Classical yoga’s fourth precept, Brahmacharya, is often translated as “celibacy”. Indeed Sri Swami Sivananda goes into great detail describing Brahmacharya as ‘…the vow of celibacy in thought, word and deed’ and states: ‘Complete celibacy is the master-key to open the realms of elysian Bliss’.
This interpretation of Brahmacharya has not made it popular in modern yoga. However, there are broader perspectives of Brahmacharya that can help guide us to finding more enjoyment in life.
Schmidt explains: ‘In the strictest sense it’s about conserving ones sexual energy so that it can be transformed into more powerful energy, or prana.’ However: ‘A fuller understanding of the concept of Brahmacharya asks us to think about where we are putting our energy—sexual or otherwise—and to notice if we are expending it in unnecessary ways’
Sullivan tells us that ‘…brahmacharya, challenges the practitioner to look truthfully and deeply at where one is spending energy’. Thus, a more useful definition of Brahmacharya could be ‘the practice of mastering and conserving our vital energy’ (Habash), or simply ‘right use of energy’ (Newlyn).
“Right use of energy” starts with our thoughts. Do you ever find yourself ruminating on past problems? Do you replay in your mind scenes that didn’t go so well? Do you get stuck in loops thinking about what you might have done better if you had a second chance? Do you get anxious about the future? Do you worry about uncertainty? Worry wastes our time (see our previous blog “Stealing Time – Enjoy Living in the Moment”). Further, when we worry we activate the fight or flight stress response that comes from our sympathetic nervous system. This diverts blood away from our immune and digestive systems that maintain our health. Thus worry depletes our life force – our prana.
Yoga encourages us to live in the present moment, relegating worries of the past to the dustbin of our history and replacing anxiety over the future with acceptance of whatever is to come. The calming effect of yoga activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to be happy and healthy. This is the right use of energy.
Mastering our vital energy requires more than just living in the present moment. We also need to control our desires. We are, by our nature, pleasure seekers. But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. When we have too much of something, our pleasure sensors become “dulled” to their over-stimulation. We need increasingly higher doses to achieve the same level of pleasure. Thus, continually seeking the same pleasure diminishes our ability to enjoy that pleasure.
Consider the idiom “variety and moderation”. When we learn to control of our desires and avoid over-indulging, we continue to find fresh joy in whatever brings us pleasure. This is an efficient use of our energy – the right use of energy.
All the Yamas and Niyamas combine to provide guidance on how to live a good life. It would be a mistake to skip over Brahmacharya due to concerns about celibacy. Instead, we might choose to take a broader perspective of Brahmacharya – and we might find greater happiness in life through the more efficient control of how we use our energy.
Habash, Constance L. (2017) Mastery of Your Energies (Brahmacharya) https://www.awakeningself.com/writing/mastery-of-your-energies-brahmacharya/
Newlyn, Emma. (2014) The Yamas: Brahmacharya, right use of energy https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/the-yamas-brahmacharya-right-use-of-energy
Sivananda, Sri Swami (undated) Importance of Brahmacharya!
Sullivan, Mackenzie (2016) The Fifth Yama: Aparigraha. http://www.suremovementsyoga.com/blogfull/2016/4/20/the-fifth-yama-aparigraha