The third yama in the series, which will be my focus for this week, is brahmacharya. Sandra Carson, in the practice which is part of the programme I’m following on Ekhart Yoga, interprets this as “moderation”. In commenting on sutra II.30 Bryant defines it as “celibacy”, which seems to be a pretty common interpretation. Citing other commentators, Bryant writes:
“Vyasa defines celibacy as the control of the sexual organs, and this is refined by Vacaspati Misra as not seeing, speaking with, embracing or otherwise interacting with members of the opposite sex as objects of desire. He quotes the Daksa-samhita: “The eight kinds of sexual indulgences are thinking, talking, and joking about sex; looking [at the opposite sex with passion], talking secretly about sex, determining to engage in it, attempting to do so, and actually performing the act” … In short, self-realisation cannot be attained if one is sexually active because this indicates that one is still seeking fulfillment on the sensual level and thus misidentifying with the nonself.”
A later yoga sutra (II.38) states that “[u]pon the establishment of celibacy, power is attained.”
Frankly, that all sounds like precisely no fun, so I think a different understanding of brahmacharya is required, at least for me. I liked Sandra’s “moderation” interpretation. In terms of the physical yoga practice, the idea is that if we push ourselves too hard in any one posture, we will not obtain the maximum benefit. Pulling back slightly and so being able to hold the posture for longer will be far more beneficial. This requires a clear connection between the mind and the body so that we can identify the precise point that will be most beneficial, between holding back too much and pushing too far.
The practice itself focused on hip openers. The hips are central to so many yoga poses, so cultivating a keener awareness of how they feel and move will I think be useful far beyond this one particular practice. Once again I had to face one of my current yoga nemeses, poses which start from a wide-legged forward fold position, but I think I managed not to get too frustrated. Beneath any frustration, annoyance and negative thoughts I know that these poses are good for me, because they require me to deal with internal discomfort and negativity and to face that part of me which says that something must be done perfectly or not at all.
After completing the practice, I did a bit more research into the meaning and interpretation brahmacharya. An article on Centred Yoga states that celibacy and a complete abstinence from sexual activity is “only part of the picture”. It refers to brahmacharya as essentially the act of harnessing energy and directing it towards greater personal understanding. The focus on celibacy seems to be due to the view that a preoccupation with sex and desire drains a person’s energy, so that it can’t be harnessed and directed in that way. There seems to be an underlying assumption both here and in the work of the commentators cited by Bryant that at a basic level people are just obsessed with sex and that this is detrimental to their wellbeing. I mean, for some people that might be true, but for most adults who are capable of making their own considered choices about these things it’s just a part of life, rather than something that takes over and drains energy that could be applied elsewhere.
Another interesting article was this one on Ekhart Yoga, which considers brahmacharya as the “right use of energy”. Putting brahmacharya into practice requires us to consider where we direct our energy, and in particular whether it is directed externally, towards things that we desire (I guess this is where the celibacy point comes in) or towards presenting ourselves in a certain way to please or impress others, or whether it is directed internally, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves. In terms of the physical practice of yoga, I suppose it is a question of whether energy is directed towards perfection in a posture, or frustration if it cannot be achieved, or towards accepting where we are, staying present with the sensations and obtaining the maximum mental and physical benefit that we can from a pose.
Combining the concept of moderation with a consideration of how we use and direct our energy seems, to me, to be the most useful interpretation of brahmacharya. The two are, I think, connected, as practising moderation requires that we do not direct our energy towards pushing our bodies as hard as we can in a pose or towards feeling frustrated, rather we direct it towards finding the most beneficial expression of a pose and towards focusing on the breath and the present moment. Moderation is not something that always comes easily to me. I’ve always been a perfectionist and I can tend to get a little obsessed with sometimes very random things. So, if we’re talking in terms of the direction of energy, mine often isn’t put to optimum use. It will certainly be interesting to see how a conscious focus on brahmancharya affects my practice and my life this week.