It's time to talk yoga, sex and love
When I was only starting to practise yoga and heard a teacher talking about brahmacharya, translated as celibacy and continence, it confused me. I thought to myself, something is not clear about the definition of this yama (moral discipline). But I was too shy and self-conscious, and a little uncomfortable at that stage, to clarify the term with my teacher. I spoke to a few of my fellow practitioners instead, only to find out that they weren’t too sure about what brahmacharya really meant to a modern-day yogi, either.
The concept made me baulk a little. Personally, I commenced yoga in part because I wanted a regular practice to deepen my spirituality, to help me become a more mindful partner to my husband, to become more aware of my body and sexuality, to generate vital energy and know how to use it, to feel good about myself and, frankly speaking, to bring more depth to my love life and enhance it — not to cease it!
It then sparked a huge interest in me. So I delved into learning more about the yamas and niyamas (personal ethics), signing up for a course on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and studying other yogic and tantric texts to figure out how to apply that yogic wisdom to my life, as a married woman who is a yoga practitioner and, now, a yoga teacher, too.
Here is what I learnt.
Do I need to give up sex to be spiritual?
Brahmacharya is the fourth of the yamas, and the most misunderstood one. It is often translated as “celibacy” or “complete abstinence from sexual activity” and confuses “householder” yogis — people who are dedicated to yoga practice but are in a relationship and have families. But what does brahmacharya really mean, and what do yogic texts and history teach us about it?
Brahma in Sanskrit stands for “the ultimate”, “creative force”, “higher awareness”, “God”, “divine”; charya means “the path”, “to be followed”, “to be established”, “to live in”. Hence, brahmacharya can be seen as living in higher awareness or following the path to the ultimate. Brahmacharya can also be explained as living in harmony with the spiritual path of your choosing, be that dharma, Tao, nature, ultimate reality or the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.
Patanjali himself does not define brahmacharya in The Yoga Sutras, the ancient yogic text in which the eight limbs of yoga form the core of the practice. Rather, he introduces its effect: “Brahma charya pratishthayam virya labhaha.” Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of this sutra is: “By one established in continence, vigour is gained.”
Brahmacharya can be seen as living in higher awareness or following the path to the ultimate. It can also be explained as living in harmony with the spiritual path of your choosing.
As seen from this translation, brahmacharya is viewed as continence — the ability to control the self — or moderation, from which we can deduct that brahmacharya is the wise utilisation of the vital energy or life force (prana/chi), including sexual energy, to generate more vitality and deepen your connection to the higher self.
We know that, for thousands of years, yoga has included both ascetics and householders. The majority of the yogis of the past had families, including the rishis (sages), who were married and fathered many children of their own. Thus, for an ascetic, brahmacharya means celibacy, while for householder practitioners, who make up the majority of the contemporary yoga community, it refers to the wise use and expenditure of their energy and disciplined sexual activity.
Brahmacharya by no means should be seen as sexual-energy repression. Suppression of sexuality can result in either fanaticism or a tendency to bottle up sexual urges and express them in a harmful way, causing a lot of pain to those involved. We have sadly all heard of sex scandals arising from religious groups such as the Catholic Church as well as the countless gurus and spiritual leaders who have misused their sexual powers while advocating celibacy and chastity to their devotees.
In yoga, sexuality is seen as a natural and essential part of human existence and is to be embraced responsibly and respectfully to honour your divinity as well as the divinity in your partner.
Your sexuality should be used to bring you closer to your spiritual self and should be approached with an intention of purity and non-harm for body, speech and mind. That means abstention from sexual contact with anyone other than your partner, reckless use of your sexual energy and sexual jokes or fantasies, as they turn others into the objects of desire, potentially causing jealousy, resentment and suffering to those involved.
Gregor Maehle, in his book Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy, references another yogic text, Vasistha Samhita, further explaining the concept of brahmacharya applied to householder yogis: “Sexual restraint for householders means to have intercourse only with their lawful partners.” Maehle continues, “The yogic view of the relationship is not to consume another person like an object but to recognise divinity in one’s partner.”
The teaching of brahmacharya, applied to modern life, invites yoga practitioners to be mindful of their sexual energy expenditure; it advises them to form lasting, intimate relationships and practise sexually responsible behaviour free from exploitation, manipulation, deceit, aggression and oppression.
Prana, tejas & ojas
When talking about sexual energy, it is important to mention the subtle essences, which unite body, mind and spirit and are believed, in yoga and Ayurveda, to promote physical and mental health, support your yoga practice and enhance your wellbeing. Those vital essences are prana, tejas and ojas.
Prana is the life force (also known as chi), which is brought into the body through your breath and gives vitality to the body and mind, rejuvenating the organs. Tejas is the essence that promotes passion, motivation, willpower and courage. With reference to brahmacharya, however, it is primarily the ojas that needs to be addressed.
Ojas means vigour, and is considered to be the fluid of life and a reserve of your creative energy. It is the essence of the tissues that govern your strength, vigour, longevity, endurance, energy reserves, radiance, stamina, fertility, hormonal balance and strong immunity. While ojas is a subtle essence, it is also a substance — inclusive of reproductive fluid — that can be produced, collected and stored in the body.
You can enhance ojas through yoga, breathing and meditation practices, being in nature, moderated sexual activity and having loving relationships, as well as a wholesome diet that includes almond milk, honey, aloe vera, ghee, good-quality oils, sweet fresh fruit, dates, raisins, nuts, seeds and ginseng. Also, Ayurveda views night time as the best time for sex and prescribes more sexual activity in the colder seasons rather than hotter months of the year.
Depletion of the ojas can be caused by exhaustion, anxiety, fear and grief, with excessive sexual activity topping the list. “Too frequent love-making reduces ojas, the body’s vital energy, and leaves the person weak and open to disease,” teaches Ayurvedic scholar and doctor Vasant Lad. This view does not advocate sexual deprivation or suppression but rather invites you to see brahmacharya purely as energy.
In yoga, sexuality is seen as a natural and essential part of human existence and is to be embraced responsibly and respectfully.
Renowned Ayurvedic doctor Robert Svoboda echoes this when he introduces an Ayurvedic interpretation of brahmacharya: “that which causes the creative energy of the universe to accumulate within you”. Michael Stone, in The Inner Tradition of Yoga, writes, “Brahmacharya is not an ethical code based on fear and prudery but rather one that encourages an honest appraisal of the energies that move within us, their effects and how to work with the movements of energy, sexual or otherwise.”
So you can see that brahmacharya is about not misusing sex, repressing sexual urges, overindulging in them or seeking self-gratification. Rather, it’s about respecting the creative power of your sexual energy and preventing the depletion of ojas.
Sexual intimacy, built on love, mutual satisfaction and respect, is to be valued and enjoyed. Meaningful sex has many health benefits and is a tremendous creative force as well as one of the most pleasurable ways to express love and compassion.
How to practise brahmacharya
In your relationship
When it comes to building a healthy, long-lasting intimate relationship as a yoga practitioner, seek to apply brahmacharya in conjunction with the three yamas that precede it. Those are:
- Ahimsa, which means not hurting another in thought, word or action, encourages the practice of compassion and loving-kindness towards your partner, even when the challenges that come with a relationship cause an ego-centred response and reactive behaviours.
- Satya, interpreted as truth, which is the foundation of a strong relationship built on honesty, loyalty and trust, fostering transcendent communication.
- Asteya, translated as “do not steal”, which promotes cherishing the time you spend together with your partner with sacredness, respect, gratitude and appreciation.
On your yoga mat
Brahmacharya teaches you to be aware that you only have limited energy to expend, and so to realise when you expend it and make mindful choices when to utilise it in your asana practice. When in a yoga class or doing your Home practice, rather than pushing yourself too hard physically or mentally, or focusing on a desire to achieve a level of advancement in a certain posture, aim to be present in your body, with your breath, which is a reliable indicator of the state of your practice. If your breath is rigid, choppy, uncomfortable or held, it is generally a sign that you’re forcing your body over the edge and draining your energy. That is the time to stop, breathe and restore, as deep yoga practice presumes energy gain and management rather than its depletion.
In your daily life
In a broader context, brahmacharya can be seen as a way of moderation and self-restraint when it comes to your sensory practice. Emotional overeating, excessive drinking, obsessive use of social media, watching violent films, addiction to the phone, gossiping, consumerism and overindulgence in food are all examples of the attachments to, and overstimulation of, the senses that we face in modern society. Anything in excess may lead to lowering your energy, exhaustion, decrease of the ojas, derangements of the mind, decline in health and even loss of financial security.
The question you have to ask yourself when it comes to managing your senses is whether your choices serve you or not, whether your body and mind gain vigour, support and nourishment from them, and whether the choices you make on a daily basis enhance your quality of your life or deplete it and thus drain your energy. Approach your energy reserves like a savings account: you don’t need to spend all you have saved at once.
Balancing out sexual energy
As established earlier, your sexual energy is a creative force that, yoga and Ayurveda suggest, should be expended mindfully, with a degree of restraint, when relating to sensory overstimulation to avoid loss of the ojas: your vigour and vitality. In yoga, your cravings, desires, lust, addictions, sensory overstimulation and controlling behaviours, together with creativity, passion, pleasure, life satisfaction, sexual energy and healthy sexual function, are governed by the second chakra.
Chakras are energy centres that carry certain physical, psychological and energetic qualities. The second chakra, also referred to as the sacral chakra or svadisthana, is located in the sacral area above the pubic bone and below the navel. Water is the element this chakra is linked to and that includes bodily fluids of circulation, urination, elimination, sexuality and reproduction.
When svadisthana is imbalanced, either in deficit or excess, it can trigger your body’s physical and psychological response, manifesting in imbalances and malfunctions of that chakra. Thus, when this centre is energy-deficient, it may be characterised by fear of sex, diminished libido, rigidity, poor social skills, repression of pleasure and lack of passion, desire and inspiration. Excessive sacral chakra can manifest in obsessive attachments, inappropriate sexual behaviours, poor boundaries, hypersensitivity, emotional dependency, manipulation, pleasure addiction and sensory overstimulation.
Approach your energy reserves like a savings account: you don’t need to spend all you have saved at once.
Anodea Judith, author of the in-depth guide to the chakra system Eastern Body, Western Mind, suggests that imbalances with the second chakra may also result in physical malfunctions such as disorders of the reproductive and urinary system organs, frigidity, impotence and low back pain.
When balanced, svadisthana is identified with emotional intelligence, creativity, healthy sexual function, fulfilment and the capacity to build nurturing relationships and experience joy and pleasure, as well as the ability to exercise healthy control over seductive forces such as sex, money, drugs, addictions and consumerism. Accordingly, the practice of balancing out this chakra is linked closely with the yama of brahmacharya.
A sequence to balance svadisthana
The yoga asanas given here are designed to increase prana in the pelvic area to nourish and open the second chakra, promote reproductive health and digestion, open and lubricate hip joints, enhance endurance in your thighs, stretch the front of the groin, increase circulation to urinary, digestive, and reproductive organs and calm the nervous system.
Reclined bound angle pose (supta baddha konasana)
While seated on a mat, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together towards the hips, allowing your knees to drop out to the sides.
Lie on your back and slightly lift your pelvis off the floor, shifting your tailbone towards the feet, and then release your lower back and buttocks onto the mat. If the pose does not feel comfortable due to the tightness in the hip area, place cushions or blocks under your thighs for more support. You can rest your hands on your abdomen or release your arms to the side of your body. Remain in the pose for 10-15 breaths.
Now start to “flap your wings”: pressing your sacrum into the mat, with your exhalation, bring your knees together releasing the soles of the feet onto the mat; with your inhalation, move your knees apart joining your feet together back into supta baddha konasana. Repeat eight to 10 times and then hug both knees in towards your chest, rock from side to side a few times, then roll onto one side and return to a seated position.
Sun salutations (surya namaskar)
Perform four to seven rounds of surya namaskar to warm your body, increase circulation, enhance the release of toxins and prepare yourself for the yoga sequence described further. Then rest in child’s pose (balasana) for five to 10 breaths, observing the effects of the healing sun salutations.
Low lunge (anjaneyasana)
From downward-facing dog, step your right foot forward, placing it between your hands and bringing your right knee over the right heel. Place your left knee onto the mat, pointing your tailbone towards the floor and lifting your pubic bone towards the navel. On the next inhalation, raise your arms up with the palms of your hands facing each other, lift your chest and relax your shoulders. Gaze straight ahead or up and remain in the pose for eight breaths. Then press back into downward-facing dog and repeat on the other side.
One-legged king pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana)
Start on your hands and knees or in downward-facing dog, then lift your right leg up and bring your right knee forward, positioning it behind your right wrist. Slide your left leg back, keeping it straight. Make sure it is behind your body with the heel pointing up and the top of the foot pressing into the mat. Try to keep your hips level and lengthen your tailbone towards the back of your mat, inhale there (pose A), lengthening the spine.
As you exhale, walk your hands forward and lower yourself down onto the mat maintaining the length through the spine. You can rest your forehead on the mat, your hands or a block or cushion if needed (pose B). Remain in the pose for 10 breaths balancing your weight on both sides. To come out, push into your hands and lift your hips, returning to tabletop position or downward-facing dog. Repeat on the other side and then come into a seated position.
Wide-legged forward fold (upavistha konasana)
From a seated position, allow your legs to straighten, taking them as wide apart as feels comfortable, pointing your knees up and pressing the thigh bones down. If you have tighter hips or hamstrings, sit on a cushion or a folded blanket. As you inhale, place your hands behind you, lengthen through your spine and lift your chest; as you exhale, tilt your pelvis forward, extending your tailbone back, and bring your hands forward to release the palms or forearms onto the floor.
Lie down onto your stomach and bend your knees, taking them wider than your hips and bringing your feet to touch. As you inhale, come up onto your hands, rolling your shoulders back and lifting the chest. If the pose feels too strenuous on your lower back, walk your hands further away from your hips. Look straight ahead or up and stay in the pose for six to eight breaths. Lower down on the exhalation, bringing your legs back onto the mat, and rest for a few breaths.
Lie down on the mat in supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose), the way you began your practice. Stay there for a minute or two before straightening your legs for another three to five minutes to rest in savasana (corpse pose).
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