In light (or shadow, as the case may be) of the John Friend/Anusara scandal and the NY Times response article, Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here, in which William Broad claims that yoga originated as a “sex cult,” I decided to finally ask a question I have been wondering about for a long time: what about brahmacharya? Remember brahmacharya? If you are a yoga teacher, they may have mentioned it briefly in your yoga training. If not, then I am guessing you have probably never heard of it.
Traditionally defined as divine sexual conduct which, depending upon the circumstances, can mean celibacy or sexual restraint, moderation, or continence, brahmacharya is one of the five yamas (ethical rules for correct living) outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (perhaps Mr. Broad has heard of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?).
Let us say that again: brahmacharya is one of the foundational yogic guidelines for life.
Yet, it is the one traditional principle of yoga that most modern yoga practitioners balk at, trip over, or skip over. I mean, yoga is sexy (if Equinox ads are to be believed), but celibacy is not. Most Western yogis cannot seem to reconcile with the idea of brahmacharya, so they tend to just ignore it altogether, seeing it as an outdated relic from yoga’s ancient past. I have tried to initiate conversation about it on online yoga forums and have literally met with dead silence. I have even seen some go out of their way to broadly redefine brahmacharya in non-sexual terms, like in this article by yoga blogger, Julie JC Peters.
This is not to say that the above article is BS, or that there is no room for modern interpretation of this or any other yoga principle. But what if we put the sex (or lack thereof) back into brahmacharya, just for the sake of consideration? I am going to argue for the more traditional definition of brahmacharya, and that it is indeed meant to be a guide for yogic sexual conduct.
Does the fact that brahmacharya is included in yogic philosophy and guidelines mean that yoga is anti-sex, or that sex is considered shameful or “sinful” as it is thought of other religious traditions?
I think the answer to that is both yes and no. Modern Indian society does indeed tend to shroud sex with shame. Some argue that this is a hangover from the sexually repressed Victorian era of British colonialism. Some blame it on Islamic conquest. Personally, I blame it on patriarchy in general, of which Islamic and British colonialism were certainly manifestations, but Hindu cultures have their own indigenous variations which likely predate those historical periods.
Certainly yoga is heavily flavored by Indian culture, since its origins are Indian. On the other hand, yoga is derived from the Hindu philosophical tradition (which always rests on higher ground than that of the lay society). Hindu philosophy offers a specific place for sex in human life, which does not contain any particular stigma—just that there is an appropriate time and place for it. This is why Indian philosophy can include brahmacharya, the Kama Sutra and the obscure Tantric sex ritual.
Hinduism outlines four stages of life—brahmacharya (the student stage), garhasthya (the householder stage), vanaprastha (the “forest dwelling”/renunciation stage), and sannyasa (the ascetic stage).
The first stage, called none other than brahmacharya, refers to the student stage of life, when one devotes all of one’s energies towards study. What would modern day high school and college look like if students practiced the discipline of celibacy? Boring? Maybe. But I bet most teachers would agree that it would make it a whole lot easier to teach!
The second stage of life is the garhasthya or householder stage. It is during this stage that one may actively pursue kama (sexual enjoyment) within the context of the householder relationship, or in modern terms, a committed relationship. But even within the sanctioned sexual relationship, a modified form of brahmacharya is advised, in the sense of sexual restraint when appropriate and/or sexual continence. Traditionally, this precept was directed exclusively towards men. Whether this was because women were considered to be merely objects of sexual desire or whether they were considered to be inherently spiritual, as some claim, is beside the point. This is where modern reinterpretation comes into play.
In our time, women are spiritual aspirants just as often as men, and so brahmacharya applies equally, though perhaps differently. During the third phase vanaprastha, or renunciation phase, the householder’s domestic duties are coming to an end. This is a time to begin renouncing worldly pleasures, including sex, in preparation for the final phase of sannyasa, the ascetic stage, when one devotes oneself entirely to spiritual immersion with the Divine to ready oneself for death.
So how do we wrap our modern minds around this idea that seems like such an anachronism? I find it helpful to make the analogy between sex and food. Both are appetites—natural urges for survival. While sex is not a life and death issue for the individual, as is food, it is necessary for the survival of the species. That puts sex on a subtler plane than food. Also, while the food you choose to put into your body affects only you, your sexual choices have a larger sphere of influence. Our sexual behavior can affect the health of our society.
The yogic/ayurvedic view of food is that food is of three types: sattvic (pure), rajasic (stimulating), and tamasic (impure). Sattvic foods are simple and bland, such as milk, nuts, and fruits. Rajasic foods are tasty, flavorful, spicy, and/or rich foods that stimulate the senses and activity like Indian/Thai/Mexican food, tea, coffee, etc. Tamasic foods, such as fast food, processed food, alcohol, etc. produce lethargy and illness and promote negative mental and spiritual qualities.
As the obesity epidemic in the U.S. has made clear, the consumerist lifestyle, which is spreading around the world, pushes a very unhealthy attitude towards food. As a society, we are addicted to tamasic foods. We are all well aware by now that our insatiable appetite for junk food is bad for our physical health. From the ayurvedic standpoint, it leads to poor mental and spiritual health as well.
The same is true for sex, but again, on a subtler level. We all know that unsafe sexual practices can lead to poor physical health in the form of STDs. However, sex predominantly acts on our mental/emotional and spiritual bodies. That is to say, there is such a thing as ‘good for you’ sex and ‘bad for you’ sex. You can have organic, gluten-free, vegan sex or you can have Big Mac sex with super-sized fries (and of course, the whole range in between). Just as we have an obesity crisis in the U.S., we also have a sexual crisis. We live in a highly sexualized culture with the consumption of pornography at an all-time high. “Sexting” and the like are becoming commonplace amongst kids as young as ten and eleven. And of course, as the yoga community well knows, public sex scandals have become “no surprise.”
Sex, too, can be imbued with the qualities of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattvic attraction means being attracted to someone’s spirit. Rajasic attraction is being attracted to someone’s physical beauty or some aspect of their personality (ego). Tamasic attraction is lusting after a person’s sexual characteristics. In our society, we are constantly bombarded with sexualized images of women (and men), which blinds us to the truth that all people are inherently beautiful and sexual beings. We are feeding ourselves and our children a highly tamasic sexual diet.
While most of us can admit to these negative sexual aspects in our society, we still have a hard time accepting brahmacharya as relevant to our lives.
We just do not want to say anything bad about sex. To quote George Michael, “Sex is natural, sex is fun.” This view is a hard-won victory of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, which fought to liberate us from the shackles of shame that previously (and still) enslave patriarchal societies. This is a good thing. Shame is energetically tamasic. Tamas means “darkness” and if you are mired in shame, you know that it feels like pure darkness. As a society, we are highly protective of sex. We certainly do not want anyone to tell us how to live our sex lives. However, in our over-protectiveness of our love-child (named ‘sexual freedom’), we are failing to recognize that not all sex is equal.
Yes, we do talk about ‘good sex’ and ‘bad sex’, but our definitions of ‘good sex’ and ‘bad sex’ center around how much sex we are having and how much pleasure we are deriving from it. This is like defining good food by how tasty it is and how much we enjoy eating it. French fries are ridiculously yummy and addictive, so that makes them ‘sogood’, right? While we can no longer deny that french fries, though tasty, contribute to all kinds of illness, we are not ready to give up our ‘deep-fried in trans fat’ sex.
Just as our consciousness about food is shifting, so must our consciousness about sex. We hate the word celibacy because it conjures up creepy images of pedophile priests and virginity pacts and the like. But there is a difference between anorexia/starvation and conscious fasting. Denial of natural urges through shame and fear can only lead to tamasic expressions of sexuality, which are detrimental to society, just as starvation is detrimental to an individual.
Conscious discipline, however, is different. Perhaps having students practice brahmacharyaduring that phase of life when it is most difficult due to raging hormones was meant to train youngsters in the practice of sexual discipline. I am, by no means, implying that modern teenagers must practice the abstinence only method of birth control. I realize that is about as realistic as recommending that teenagers follow a strictly raw food diet. Yet, it may not be altogether a bad idea to include discussions of sexual discipline and the effects of sexual behavior on physical, mental, and spiritual health in modern sex ed conversations, so that youngsters do not have to ‘learn the hard way’ as many of us do.
While everyone must make their own beds, as it were, education can only empower us to make healthier decisions. Of course, sex education does not end with pre-teens or teens. It only begins there. May the yoga community take the lead on shining the light of self-awareness on this field of sexuality, which unfortunately still remains largely obscured in shadow.
Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul