Sunday, April 3, 2011

My sexiest post ever! (Or so totally not...)

We talk about ahimsa in yoga a lot: ahimsa means non-violence. We talk about how it applies to what we eat, how we practice, what our clothes are made of, how and where we travel, how we treat others, etc. Ahimsa is only one of the yamas and niyamas (there are five of each; it easily equates to a Yoga version of the 10 Commandments. Although they don't all match up perfectly, there are easy parallels to be drawn- i.e. Ahimsa/Thou shalt not kill/"but I say to you, anyone who has anger in his heart for his brother has already killed.") Ahimsa is a very accessible yama. It makes sense to us that this is important, that any spiritual path would embrace this approach. It's also broad enough in its meaning that there's a lot of room for discussion, interpretation, and debate, which is very healthy.

One that sometimes gets sort of rushed over, on the other hand, or maybe just not gotten to, is brahmacharya. I want to wade right into the thick, messy, interpretable, debatable land of this yama! The simple translation of ahimsa is non-violence. The simple translation of brahmacharya is celibacy. Nervous yet?

America has a very interesting relationship with sexuality that has to do with our roots in Puritanism, and our free-enterprise economy. Most of us grew up being taught, to varying degrees, that sex can be a very negative thing. For some people, sex was shameful, dirty, sinful, wrong. For others, sex was a powerful force that could easily be misused to hurt others. Even in the more balanced latter case, it's easy for a young person to walk away with the message that sex is taboo...and walking directly into a world of advertising and culture that glorifies sex as the best thing ever! Ads for anything you can imagine are selling, not clothes, not cigarettes, not potato chips, but sex! "Here is sex; it's the ultimate good; you want it, and you are entitled to it!" Is the message there. No wonder bringing it up makes us nervous!

After centuries of cultural sexual repression (i.e. pretending that sex drives, particularly in women, either a.) didn't exist or b.) were way too strong and inherently evil, among other neurosis that, yes, we are still dealing with in varied ways), the 20's, and then the 60's even more so let the cat out of the bag. The ads, and the culture got a whole lot more overt, and now even with parents still offering the cautionary or downright negative view of sex, everyone else was all for it. What's an animal biologically wired to reproduce sexually to do?? Well, "It", of course! And do we ever! I can't speak from experience-my spirituality led me to making some highly unusual choices in that department, but I live in New York, and I have a lot of single friends, and there is a lot of sex happening. Some of that sex is built on a loving relationship, or is responsible, or is respectful, or all of the above, and some of it is none of the above.

The average yoga teacher or Yoga Sutras interpreter in this day and age will tell you that brahmacharya refers to keeping sex within that framework of love and respect for the other person. That's one very legitimate interpretation.

Well, Patanjali, that lovely guru who gave us the Yoga Sutras, did not mean to always use a condom and make sure the other person is truly comfortable with this step. He was talking about celibacy...abstaining...totally. Nooooow we're nervous. There's a knee-jerk reaction that comes up here: "Don't you tell me I can't have sex! Sex is NOT dirty, or shameful, or sinful! I AM entitled to sex!"

I find this interesting, and I'd like to ask: Why are we entitled to it? When are we entitled to it? With whom are we entitled to it? (Please do answer these questions in comments on the blog, or on the facebook page, and please note that I'm not necessarily saying we're not entitled to it; I just don't think it's necessarily a given, either.)

The spiritual tradition that I come from, and the spiritual tradition I've evolved that is built on the framework of that tradition, and basically every other organized spiritual tradition that I am familiar with (which is certainly not to say all, and I welcome information on others that I'm not aware of, or info one ones I am familiar with I'm not currently privy to) does in fact advocate celibacy in certain circumstances, during certain life stages, or in certain situations. The most basic, or at least the most commonly familiar, is that Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and (I believe, but could be mistaken) Islam all advocate abstaining from sexual activity until one has chosen one partner for life, and celebrated the ceremony that bonds you and your chosen partner into one family unit. You've heard it as, "Save sex for marriage!" Likely, it makes you cringe. "How old-fashioned!" "How impractical!" "How ridiculous; why should I repress my sexuality if and until I find someone I want to marry?" Or, "I don't want to get married at all, ever, so that whole system doesn't acknowledge I exist!" The ramifications for homosexuals are obviously problematic as well.

Before we shut down completely, let's explore the reasons, pragmatic and spiritual, behind that precept, and behind Patanjali's precept of total celibacy (as in, we're all priests and priestesses in yoga!!) Back when both of these guidelines were put down, there was more or less no such thing as birth control. If you were in a (hetero)sexual relationship, you were going to be parents. Following a spiritual, philosophical lifestyle with the goal of merging your soul into complete unity with the divine, and the divine inside of each other living thing, is sort of incompatible with the time, attention, and emotional demands of child-rearing, yes? Raising a child with someone that, it turns out you don't like that much, they were just really hot, is really difficult and not likely to be an awesome situation for the child, yes?

So, one reason for both of these guidelines is, children in the wrong context are a whole lot of trouble, but we're not talking about getting a couch that's too big for your living room: you've created a human being! It's a pretty big karma load if you mess things up for the little guy.

I think most people agree (again, please speak up if you don't) that sex is a very powerful force. We put out a lot of energy when we engage in sexual activities. In yoga, the second chakra is associated with our sexuality, and also with creativity. It's a logical connection: creating other humans; creating a pretty picture! The idea is, sexual energy isn't only good for sex; it's good for lots of things. If we use it up having sex, we won't have it for asana or pranayama practice. We won't have it to work with and grow stronger through during meditation. It was even believed at that time that by holding in your sexual energy, instead of letting it all out with orgasm, you could live much longer and be much healthier. I can't speak for all traditions, but in Catholicism, it's not advocated that you repress or stuff down your sexual energy: it's advocated that you express that energy in other healthy ways: go for a run, draw a picture, learn to knit (say, that sounds kinda like yoga!). It seems to me that in our culture, we assume if we aren't having sex, it's because we're repressing a natural part of who we are, which is, however you slice it, unhealthy. To Patanjali, and to Catholics, it's not an either/or proposition. You can use that sexual energy in other positive ways, either indefinitely, or until the proper time to let it out it's more traditional channel. (Think that's utter BS? I'd like to hear about it!)

I know what I believe about sex, but I also know that it's a highly personal (not to mention highly volatile - that sexual energy is freakin' gasoline just waiting for a match!) issue. I am not, in any way, shape, or form, attempting to tell anyone how they should or should not incorporate the yama of brahmacharya into his or her life. I do think that we've been on one end of the spectrum in our culture for quite a while now, and while there are areas of that still require further progress, it's worth while to step back, and evaluate that other end of the spectrum. After we've taken a moment to release that knee-jerk reaction. So, take some time; write an angry letter if you need to. Then, maybe read this again.

Live Omily, and whether you're doing it or not, stay sexy!

P.S. A lot of different things were brought up in this post; very little was explored, for the sake of space. I don't mean to leave any view of this issue that I can speak about knowledgeably unrepresented. To that end, this may be first in a series. We'll see.

P.P.S. It's worth noting that my inspiration for this post, and also an important source for it, was this article that I found on It discusses several different views of this yama, from the more open-ended, to the case of one woman who is practicing the very strict view of it, and has been doing so for years. It's likely worth checking out.


  1. I like practicing brahmacharya when I'm not doing it.

  2. I have known many people, yogis, sages, to employ brahmacharya from time to time as a discipline. Like fasting, or giving something up for lent. This includes giving up masturbating too. Completely stopping any action down there, purifying our intentions, and sending that sexual energy up the spine to the crown of enlightenment. It seems especially helpful to do this during times of excessive emotional disturbances, both physical and psychic cleansing, and spiritual seeking. It is nice for people to be able to know that they are taking brahmacharya for a specific length of time (intentionally coinciding with an astrological timeline is always fun), specific purpose, or until an event happens, maybe just until they fall in love! Then to be able to return to the fascinating world of mystical and sexual union as a more healthy, holy, and capable partner.

  3. Great article.

    Raises so many important questions.

    How on earth does one find one's way through the minefield?

    To start at the beginning... what does brahmacharya actually mean? Because how we define it creates everything that follows after...

    A quote from an article I wrote on this:

    "Brahma literally means the ‘divine consciousness’ and charya, in this context, means ‘living’ or ‘one who is established in’. A literal definition of the fourth yama becomes not ‘celibacy’, nor ‘moderation’, but ‘being established in divine consciousness’, or ‘being established in the higher (form of the) mind’. Or even, ‘walking with God’."

    If one is established in Divine Consciousness, or is Walking with God, then the question of sex falls away. Choosing to have sex or not have sex becomes... self-evident. There is deeper understanding of the true nature of sex, of the energetic nature of sex. Sex is had, or not had, because it is right in that situation.

    The yamas and niyamas, while tempting to compare them to the Ten Commandments, are completely different.

    They are not externally applied shoulds & shoudn'ts, but rather internal flowerings as a result of practice. Simply by practicing yoga -both on and off the mat, one naturally begins to embody the yamas and niyamas.