YS II.38 brahmacharya-pratishthayam virya-labhah

When firmly established in moderation, one obtains physical, mental, and spiritual strength.

Brahmacharya, the fourth yama in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras is, perhaps, one of the most difficult of the ethical practices to discuss, partly because it is related to sexual energy, but mostly because it is a complex and esoteric concept. Traditionally, this Sanskrit word was translated and understood as “continence” or, more precisely, “celibacy.” In today’s modern, Western yoga environment, we tend to interpret this more widely to mean “right use of energy.”

According to the laws of physics, everything is comprised of energy; matter is just energy in physical form. In the human body, energy moves in five different directions to regulate everything from digestion and elimination to thoughts and emotions. For the most part, these currents are flowing out of the body, which is necessary—vital, in fact—for our well-being. However, by developing an inner awareness and through concentrated yogic practices, it is possible to redirect some of this energy back into and up the central channel, which raises our own vibration (remember, energy is a wave; it vibrates) and, eventually, with sustained practice, leads to enlightenment (the goal of yoga).

Sexual energy is what is required to reproduce. Imagine how potent this force must be to create a human being (or a chipmunk or a flower)! The original, ancient yogis (Rishis) experimented with their own bodies and discovered that if they refrained from ejaculating, the energy that would have been expended in this effort could be redirected at will. This was the reason they chose celibacy. It was a choice for those who wanted to become monks and dedicate their lives to the pursuit of enlightenment; it was not meant for or required by lay practitioners.

That is the ancient explanation and reasoning behind brahmacharya. Let us now address the contemporary interpretation, which is (at least) twofold. First, remember that in order to love and serve others, we must love and serve ourselves first; to promote health and harmony, we must embody them. Take a moment and think about where you “spend” your energy. Start with what kinds of foods you eat. Whole foods (fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains) are easier to digest than processed foods. They require less energy to digest and provide more energy to the body. What do you feed your senses? Hours of mindless television drains and sometimes disturbs mental energy (depending on the content—violence, for example), whereas listening to classical music has the opposite effect; it can soothe the nerves, thereby calming the mind, or stimulate the brain into a state of creativity. Perhaps most significantly, are you the master of your mind and emotions or their slave? Do you obsess about what others think of you or worry endlessly about what may or may not transpire in the future? The inability to break out of cyclical, habitual thinking is like being on a mental treadmill day in and day out: exhausting. It takes effort to change our bad habits, to not give in to our every desire and craving, but this is what our willpower is for. Yoga practices help to tone the body and calm the mind, but they also increase willpower. Once you set your mind to making the healthy choices that increase rather than decrease your energy and stick to your practice, you might be surprised at how easy it can be.

Again, taking care of yourself is a requisite for helping others. Now, let us recall that yama means “restraint” or “restriction” and that this first limb of the eight-limbed philosophy of yoga relates to our interactions with others. It is important to know your own strength—energetically speaking—and the effects you can have on others. Just as we can learn to direct our energy internally, as yogis, we must take great care in how we direct our energy outward to others, all others: people, animals, plants, the planet. In the previous discussions about the first three yamas, we learned that we affect others through our thoughts, words, and actions, which are all different forms of energy. Practicing brahmacharya means restraining our sexual energy, in particular, in all these ways. This means not using physical force or verbal coercion to impose or obtain sex from another, not to molest or harass. On a subtler level, aggressive or excessive sexual thoughts cause harm to ourselves, both mentally and emotionally, and it is easy for them to become habitual and cyclical, thereby enslaving us in a make-believe world.

If we practice yoga for the ultimate goal of enlightenment, which means liberation from attachment and illusion, then the choices are clear. True teachers have always said when in doubt about making a decision, ask a simple question: Will it bring me closer to the source of life (God, Creator, Supreme Consciousness, Ultimate Reality, Highest Self) or further away?

by Laura Golden