If brahmacharya is indeed such a pillar of yoga, then why is yoga so riddled with sex scandals? Why do articles like William Broad’s “Yoga and Sex Scandals, No Surprise Here” actually capture our attention?
I think much of that comes from the collision of spiritual practice with commercialism. Sex sells. We would be in denial if we were to think that the current popularity of yoga in the West is purely due to our craving for spiritual sustenance. It is true that our consumerist culture has created the spiritual starvation that causes our craving. But consumption is our societal habit, and much of yoga has been repackaged and sold to us as snack food—easy spirituality to quiet our hunger pangs. We conveniently leave out the less palatable bits like “celibacy/sexual self-control.”
There are studies which apparently show that men in positions of power or authority demonstrate a significant rise in their testosterone levels.
This makes sense. That rise in testosterone is precisely what makes men in positions of power more sexually attractive as well. We see enough examples of people who are unable to contain themselves in the face of such surges of sex-hormones and temptation. Not just gurus, politicians, musicians or movie stars, but also doctors, professors and coaches, people in positions of authority and trust.
While for men, brahmacharya may mean training themselves to contain or gain control of their sexual energy, for women, it may mean looking within to understand whether their sexual feelings come from a place of honoring themselves and their womanhood, and whether their sexual relations nurture their spirit or harm it. No one said sexual discipline is easy. Brahmacharya just suggests that it should be practiced, like asana (yoga poses) or any skill. As with any new skill, it may feel difficult and unpleasant initially, but with practice, it becomes easier and comes with its own life-enhancing benefits. The practice can only help to reduce sexual predation, consumption of pornography, and other such ills in society.
Even within the confines of a committed relationship, brahmacharya still applies, but in the sense of sexual moderation or restraint.
This is meant to promote fidelity and sacredness in a partnership. Even this idea is hard for our society to swallow. In our popular culture, we portray being single as a time to feast on sexual pleasure and marriage (or monogamous relationships) as the time when “the party is over.” In the traditional Hindu paradigm, it is the opposite. Being single is the time when you are supposed to be serious and celibate, and the householder phase is the time when you get to enjoy life’s pleasures but within the context of your relationship. It is no wonder that relationships in our times are often so fleeting. We are raised to think “the more, the better” and so we are no longer capable of maintaining healthy relationships.
We expect our romantic relationships to sustain the high and intense energy of the budding love relationship, and so we get bored and discontent when that energy tapers off, as it inevitably does.
But just as children are attracted to high-energy foods like sugar because their rapidly growing nature demands it, a budding relationship often naturally includes a feast of sex because it is in a phase of rapid growth. In all of nature, the greatest amount of energy is expended in the beginning. Think of how much energy it takes for a tender sprout to be able to push its way out of the hard seed and then through the earth. Once it is above ground, it is stronger, but needs much less energy to grow. Think of how fast a baby grows in its first year of life. The most rapid growth actually happens immediately after conception. Eventually growth slows and then plateaus in all things—in plants, in children, and also in love. This is natural. But most relationship advice emphasizes quantity over quality.
We are told that a healthy relationship is one with frequent sex. How frequent? Daily, according to pop health guru, Dr. Oz, and the like. Women are made to believe that if they do not want sex that frequently, they have a sexual problem. There is even a name for it: FSD, Female Sexual Dysfunction. Drug companies are racing to find “the cure” for this problem that apparently plagues up to 40% of American women, according to their own (how convenient!) statistics. A woman who is ready for sex anywhere and anytime is held up as the supermodel of female sexual health. This is in direct opposition to the patriarchal viewpoint that good girls do not enjoy sex.
Newsflash: Women do enjoy sex.
But does that mean they are in a state of constant heat? Of course not! Human females’ hormonal cycles are monthly. Moreover, there are natural ebbs and flows of sexual energy in a woman’s life. For example, low libido is a common concern amongst post-partum women. This is natural due to the high physical demands of caring for an infant. However, many post-partum women feel pressured to begin having sex with their partners before they themselves feel the inclination.
In one post-partum forum that I participate in, this was a common theme. Most women were saying that they were willing to have sex just for the sake of the “greater good” of keeping the relationship “healthy.” Really? Is sex with a willing but uninterested partner healthy? Besides being totally biased in favor of men, and therefore patriarchal in nature, this is just microwave TV dinner sex—no effort involved. The effect of too much of this type of sex on the health of the relationship is the same as the effect of eating too many TV dinners. Resentment and neglect build up like cholesterol in the heart.
What would brahmacharya look like in this case? Rather than feeling unsatisfied by the lack of sex in his relationship, a man would need to redirect his sexual energy, not into another person, but into another pursuit until his partner feels her sexual energy levels restored.
Redirection of sexual energy is one of the principles of brahmacharya. Sexual energy can be raised to fuel the higher chakras, which is beneficial to the man and his relationship. Restraint in this case would cultivate a feeling of mutual respect. This is not to say that a man should avoid or withhold all physical affection from his partner. Post-partum women surely need affection more than ever. But as many of the women on the forum expressed, they need to feel like every touch is not a demand for their body. Breastfeeding is a constant physical demand on a woman’s body and sometimes women just crave a little space for their bodies during the baby years.
Perhaps rather than emphasizing that a sexually healthy female is one that can satisfy the sexual demands of male desire, we should be emphasizing that a strong, healthy sexual male is one that can provide physical comfort and affection without needing to satiate his desire. Of course, when a woman is ready and desiring of sexual contact, then there is no need for abstinence. It will flow naturally as a communion between body and souls! Quality over quantity.
Is one juicy, sweet mango not better than ten cookies?
Just as food should nourish our bodies, sex should provide healthy nourishment to a relationship. Too little can certainly cause malnourishment, but so can too much “junk” sex. (I apologize for the heterosexist nature of this example. Of course, the concepts of brahmacharya would apply to each couple and each situation uniquely, including gay/lesbian/bisexual relationships.)
Sattvic sex nourishes the emotions and the spirit of both partners. It feeds the divine love between two people. Rajasic sex is enjoyable, but feeds worldly love—that is, ego-based love. Tamasic sex or “junk sex” may give temporary pleasure but, in the long run, it depletes the vital energy and is often detrimental to body, mind, and spirit, and even to the collective body, mind, and spirit of society. Sure, sattvic food and sattvic sex sound, well, bland. Many may prefer to live in the rajasic realm. Remember that rajasic foods are stimulating to our senses.
Most of us want that kind of energy to stay active in our lives. But just as we can occasionally fast and appreciate the cleansing, health-promoting benefits of fasting, can we recognize that conscious celibacy or sexual restraint may have some purifying benefits? Can we concede that we cannot know what those benefits are unless we try it for ourselves? We do not necessarily need to practice it all the time, unless we are at that place in our spiritual journey where it feels natural to do so.
Remember those tasty French fries?
For those who have made healthy eating the rule rather than the exception, French fries often no longer taste good at all—in fact, they may even become utterly unappetizing. Just as we all may be in different places in terms of our relationship to food, striving towards healthier eating can only improve our lives. Likewise, striving to incorporate more brahmacharya into our yoga practice can only promote physical, mental, and spiritual wellness for us and for society. That is the point of yoga and that is why brahmacharyais actually one of its fundamentals.
Maybe we will see fewer yoga stars ‘tumbling’ back to earth if we finally embrace this ignored basic. After all, a home can never be strong with one of its pillars missing.
Read Part I: Let’s Talk About Brahmacharya, Baby!
Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul