What is Brahmacharya?
What is Brahmacharya?
This post is the fourth in a series of articles exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. Stay tuned to our blog over the next few months to learn about each of the 10 concepts and how to integrate them into your yoga practice and daily life.
Yamas are ethical practices that help us create a pure, resilient, healthy lifestyle. The first yama is Ahimsa, the second is Satya, the third is Asteya, and the fourth is Brahmacharya, or the “right use of energy.” “Brahma” is the Sanskrit name for the “creative force,” the “divine consciousness,” or “God,” depending on your preferred interpretation. “Charya” means “living in,” “established in,” or “following.” Put together, Brahmacharya means something along the lines of “expending energy in the right way to get closer to the creative Source.”
Isn’t this one about sex?
In many traditions, brahmacharya is translated as “celibacy,” with an expectation that practitioners shun sexual activity of any kind to preserve energy for moving closer to the divine. Other traditions translate brahmacharya as celibacy when unmarried and faithfulness when married, preserving an understanding that there are normal phases of life that can be carried out while also remaining faithful to the spiritual path. Refraining from unnecessary sexual activity is meant to conserve energy for practice, study, and focus on the practices of meditation and yoga.
Brahmacharya in the modern world
What if celibacy is not a lifestyle that you would choose? Can you still follow a yoga-based philosophy or spiritual path? Many contemporary practitioners say yes; interpretations of brahmacharya include “self-restraint” and “moderation.” If you focus on the first translation we made above, “expending energy in the right way,” the choice of the “right way” for energy expenditure is yours to make.
Where is your energy directed?
Often, we spend a significant amount of energy worrying about what might happen and what people think of us. We expend energy making ourselves into someone that others want by becoming thinner, bigger, quieter, louder; the list could go on forever. When we try to make changes to ourselves based on what others want, we then crave validation from those people. The whole process triggers the stress response and takes a negative toll on our physical and mental health.
Many of us also expend energy in our daily lives through impatience and distraction. How did you react the last time you had to wait for something longer than you expected? Did you get irritated or impatient? According to Kissmetrics, 40% of website visitors will leave if the load time of a site is longer than three seconds; I cannot think of a better example of our complete lack of patience as a society.
Other mental activities that can take up vast amounts of mental energy are obsession, excess, and addiction. While alcohol and drugs are obvious problems, many of us are addicted to other things: our phones, coffee, work, sex, shopping, or drama. If you were to take a look at where your thoughts and energy go through the course of the day, is there something that takes up huge amounts? Does that expenditure give any value back to you or is it a drain? Whatever you focus on, does it make your life better?
We live in a world that places a high value on busy-ness, but constant “doing” just for the sake of itself is also a waste of energy. We often deny ourselves valuable time to do “nothing” – time for rest and reflection. Particularly in big cities, we spend little time in nature, and we are constantly being stimulated by sounds and sights.
Brahmacharya in daily life
So, how do you decide on a positive way to spend your finite mental and physical energy?
One way is to consider your long-term goals. These can be external goals if you like, but try also thinking about your life as a whole. How can you attain internal peace and happiness? How does that then translate to your day-to-day life?
What are the activities and people that add value to your life and what daily tasks sap your energy? Think about how you can direct energy away from short-term, external desires and instead, how you can work towards long-term happiness. For example, what if you could spend an hour on your yoga practice today instead of engaging in a session of toxic workplace gossip? What if, instead of having an obligatory coffee with someone who drains and exhausts you, you spend some time in meditation and then call a friend that uplifts you? What if you could put down your phone for an hour and take a walk in a park instead?
The practice of brahmacharya is about self-discipline and restraint, both of which are necessary qualities when letting go of energy-sapping habits and people. Often, we rely on the structure of specific activities and habits because they are comforting or give us something that we need. Our bodies are very attuned to these needs and when they are met in the way we want, the resulting hormonal rush is something that we end up craving.
For example, if you spend a lot of time and energy on social media, checking your phone and seeing activity notifications can give you a shot of dopamine, which is the hormone that makes us feel pleasure. Our body craves dopamine, and when we get that “hit” from specific activities, it can be very challenging to give those activities up.
But wait, you say. If this practice of checking my phone and seeing notifications makes me feel good, why would I change it? The thing about dopamine is that the rush is reduced when an activity happens repeatedly in the same way, so you need more stimulation to get the same hormonal release. What often ends up happening is that we check our phones every 10 seconds all day, interrupting and taking away from other activities just to check if anyone is paying attention to us on social media. If there are no notifications, we then start feeling the release of stress hormones instead of dopamine.
Here is where the practice of brahmacharya can serve you. Changing ingrained habits can be painful and challenging, and practicing discipline and restraint will help you in replacing negative activities with ones that add to an internal sense of wellbeing. The specific activities you choose will depend on what your mind and body need in the short and the long term.
One note: I am always hesitant to prescribe “self-care” as a tonic of any kind; it is an overused term that tends to encompass really specific activities (Take a bath! Do yoga!) and also accuses those who can’t take time to do those certain things of not taking care of themselves. Instead, I encourage you to take a broader view: What activities give you energy? Who brings you up?
Brahmacharya in your yoga practice
On the mat, pay attention to what is happening in your mind and body. Are you expending energy comparing yourself to others? Are you feeling irritable or impatient with the sound of the person breathing next to you? Are you criticizing yourself or others?
If you push yourself hard in your practice, are you doing it because the movement feels good or because you don’t feel like you’re good enough if you don’t push? If you pull back from your edge, are you doing it because that’s what your body needs or because you’re afraid of confronting discomfort at that edge?
Whatever your habits are on your mat, think about why they exist. Do they add to your practice and make you feel good? Or here’s another way to look at it: if you don’t do what you’re usually capable of doing, do you feel bad about yourself? If so, your habits may be rooted in negativity and are worth examining.
You can test your own approach by trying a practice that is opposite from your usual. If you always push hard, pull back. If you always let yourself off the hook, push harder. How does it feel?
Brahmacharya, like all of the other yamas, is a practice. Choosing where to expend your energy in order to find mental peace and happiness will be challenging but rewarding, and it may take lots of time to get it right. As always, if you have questions, feel free to ask your yoga teacher at Iam!