The Yamas and Niyamas are Yoga’s ethical precepts as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are practices that govern our outward behavior and the Niyamas are internal observances. Bramahcharya is the fourth Yama. Because it is often linked to celibacy and other austere restrictions, bramahcharya is often glossed over even in serious yogic studies. However, bramahcharya actually means “behavior that leads to the Divine.” It is a practice of regulating and making right use of our appetites as opposed to ignoring and disowning them entirely.
Moderation is key to regulating our senses. Our cravings usually begin with the desire to meet some sort of need. We desire food because we are hungry. We desire sex because we long for connection. Appropriately meeting needs such as these are part of the human experience. It is only when our desire for fulfilling our personal needs is disproportionate to meeting them that they become problematic.
Bramahcharya and awareness.
The first step to practicing bramahcharya in a meaningful, helpful way is to acknowledge our needs and identify what they are. For example, say I am craving a piece of candy. First of all, I notice my craving. Then I can determine why I am craving the candy. Am I physically hungry? Or is there a mental or emotional need I am trying to address by eating candy? Might I even be attempting to fulfill a spiritual need?
Once I have determined I am craving the candy because I am physically hungry, I can decide whether or not eating a piece of candy would be the best way to address my hunger. There may be better ways to nourish my appetite than sugar, such as having a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts. However, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a piece of candy from time-to-time. Bramahcharya is not meant to limit my human experience, but enhance it by allowing me to fully enjoy the pleasures of life without becoming attached and dependent on them.
At first blush, restraining our sexual expression may seem like a completely different craving. After all, we tend to think of meeting our sexual needs in physical ways. Again, we look to what it is we are actually craving when we experience sexual desire. Companionship? Intimacy? Connection? Or, on the flip-side, power? Prestige? There is more to sex than the coming-together of physical bodies. Sex is not the only way, nor is it even the best and most appropriate way, to meet our need for union and connection. When we become aware of our drives and discover what motivates them, we are afforded the opportunity to choose the appropriate course of action to take, if any!
Making right use of our energy.
Bramahcharya is a practice for making right use of our energy. As we begin to notice what we are putting our energy towards -food, sex, work, social media…- we can better determine if the way we use our energy are in alignment with our values. In our COVID-aware world, we may find ourselves maximizing our use of social media. This is understandable as we use it as a way to stay connected to friends, family, and colleagues. It becomes problematic when we use it as a way to determine our human value based on how many “Likes” we get. Approval-seeking is an appetite that is just as damaging as unrestrained cravings for food and sex. It not only influences our ability to speak up about the things that are most important to us, but may even impact the way we think about significant issues!
Practicing bramahcharya means living intentionally. It may seem like a practice that restricts our experiences. Actually, as we become more aware, we open ourselves up to a greater range of healthy experiences by limiting the ones that don’t serve us.
Ways to put bramahcharya into practice:
One way of practicing is through pratyahara. Pratyahara means “sense withdrawal”. It is the first step in the formal meditation process. When we practice pratyahara we withdraw our senses so that we can turn our attention inward. Pratyahara is not a practice for ignoring the things that are going on around us. Rather, it teaches us to master and make right use of our awareness.
- The Empowered No
It is all too easy to say yes when someone requests something of us. It is even easier to say yes to demands on our time, energy, and attention that were never formally made! An “empowered no” means that we acknowledge a request has been made, we are informed of the details of the request, and we freely choose whether our answer is yes, no, or maybe.
Our society is addicted to being busy. Being busy creates an external distraction from our internal state. Sometimes distracting ourselves from the pain we are in is very necessary. The pain inside is too great for us to look at all at once. However, when it is safe for us to do so, it can be very healing to work with our inner pain. We never afford ourselves the opportunity to do so if we are constantly busy.
This doesn’t mean working with our pain is a solitary journey. We can talk to trusted friends or even work with a licensed therapist to process our inner turmoil. Bramahcharya is a practice that allows us to consciously slow down, cultivate awareness, and choose the best ways to direct our energy.