Brahmacharya and the Quest for Balance
“One who sees divinity in all is a brahmachari.” –B.K.S Iyengar
And now here we are ready to explore the fourth yama, yay! If you haven’t read any of the last posts and are saying to yourself, “Yama, wuh?”, here’s a little information to bring you up to speed. The yamas comprise the first limb of the eight-limbed path of Raja yoga, and they are they ethical disciplines that we practice so that we can be in harmony with ourselves and the world around us. The first three yamas are ahimsa, nonviolence; satya, truthfulness; and asteya, nonstealing. The fourth yama is brahmacharya. It has been translated many ways: “To walk with God,” “To move in truth,” “To merge with the one.” The practice of brahmacharya is most often associated with celibacy, but before you say, “There’s no way I’m going to practice this one,”–keep reading–there’s a lot more to it than that!
As I mentioned before, I like to delve into lots of different sources of wisdom when I study the path of yoga, in an effort to find the underlying unity of it all–the essence that can be approached, but not fully expressed, with words. As I was reading and pondering brahmacharya this time around, I came across yoga teacher Donna Farhi’s book Yoga Mind, Body, & Spirit. Farhi writes:
Of all the precepts, the call to brahmacharya is the least understood and the most feared by Westerners. Commonly translated as celibacy, this precept wreaks havoc in the minds and lives of those who interpret brahmacharya as a necessary act of sexual suppression or sublimation. All spiritual traditions and religions have wrestled with the dilemma of how to use sexual energy wisely. Practicing brahmacharya means that we use our sexual energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don’t use this energy in any way that might harm another. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that manipulating and using others sexually creates a host of bad feelings, with the top contenders being pain, jealousy, attachment, resentment, and blinding hatred. This is one realm of human experience that is guaranteed to bring out the best and worst in people, so the ancient yogis went to great lengths to observe and experiment with this particular form of energy. It may be easier to understand brahmacharya if we remove the sexual designation and look at it purely as energy. Brahmacharya means merging one’s energy with God. While the communion we may experience through making love with another gives us one of the clearest experiences of this meshing of energies, this experience is meant to be extended beyond discrete events into a way of life–a kind of omnidimensional celebration of Eros in all its forms. Whether we achieve this through feeling our breath as it caresses our lungs, through orgasm, or through celibacy is not important. –Farhi, p 11
So if we are going to be awesome little brahmacharis, we don’t need to necessarily give up all the fun. We don’t have to sequester ourselves alone in a cave somewhere in the Himalayas. The way I understand it, brahmacharya is a call to use our energies mindfully, wisely, so that we may experience how exquisitely interconnected we are with all of life.
Another translation of brahmacharya that appeared in the midst of my search is moderation. By all means have some fun, but not fun to the point of getting sick. Go ahead and work, work is good, but not if you’re exhausted all of the time. Enjoy your relationships with others, but don’t forget the one you have with yourself. Here we’re asked not only how and where we use our vital energy, but also how to keep that energy in balance. This balance is not a concept floating up in the mind, but an actual direct experience of the oneness of the universe. And this can happen in our every day lives, just as they are, right now: while we’re working, playing, conversing, immersing ourselves in something we love to do, or giving our full attention to something that simply needs to be done–even if it isn’t our favorite thing in the world to do.
Alright, you may say, an experience of the oneness of all of life sounds good, so how do we go about getting to that place? Cultivating awareness is very much like cultivating a garden. We prepare the soil of our minds by getting clear, making space, letting go of patterns of thought that aren’t working. We plant the seeds of intention, visualizing what we really want to manifest in our lives. We give the seeds what they need to grow–showers of positive affirmation, the warmth and light of teachers who have gone before us to show us the way. Our confidence begins to grow, just like the little sprouts that push through the surface of the soil into the light of day. We watch for any weed thoughts that could choke out the growth of our intentions, and our yoga practice, our breath, eradicates the weed thoughts, providing the space for our greatest dreams to blossom into reality.
For our brahmacharya practice in yoga class this past week, I asked my students to become still, go within, and identify an aspect of their lives that seemed out of balance. It could be work, relationships, finances, food, exercise, how free time is spent, or something I haven’t named; there are so many aspects to life. Once this aspect is identified, I asked my students to create a positive statement around bringing this aspect back into balance. For example, “I want to experience more balance in my work,” or “I want to balance the way I approach my finances.” If they were stuck and couldn’t identify a specific aspect that needed balancing, I invited my students simply to affirm, “I want more balance in my life,” or “I want to discover what needs balance in my life.” Then I invited them to devote the energy of their yoga practice to bringing this intention into reality.
We tap into astounding amounts of energy in our yoga practice as we breathe and move mindfully, and when we channel this energy, we can astonish ourselves with the results. The focused mind is unstoppable; its power is limitless, but we must first learn how to harness that power. Instead of getting trapped in the everyday thoughts to which we have become accustomed, we can train ourselves to give our full attention to this moment. As we become anchored in the present, aware of our aliveness, we have the space to recognize what really moves us and how great our potential truly is. We are able to create clear intentions while we practice, and each breath brings us closer to experiencing those intentions in the world of form.
I asked my students to hold their intention in their minds as they breathed and moved, and to revisit the intention in moments of stillness. We practiced for balance. We practiced to be aware of our own energies, how we use them, how they are distributed in our lives. We practiced allowing ourselves to simply be, to surrender for a moment in child’s pose, to experience stillness, and to recognize how essential stillness is if we are to remember who were are beyond the physical aspect of ourselves.
The keyword here is practice. Just like the other yamas, we don’t think about brahmacharya for a minute and then say to ourselves, “Yeah, I’ve got this. What’s next?” We show up for our practice and keep working at it, like the breath, like a pose that we’re trying to master, a new skill we’re trying to learn.Sometimes we may experience setbacks, and all this effort may seem like it’s getting us nowhere. But if we keep trying, keep practicing, we do eventually become stronger, our reactions to the challenges lessen, we grow in our ability to focus and we keep moving along our path back home to our essential selves. Every breath taken in awareness is progress. So keep breathing!
Stay tuned for the final yama, aparigraha. Until then, I welcome any comments or questions you may have. What aspects of your life need balancing? Where would you like to experience more more moderation?