“Whether we find ourselves overdoing food, work, exercise, or sleep, excess is often a result of forgetting the sacredness of life. The fourth jewel, Brahmacharya, literally means ‘walking with God’ and invites us into an awareness of the sacredness of all life.” Deborah Adele, The Yamas and Niyamas.
Most of the students I teach at my Christian university grew up in some variation of an abstinence-only culture. They know, both because of the community lifestyle standards and their church’s teachings, that they are not supposed to be having sex. However, my students are also twenty-first century adults with libidos who are trying to figure out everything. “Do you think it’s a sin to have sex before marriage?” some ask, often because they already are. In their competing worlds of no-sex and SEX SEX SEX, sex is both the highest goal and the biggest sin.
I’ve realized yoga has a few things to say about sex too, some restrictive, some liberating. Early monks and yogis renounced sex, and modern yogis believed celibacy, or at least chastity, to be essential. “Too much sex leads the body, sense organs, and mind to become weak,” Sri K. Pattabhi Jois writes in his book Yoga Mala. Some schools of yoga, such as Kripalu, used to make students take a vow of celibacy (this backfired in scandal years later). In reading ancient and modern yogic texts, it is easy to infer that yoga is a practice designed to harness (or yoke, as the word yoga translates) one’s sexuality.
To yoke one’s sexuality, however, is not to kill it. What I have also learned about yoga is that it asks us to balance opposites as we honor the body. Yoga’s relationship to sex can be distilled down to one principle: take care of your sexual being. Yoga seems to provide two guidelines on how to do it. The first guideline is brahmacharya: celibacy, chastity, or temperance.
Yoga Journal has a wonderful article by Claudia Cummins on the nuances, ancient and modern, of brahmacharya. She points out that in its ancient origins, celibacy was part of life for monks and yogis, mainly because celibacy prevented parenthood, and parenthood prevented total devotion to a spiritual life. Yogis also believed sexual fluids distilled into spiritual vigor when not wasted in sexual intercourse. (Most current researchers believe that the yogis saw the problem of post-sex lethargy, which is really an issue of neurons firing, and attributed it to loss of essential life fluids). For some modern-day yogis, a practice of celibacy is an important part of their spiritual life. The Yoga Journal article references yogis like Swami Chidananda, a celibate leader of the Divine Life Society in India and Adrian Piper, a yoga student, artist, and philosophy professor who adopted a life of celibacy in her thirties.
Most yogis believe that monogamy within relationships is the best modern-day application of brahmacharya. Monogamy, and moderation, that is; Jois only recommends “union with one’s lawful wife [ . . . ] for the sake of begetting good progeny” so as to not “squander” one’s sexuality. Judith Lasater, author of Living Your Yoga, does not give restrictions on sexual activity, but believes that brahmacharya involves being very aware of one’s sexuality, and careful and wise about how one decides to be sexual.
A third, and looser interpretation of brahmacharya is that of temperance in how we use our energy, including sexual energy. Deborah Adele points out in The Yamas and Niyamas that any time we let something else control us, or anytime we squander our energy, we’re not practicing brahmacharya. She points out enjoyment and pleasure are good, but when pleasure moves to addiction, we are usually trying to cover up something else. “We must also be fearless,” she says, “in facing our sadness, grief, and disappointments without needing to soothe them with food or sex.” Jois writes that it is not good to talk, sleep, or eat too much, or mix with “undesirable or uncultured people.” If he had written Yoga Mala in the internet age, he’d probably add social media and video games to that list. Moderation is essential, especially with activities that produce an addictive hit of dopamine. While food, sex, sleep, and drugs might make us feel better while we’re doing them, they don’t help make us better people in the long term, and can distract from the important task of honing our spiritual lives. Too much of these things becomes distractions on purpose. In particular, indiscriminate sex leads to focusing on short-term, pleasure-focused goals at the expense of one’s soul, and often, other relationships.
The major world religions include chastity, and often fasting, for a reason, and for adherents, these restraints can be their own gifts. Piper points out that when she stopped having sex, her relationships with men improved because she was no longer trying to get something from them. Many yogis believe celibacy and fasting are good short-term exercises to bring the body back into balance and determine what is pulling it towards excess. Almost all teachers, Cummins says, believe “that brahmacharya requires us to carefully consider the relationship between our lives on the yoga mat and our lives under the sheets.” Lasater states, “I don’t think one needs to be celibate in order to progress in yoga and spiritual practice, but I definitely think one has to be very careful and clear about the sexual choices one makes. You’re not going to be a whole healthy person unless you’re whole and healthy in your sexuality.”
I’m not sure I’ve given my students a straight answer on sex yet; to be fair, I doubt they want one. I find it more beneficial to think about sex as careful choices. Perhaps chastity does not ask us to shut down sexual expression but rather to “walk with God” and find the sacredness in one’s sexual life. “Brahmacharya is not an answer; it’s a question,” Lasater says. “And the question is, How will I use my sexuality in a way that honors my divinity and the divinity of others?”