Thank you for joining me on this 5-part discussion of the yamas, the ethical practices that are fundamental to the yoga practice. In this article we dive into the 4th Limb, bramacharya, which is the wise use of sexual energy. If you are new to my 5-Part Yamas Series: I invite you to start with Part 1 which began with the practice of ahimsā, non-harming. In this 5-part series we explore each of the 5 practices within the yamas, which is the 1st Limb of the 8 Limbs of Yoga outlined in the Yoga Sūtra. For each yama I provide a more detailed explanation of its intent and varying ways to practice it in your daily lives.
Let’s Explore the 4th Yama, Bramacharya – Wise Use of Sexual Energy
Yep. This yama is about sex. A difficult discussion for many, but it would be much more beneficial for society if we did talk about it. At its basic level, sex is good---it’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring and life creating act. How and why did having sex get to be so wrong in so many ways? I’m not a sex expert, so I won’t attempt to try to answer that question in this article. I just want to explore how we can mindfully think about sex and to treat ourselves and others with respect and dignity when we are intimate in this manner.
So, let’s talk about sex!
Definition of Brahmacharya
Each of the yamas have evolved over the years by practitioners to fit with current times. Brahmacharya is no exception. The literal translation from Sanskrit is broken down into two parts: brahman means god and charya is a conduct or mode of behavior. Brahmacharya can therefore be described as a code of conduct that leads to God, or living a sacred life.
In studying the yamas, I have read several books from different authors and they generally describe the yamas in a similar manner. Except for brahmacharya. I have seen different approaches to this practice and wonder if it’s simply because people want to avoid talking about sex. Honestly, I side-stepped this yama in that past too. In fact, this is really the first time I’ve hit it head on! Primarily, because I don’t want to offend anyone and also, I’m a private person and this is as personal as it gets! So, I understand why different definitions have evolved.
To give you an example, here are a few translations I’ve read:
“Brahmacharya for the monk means celibacy while for the householder it refers to the wise use of energy, especially sexual.” - from Michael Stone’s book, The Inner Tradition of Yoga
“Brahmacharya….is conserving vital energy, especially sexual energy, I order to channel it in more productive directions. Moving (carya) toward supreme truth (Brahma) directs the heart-mind away from sensual indulgence, reduces the libido, and thus conserves the sexual fluids that contribute to overall health and vitality.” – from Nicolai Bachman’s book, The Path of the Yoga Sutras
“To leave greed and excess behind and walk in this world with wonder and awe, practicing non-excess and attending to each moment as holy.” - Deborah Adele, in her book, The Yamas and Niyamas
Bottomline: It’s about Sex
How ever brahmacharya has been molded and modified to fit our modern believes, it’s still mainly about sex. This yama guides us to have sexual relations in a manner that is respectful and non-harming (ahimsā, the 1st yama) to ourselves and others--- mind, body and spirit. Aside from giving us life, sex is one of the most beautiful and expressive parts of being human. It’s how we share our love, but, unfortunately, it is also how we can hurt ourselves or someone else on very a profound level.
Having sex is not just about the physical act, it deeply affects our minds and spirit too. It is productive to take a look at the underlying reason we want to have sex. Are we doing this because we have the physical desire or because it may ease an emotional feeling? Do we have sex because we feel lonely, or insecure or need to feel connected or afraid he won’t like me if I don’t have sex with him or my friends won’t think I’m cool if I don’t have sex with her. More often, the desire to have sex may be based on an emotional need. Society puts insane pressure on us with respect to sex. It literally is driving people crazy! I feel like the trend has flipped from feeling guilt and shame for having sex to feeling guilty and shame if we don’t! We spend way too much time and energy worrying and obsessing over it which takes away from other areas of our life. You can understand why its original meaning was celibacy. Especially for those who wanted to devote their lives to a higher power.
Ways to Practice
1) Explore your values on sex
We don’t spend the time determining what our values are concerning this subject. The pressure society can place on us is overwhelming. It’s time to stop listening to others and determine what we want for ourselves. How do you go about doing this? To get started, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Do you want or don’t want to have sex with your partner?
What are the feelings that are arising?
Or is it more of an emotional feeling?
If emotional, dig deeper to understand what is causing this emotion for you.
Journal and/or meditate on these questions and see where it leads you. I’m encouraging you to embrace this exploration without any judgement. I’m just hoping it will give you a better and deeper understanding of your true values about sex.
2) Discuss with your partner
If you currently don’t have a sexual partner, talk to a close friend. Express your feelings and ask them about their feelings. Opening the dialogue helps clear up any wrong assumptions and this type of intimate conversation brings you so much closer.
Thank you for engaging in this delicate conversation with me. I hope it has inspired you understand your feelings towards sex and help you follow your heart and do what feels good for you. Next month we will explore the final yama – aparigraha, non-possessiveness.