This is the fourth in a series of writings on the eight limbs of yoga. In this post, we are looking at the first limb – the yamas. The yamas are those wise characteristics we cultivate in ourselves to support us on our yogic path. The fourth yama is bramacharya, which means celibacy in one leading a monastic life, and refers to the right use of sexual energy in householders.
The traditional yogic path of the renunciate, in which the goal was to transcend life in order to rest into the state of yoga, included taking vows of celibacy. The yogis of old conserved their sexual energy in order to transmute it and reach higher states of consciousness. In a more modern or tantric approach, in which we are looking to fulfill our yoga in life, rather than in spite of it, we can see bramacharya as a practice of containment of energy, understanding the energetic effects of sexuality, and practicing right use of sexuality. We can also consider the Buddhist precept which asks us to practice sexuality in a way that does no harm.
There is a real lack of training and education around sexual energy in our culture, and consequently a lot of harm caused by unconscious and unskillful use of this energy. Consider the provocative dress of young girls and women, mixed with the message that we should not be too “easy.” Or the idea that we should practice monogamy and yet the reality of a high incidence of extra-relational affairs. Women are said not to want sex enough, men are said to want it all the time and both are supposed to be skillful lovers with no real training. There is also the issue of sexual abuse that can lead to individual’s shutting down to this energy altogether. Yoga can help us with this. On this path, we get in touch with and open up to the different kinds of energy we feel in our body as we practice asana and meditation:
the primal energy of survival
the raw and vital energy of sex/creativity
the strength of personal power
the delight and warmth of love
the energy of discernment and discrimination
the more subtle energy of intuition
As yoga practitioners we learn to be conscious of our energy at all of these levels, to open to it and to learn to circulate it through our body. The Taoists work with this using a simple breath called the microcosmic orbit: the circulation of breath down the front on the body, to the pelvic floor, up the back of the spine, across the top of the head and back to the nostrils. Learning to circulate energy like this, to breathe deeply and allow the life force to move through our whole body allows us to blend the more primal energy of sex, with the love energy of the heart, the discriminating energy of the head and the cosmic energy of the universe. We can share this practice with a partner and literally uplift and heal ourselves and each other.
So, our practice of bramacharya begins with awareness: whether you are celibate, in relationship or single, bring more awareness to this part of your life. How are you relating to your sexual energy at this time? Are you in touch with it? Able to contain or circulate it? Do you ever send mixed messages with your sexual energy? What are your agreements around sharing this energy with others? Can we practice sexuality that does no harm? Are we open to healing any wounds to our sexuality? Mantak Chia, David Deida and Margo Anand are some of the wise teachers on conscious sexuality. This is such a big topic, so go gently.
Mukunda Stiles’ translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras has this to say about Bramacharya:
II, 38 By abiding in behavior that respects the Divine as omnipresent, one acquires an inspired passion for life.
As always, I am interested in hearing about your reflections. Leave a comment in the section below.