Brahmacharya: The Middle Path of Restraint

When the mind is freed from domination by the senses, sensory pleasures are replaced by inner joy

February 11, 2014    BY Rolf Sovik

Do you ever find yourself surfing the Web, reading a stranger’s blog, or looking up old acquaintances on Facebook late into the night? Are you still troubled by nightmares spurred by a violent action movie you recently watched? Or perhaps you’re feeling jittery from that second cup of coffee this morning? 

When our senses connect with the pleasures of the world, they offer us plenty to delight in, but they can also throw us off balance and squander our energy. Maintaining equanimity while living in the world of the senses is a pivotal task for yoga practitioners—it helps us restore harmony to body and mind. 

Brahmacharya—the moderation of the senses—is one of the key practices yoga offers for managing sensory cravings. It is the fourth of five yamas, or restraints, which help us cultivate self-awareness and transform habits that are out of sync with our spiritual aspirations. 

Literally, brahmacharya translates as “walking in God-consciousness.” Practically speaking, this means that brahmacharya turns the mind inward, balances the senses, and leads to freedom from dependencies and cravings. Yogis tell us that when the mind is freed from domination by the senses, sensory pleasures are replaced by inner joy. 

Practically speaking, brahmacharya turns the mind inward, balances the senses, and leads to freedom from dependencies and cravings.

The term brahmacharya is sometimes identified with celibacy, but while the preservation of vital energy through moderation in sexual activity is part of brahmacharya, this is a narrow view of the practice. In Vedic culture, the word brahmacharya denoted the first of four stages of life—that of the student. In this stage, the aspirant spent all his time with a spiritual teacher, and that was, quite naturally, a celibate time. The word also refers to a vow of celibacy taken by a sannyasi, or a renunciate. However, in the context of the yamas, brahmacharya refers to a middle path of restraint. Both overindulgence and repression can deplete your vital force; both can leave you insecure and anxious. The middle path allows you to enjoy the control of your senses rather than letting uncontrolled senses spoil your enjoyment of life. 

Brahmacharya practices range from the very structured to the highly intuitive. A person who craves candy bars may need to impose a limit of one per day. Yet that double-decker chocolate cheesecake might be just right for a special occasion. In a world overwhelmed by stimuli, making wise choices about the books and magazines we read, the movies we watch, and the company we keep will help us conserve energy and keep our mind focused and dynamic. Being moderate in sensory activities so that we don’t dwell on them, staying committed and faithful to one partner in a relationship that is mutually supportive—this is the middle path of brahmacharya. 

What Is Moderation?

The first step in brahmacharya’s simple and elegant strategy for managing desires is to cultivate awareness of your sensory cravings and the manner in which you express them. When the senses are awake and active, observe them—allow them moderate activity, and be prepared to set limits. Rather than constraining the senses, the process of witnessing gives the mind a chance to act in a measured way. It takes diligence to remember this in the midst of an ice cream feast or a TiVo marathon, yet the principle is surprisingly effective: enjoy in moderation. When your mind tells you that you are acting immoderately, take note—it may be time to change your behavior. 

Rather than constraining the senses, the process of witnessing gives the mind a chance to act in a measured way.

The problem, however, is that the same mind that is accustomed to banqueting on sensual experiences is also being asked to regulate itself. Sometimes the mind is so befuddled by the senses that it loses all sense of proportion. 

The true measure of moderation with any sensual experience is its effect on your thoughts, emotions, moods, and energy. When pleasure can be experienced without guilt or agitation, and if it does not preoccupy your mind, then it is not disturbing your equilibrium. But if the mind is overly distracted by an enjoyable experience, then the cause of that disturbance needs to be identified through careful self-observation and addressed through self-discipline. 

A helpful method for evaluating the quality of a sense experience is to examine how well you are able to digest it. In his book Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution, Robert Svoboda points out that digestive problems are not limited to the stomach or small intestine. We also digest experiences in the mind. Here are signs that Svoboda suggests indicate poor mental digestion:

  • You lack mental comfort after ingesting your desired sense object.
  • During the digestive process your mind feels jaded and full.
  • Unwelcome emotions are produced by your experience.
  • Your experience is repressed or purposely hidden; it cannot be effortlessly retrieved from memory or willingly communicated to others.
  • Your sleep or dreams are disturbed by your experience. 

These signs give us a glimpse of how the mind can be negatively affected by sense pleasures. For example, discomfort often accompanies an overdose of graphic TV violence. Even a little celebrity gossip can leave the mind feeling jaded. And you might be hesitant to admit that you spent three consecutive hours playing computer games. Mental self-observation is the key to recognizing the realities of our experience.

Tools for Transformation

Once you’ve developed awareness of which sense experiences are harmful or excessive, you’ll need some practical techniques for managing them more wisely. One of the most powerful strategies for developing control is to rest your senses from time to time. This is the idea behind, for example, voluntary periods of juice fasting, observing silence, or abstaining from sex. Such practices not only rejuvenate both body and mind, they also give us opportunities for deepening our spiritual awareness. 

Yoga practices can also help you manage desires, whether you are recovering from a period of self-indulgence or simply trying to cultivate higher self-awareness. Relaxed breathing will quiet your nervous system and provide a neutral focus other than the sense experience. A friend recently told me how she curtailed a food addiction—each time she encountered her craving, she told herself that she would agree to indulge, but only after 10 minutes of relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. Most often, at the end of her relaxation, her craving had been transformed; gradually her addiction faded altogether. 

Yoga postures are also a powerful tool for redirecting attention and energy. Combined with breath awareness, they draw the focus inward rather than toward sensory stimulation. But perhaps the most effective practice for restoring internal balance is japa (mental repetition of a mantra). During meditation, all the senses are rested. The experience of meditating with a mantra gradually transforms emotional energies consumed by the senses and replaces them with the pleasure of concentration and sense control. Then, despite the draw of sense objects, the mind finds satisfaction within itself.

The experience of meditating with a mantra gradually transforms emotional energies consumed by the senses and replaces them with the pleasure of concentration and sense control.

Brahmacharya, therefore, presents us with practical positive strategies for managing the senses. It teaches us self-restraint—curbing the inclination to eat for eating’s sake, sleep for sleeping’s sake, or to indulge any of the senses without some measure of control. And it offers an alternative—a pervasive feeling of divine presence, a chance to walk in God-consciousness. In this way, we can gratify the greatest and finest desire of all—the desire to find the unchanging reality, the source of unbounded joy.  

The Yamas

As the first step in the eight rungs of raja yoga outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the yamas help us manage our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world around us. 

  1. ahimsa—non-harming
  2. satya—truthfulness
  3. asteya—non-stealing
  4. brahmacharya—moderation of the senses
  5. aparigraha—non-possessiveness 

The yamas help us manage our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Hold Your Senses

In the Katha Upanishad, the Lord of Death, Yamaraja, instructs his advanced student Nachiketa on how to find true enjoyment. He says: Know this self to be the rider. The body to be the chariot. The buddhi, or intellect, to be the charioteer, and the manas, or lower mind, to be the reins. The indriyas, or the senses, are the horses, and the vishayas, the sense objects, are the path on which they run. 

One who is united with the self, the senses, and the mind is called the Enjoyer. One who has an undisciplined mind suffers from the activities of his uncontrolled senses, just as a charioteer suffers from driving untrained horses. One who has right understanding and has a disciplined mind enjoys having controlled senses, just as a charioteer enjoys driving trained horses. 

By controlling the senses—by practicing brahmacharya—one travels in God-consciousness rather than on the path of the sense objects.

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>