The Yamas, the first of the eight limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga, are the moral precepts we are encouraged to practice to reduce suffering and keep us on a path that promotes deeper happiness for ourselves and others. Brahmacharya is literally translated as “Going After Brahma (God)” and is fourth of the five Yamas as listed in the Yoga Sutras. It is the Yama that shows us how stop, pause, and set healthy boundaries.
A quick side note on the Yamas:
The Yamas are often mistaken for a method of making us virtuous, and usually this leads to self-righteous sanctimony in how they are implemented and taught. I’ve seen plenty of yoga teachers beat their students over the head with Yama inspired sanctimony and/or use the Yamas to back up their own personal political or moral views. This is a dangerous bastardization of these teachings. The Yamas are an understanding of the fundamental and universal causes of human suffering and how to deal with them. Practicing the Yamas doesn’t make us good, we already are good, practicing the Yamas makes us happy.
Brahamacharya means many things depending on the teacher you ask or the book you read. Sometimes this Yama is used to describe the vow of celibacy for a yogi who has chosen to live a monastic life. Sometimes it is used to describe abstention from various substances and activities such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc. It’s an interesting Yama because the translation “Going After God” can have so many possible meanings. If we’re “Going After God”, then we’re sure as hell all going to have different ideas about what that entails. Everyone has a different idea of what God means and is. Traditional understandings of Brahamacharya, however, are of celibacy and complete abstention from any potentially harmful substances. While this traditional view is not necessarily healthy or appropriate for modern life, the ideas that it represents can help us immensely. In fact, there may be no more important Yama for the fast pace of the modern world.
I should mention since the word celibacy came up that Classical Yoga does not view sex as something that is morally wrong. It mostly encourages celibacy for the monastic so as not to allow sex to distract them from the goal of enlightenment, the same reason why deleterious substances like alcohol or recreational drugs are also discouraged. Also the yogis believed undisciplined sexual activity depletes the body’s vital energy. So it’s important to remember that unless we are living a monastic life, we are not in any way discouraged from healthy sexual activity. We are, however, encouraged to use sex wisely and to as much as possible avoid sexual encounters that deplete our energy, make us feel badly about ourselves, or cause us emotional harm.
So if we borrow the intentions of these ideas, we can apply them to basically anything in our lives. It’s not the object of Brahamacharya that is as important as putting the ideas of this Yama into practice. Brahamacharya is learning how to set healthy boundaries for ourselves. It is learning how to say yes to what is healthy and no to what is not healthy. It is learning to identify how we direct and use our energy, what fuels us, and what depletes us. Sometimes we waste energy by emotionally by obsessing, worrying, hating, or ruminating. Sometimes we waste energy mindlessly staring at our phones or computers. Sometimes we waste energy by gossiping or getting into virtual fights with people online. Sometimes we waste energy compulsively shopping or over consuming. Whatever our particular vice is Brahmacharya is there to say. . .
Let’s put that into a practical example. First, start practicing Brahamacharya with small ideas. Pick something that feels attainable, personally relevant, practical, and that would just be interesting to try living without for a manageable amount of time (don’t pick anything with which you have a traumatic or particularly complicated relationship).
Step 1: Stop
Start with these questions:
How do I feel I waste my energy? What feels like it occupies too much space in my life? Does it give me energy or does it deplete my energy? Do I wind up feeling better when I do this or worse? Am I using this wisely or unwisely?
Step 2: Notice
Lets say the answer is: I waste time on Social Media. It occupies too much time in my life. It depletes my energy. I don’t feel good while I’m on it or when I’m done. I don't feel like I'm using it wisely.
Step 3: Hit Pause.
Pause with the approach of curiosity. Curiosity reminds us to lighten up a bit and remember that whatever we’re working on isn’t inherently bad, it’s just interesting to see how we might use that energy in other ways.
You can say something like, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what a day/week/month of living without social media would feel like?”
(PS I’m not meaning to pick on Social Media, god knows I use it a lot, but it’s a very relevant modern application of how we might use Brahamacharya.)
Step 4: Assess
Then just try it out to see what happens. When do you feel the need to tap the Facebook app? What are the feelings that arise? Are you feeling lonely, bored, irritated? What can you use your newly liberated energy to do? In other words if you’re not spending X amount of time online, where do you want to direct that energy? I remember using a social media Brahamacharya to reignite my meditation practice, learn some new recipes to cook, and reconnect with my friends in person rather than just online. Think of all the creative things can you do with this extra energy and time. This can be fun!
Sometimes the effects of Brahmacharya are life changing and sometimes it’s just a welcome pause and time to reflect. There’s no right or wrong about what happens. Remember, you’re in your own laboratory. The results of the experiment and the choices you make are yours alone. Just be honest with yourself as best you can and notice what you can notice.
Now it’s not to say we don’t need downtime or can’t sprawl on the couch and watch three episodes of Chef’s Table at a time (just, you know, a random example). But then when do we say enough? When do we shut off the TV? When do we shut down the phone? When do we go from relaxing to wasting energy? These are the points of mindfulness that Brahamacharya begins to teach us.
Brahamacharya is the gateway to real freedom. It helps us to get back in the drivers seat and make some real choices. It’s a pause where we can step back and assess our relationship to different aspects of our lives. Our vices and habits aren’t inherently bad and we’re not bad for having them. But being conscious of them and how much energy they require from us is a very important step on the road to health and freedom. Through this work we remember what’s important, what really matters, and most of all we reconnect to the deepest parts of who we are. We have more energy to connect with our loved ones, to connect with ourselves, to connect with our dreams and goals, to really see people when we talk to them, to notice the budding leaves in springtime, to hear the birds outside our windows. In short, we have energy to pay attention to our lives. We are worth this my friends, we’re here for a blink in eternity, Brahamacharya is a way we can really be here for and appreciate the precious time we have been given as the infinite reflected in this human life.