Brahmacharya (moderation of the senses), the fourth of the five yamas (restraints) described in the Yoga Sutra, counsels us to live a life of balance. Though most commentators translate brahmacharya as “celibacy,” its literal meaning is “walking in the presence of the Divine.” In Vedic culture, brahmacharya referred to the first of the four stages of life, that of a student—the practice of celibacy helped students to remain clear and one-pointed in their studies.
Though most commentators translate brahmacharya as “celibacy,” its literal meaning is “walking in the presence of the Divine.”
For modern-day yoga students, brahmacharya guides us to regulate, but not repress, our senses—to find that fine balance between fulfilling our needs and indulging to excess. The sages tell us that the senses follow the mind like worker bees follow their queen. So when we set an intention and focus our mind on it, our senses gather together to support that intention. But keeping that focus when our untamed senses are tugging at our mind every which way is no easy task. My first attempt to practice brahmacharya taught me not to underestimate the power of sensual urges.
Leap of Faith
When I started yoga some 30 years ago, I had a deep spiritual hunger. So I jumped at the chance to do my first purashcharana practice—repeating 10 malas worth of a certain mantra for 125 days—even though it came with strict requirements: no alcohol, no drugs, no sex, no meat, and no eggs. Little did I realize what I had signed up for.
Although the no sex part threw me a little, I figured it would be easy—after all, I had just moved into a yoga community that encouraged and supported celibacy. Abstaining physically was hard at first, but not as hard, I soon found out, as controlling my racy mind. Instead of listening to what my teachers were saying in class, my mind wandered merrily among memories of past pleasures and fantasies of future ones. I would be sitting in front of a teacher taking notes when a forceful wave of sexual energy would rush through me, leaving me embarrassed and red-faced. Oh my god, can he read my mind? I wondered, looking sheepishly away. Can he tell what an awful student I am? I had no idea my mind was so preoccupied with sexual thoughts! Stopping the outer activity made me acutely aware of its strong unconscious hold on me.
The effort to maintain the practice created a fire within me, bringing old unresolved issues to light. Friends remarked on how radiant I looked, but inside I felt like I was dying. And the truth, I later realized, was that my old self was dying, opening the way for a new self to be born.
Not wanting to break the practice, but not knowing how to handle the energy, I turned to food for comfort. Bread and butter in any form became my solace. A friend doing the same practice and battling the same urges left me a thick piece of homemade bread slathered with butter on my desk one day with the note: We may be getting fat but we’re getting pure. “Fat but pure” became our motto.
The effort to maintain the practice created a fire within me, bringing old unresolved issues to light. Friends remarked on how radiant I looked, but inside I felt like I was dying. And the truth, I later realized, was that my old self was dying, opening the way for a new self to be born. But at the time, I only felt inner torment and anguish. Self-doubts gnawed at me. Thoughts of leaving consumed me. Emotions of all kinds surged through me. I found it almost impossible to continue. Long fast walks up steep hills had little effect—so I ate more bread and butter.
Determined, I kept doing the practice. Slowly I began to understand that energy is just energy, neither good nor bad—whether it manifests as waves of sexual desire or emotions like anger, sadness, jealousy, love, or joy. By not resisting or judging whatever surfaced, I learned I could observe it without identifying with it—and eventually it would fade away.
The glorious 125th day came and with it I felt an inner lightness, a clearing, as if some deep spiritual knot had been loosened. I had gained 20 pounds but shed a layer of darkness that had been smothering me since childhood. Inspired, I decided to do another purashcharana. This time, I didn’t need to indulge in so much bread and butter.
The inner touch of the Divine—that sweet quiet calm clarity of the inner Self—fed my deeper hunger in a way that sensual pleasures could not. In the past, the more I indulged sensually, the more I wanted. But once I learned to control and channel my sensual energy for a higher purpose, I felt more alive, more clear, more joyful.
Acquire a New Taste
The sages say the way to deal with a baser urge is to replace it with a higher one. In Swami Prabhavananda’s commentary on Narada’s Bhakti Sutras, he explains that it is like putting a smaller magnet into the force field of a larger one. When we do this, the lesser magnet loses its potency. The same is true for us. Instead of fighting our weakness, promising to give it up, only to fail miserably each time and feeling more and more worthless, we can turn it over to a higher source. This is the premise of Alcoholics Anonymous. But it originated with the ancients.
In Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood tells how Ramakrishna advised a student who had trouble with alcohol to offer his first sip to the Divine Mother and then drink it as her prasad (blessing). Ramakrishna didn’t tell him to give up drinking, because that would have created a struggle for his student. He simply said to think of the Divine Mother first, which brought a new level of awareness to his action. Though it took time, by doing this, the man slowly changed his attitude. He became filled with devotion and wanted to offer the best of himself to the Divine Mother. He never got drunk again. This is brahmacharya—walking in the presence of the Divine—at its best.
Find the Balance
Although I initially struggled to rein in my sensual urges during my first purashcharana, the more I opened up to a relationship with the Divine, the more I felt satisfied on a deeper level, and the less control these urges exerted over me. The inner touch of the Divine—that sweet quiet calm clarity of the inner Self—fed my deeper hunger in a way that sensual pleasures could not. In the past, the more I indulged sensually, the more I wanted. But once I learned to control and channel my sensual energy for a higher purpose, I felt more alive, more clear, more joyful. And I discovered I could more fully enjoy sensual pleasure in moderation because I was conscious of what I was doing. I had found the balance point.
By gathering our senses and channeling them in a controlled conscious way for a higher purpose, we stop wasting energy. Our conserved vital energy becomes transmuted into a more refined potent healing energy called ojas, which gives us physical stamina and clarity of mind. And when ojas is conserved, it becomes even more highly refined as tejas (splendor; brilliance).
The sages say we are meant to enjoy this world and all it has to offer. Any sensory pleasure in moderation is fine. But when the senses control us rather than us controlling them, we get in trouble. The question to ask is this: To what extent do we let the senses pull us outward in their endless pursuit of satisfaction, and to what extent do we rest the senses in the clear quiet calm of our inner Self? Have we found a balance between the two?
You don’t need to commit to a 125-day practice. Just a 5- or 10-minute relaxation before you indulge in your habitual escape or pleasure can make a difference. That’s how I reined in another out-of-control sensual pleasure—chocolate. But that's another story.
According to the Yoga Sutra (2.38), when we become established in the practice of brahmacharya, we gain vitality. By gathering our senses and channeling them in a controlled conscious way for a higher purpose, we stop wasting energy. Our conserved vital energy becomes transmuted into a more refined potent healing energy called ojas, which gives us physical stamina and clarity of mind. And when ojas is conserved, it becomes even more highly refined as tejas (splendor; brilliance). As Reverend Jaganath Carrera writes in his commentary: “It is not simply that we will have more energy, but the quality of it will be more subtle, stable, and healing. It is the kind of energy that others will feel in our presence, naturally radiating like light or heat.” It is this precious vital force that allows a great spiritual master to transmit subtle energy to a student during initiation, awakening the process of inner transformation. And it is this same energy that will allow us to realize our highest Self.