The first limb consists of the five yamas, or universal ethical observances. The fourth of these, brahmacharya, may be the most confusing of the yamas in the context of our modern world. The word brahmacharya literally translates from Sanskrit as “being established in divine consciousness”. This has been interpreted in many different ways. At one end of the spectrum, it’s considered complete celibacy. On the other end, it’s a moderation of one’s indulgence in sensory pleasures.
Patanjali favored a very strict interpretation of brahmacharya as total abstinence. The Yoga Sutras reflect his opinion that not engaging in sex and retaining this energy increases vigor, vitality, and stamina. Patanjali explained that celibacy engenders disgust for the human body and for intimate contact with others, which he considered positive developments in one’s spiritual progress.
This interpretation may have been appropriate in the time of Patanjali. Over two thousand years ago when the Sutras were written, many yoga practitioners were sannyasins (renunciates) living in India who shunned the material world and dedicated themselves entirely to a spiritual life. But where does it leave us today, when the practice of yoga has spread to all corners of the globe and to people of all walks of life engaged in many kinds of pursuits?
BKS Iyengar, who died this past August at the age of 95, was one of the most highly respected and revered modern yoga gurus. He wrote in his seminal book Light on Yoga, “Brahmacharya has little to do with whether one is a bachelor or married and living the life of a householder. One has to translate the higher aspects of brahmacharya in one’s daily living. It is not necessary for one’s salvation to stay unmarried and without a house…Without experiencing human love and happiness, it is not possible to know divine love.”
Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois are three teachers who were instrumental in transmitting the practices of yoga from India to the West during the twentieth century. Desikachar himself was the son of Krishnamacharya, who was the guru of all three men and is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Yoga”. None of these men were sannyasins, but instead were householders who married and had several children. They lived and practiced yoga in the world rather than turning away from it. They did not share Patanjali’s strict interpretation of brahmacharya as abstinence.
These and other modern yoga scholars believe that the practice of brahmacharya does not rule out responsible sex. They interpret it as moderation, monogamy or restraint. They advocate using one’s sexual energy with mindfulness, clarity and a sense of respect for oneself and others.
Yoga is a practice of awareness. The steps we take along the path of yoga should lead us to a clearer understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Whether you choose celibacy or partnership, renunciation or immersion in the world of sensory pleasures, awareness is key. Are you aware of why you made these choices? Are you clear on how they affect you and those around you? Are you mindful of how these choices align with the previous three yamas: ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness) and asteya (non-stealing)? When brahmacharya is practiced with this awareness it becomes, in the words of Iyengar, “the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom”.