation was pretty archaic, and somewhat shortsighted, and it doesn’t nearly represent the full concept of brahmacharya.
Brad Waites, the director of the College of Purna Yoga in Vancouver, loves batting around interpretations of the yamas. He says that the classical definition of brahmacharya is misleading, since what brahmacharya actually asks us to do is to think about where we’re putting our energy – sexual or otherwise. And, if we’re expending it in useless places, to figure out how to redirect it. “In the long run,” says Waites, “brahmacharya is about allocation: using your resources effectively to achieve your aspiration. To hone our practice of this principle, we must learn to conserve and not waste energy on things that do not serve our purpose.”
Nice point. In other words, we always have a choice between frittering away our energy on not-so-purposeful actions (and thoughts and worries), and directing them towards those that will serve us better and lead to more happiness, purpose, sense of union. And brahmacharya, if you want it to be, can be as simple as that.
If we do want to think about brahmacharya in a more sexual sense, there are still some really interesting and wide-ranging ways to interpret it. Sharon Gannon, of Jivamukti Yoga School, says that her understanding “is that the practice of brahmacharya means not misusing sex. Brahmacharya means ‘to respect the creative power of sex and not abuse it by manipulating others sexually.’” If we want to be more in unison with the Universe, she says, directing our sexual energy in smart ways is a means to get there. So rather than going to the bar to pick up a one-night stand, we could pour that energy into other places – cultivating more lasting relationships with others, with work, with ourselves, or with yoga. “Brahmacharya is a way to get to God… When sexual energy is directed wisely,” she adds, “it becomes a means to transcend separation, or otherness. When sexual energy is used to exploit, manipulate, or humiliate another, however, it propels us into deeper separation and ignorance (avidya).”
Taking this idea further, Gannon mentions a point to which she’s devoted much of her book Yoga and Vegetarianism – and this is the way in which humans, as a matter of business, misuse the reproductive capabilities of food animals. She tells me that “the sexual abuse of animals is ingrained in our culture, and it expresses itself in the practice of breeding, genetic manipulation, castration, artificial insemination, forced pregnancy, routine rape, and child abuse, which all fall under the category of ‘animal husbandry.’”
All of these routine animal practices might be considered to be seriously out of alignment with brahmacharya, and this misalignment hurts both them and us. Female food and dairy animals, she says, “are forced to become pregnant over and over again until their fertility wanes, at which point they are slaughtered and eaten. Male animals chosen to be sperm donors are sexually abused repeatedly, live in constant frustration, and in the end are slaughtered as well. Such practices are violent, crass and degrading to animals, as well as dehumanizing for the farm workers paid to do this work.”
She adds that, for their sakes and ours, brahmacharya (along with other yamas, like ahimsa, in particular) would ask us to rethink how we treat animals. “Expanding love, kindness and compassion to include all others – animals as well as the earth Herself – is our next big step in human consciousness. Please excuse me, but I cannot overlook the ‘animal issue’ in terms of the yamas.” Obviously, this is a point that’s close to her heart, and she makes a good case for it.
Like the other yamas, brahmacharya is subject to interpretation, but in the end, it has a lot to do with balance, and how we choose to use or “invest” our resources. “Each and every act and thought is an outflow of energy,” says Reverend Jaganath of the Yoga Life Society. “Some thoughts and actions offer beneficial dividends, while others simply drain our resources. In the name of continence, we are asked to be wise investors.”
At their heart, it seems like the yamas all center around intuitive ways of being, and of treating ourselves and others, so that we can be more connected internally and externally. Gannon sums up all five yamas in brilliantly simple terms: “The yamas are about how to treat others – to achieve the aim of dissolving otherness. As Patanjali [the writer of the Yoga Sutras] lists: As long as you see others and not the “One” – not the Self – then don’t hurt them, don’t lie to them, don’t steal from them, don’t abuse them sexually, and don’t be so greedy as to cause them to become impoverished.” And that pretty much says it all. We’ll wrap up the yamas next time with the fifth yama, aparigraha, or non-greed.
What are your thoughts on brahmacharya? What are some interpretations that we may have missed?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.