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Why do American yogis believe Brahmacarya means celibacy?

The eightfold path of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, includes the 10 ethical tenets of Yama and Niyama, which includes Brahmacarya.

Most interpreters translate this Sanskrit word as celibacy, or total sexual abstinence.

Why has this word been interpreted as celibacy? It does not make sense. Because, if all yogis became celibate, we’d sooner or later face extinction, just like the Shakers, whose tradition pretty much vanished, in part, because they were all celibate.

Yes, why has a word so deeply mystical and spiritually all-embracing been reduced to the avoidance of sex?  More importantly, why do American yoga students accept this meaning without question? The reason is that yoga scholars and yoga teachers in the West have a strong Vedic bias. And yoga students swallow this bias hook, line, and sinker.

The meaning of Brahmacarya is “to remain attached to Brahma”. The meaning of practicing Brahmacarya is thus to treat all objects or beings with which we come in contact as expressions of Brahma (Spirit) and not as crude, limited forms.

By means of such a spiritual habit, even though the mind wanders from one object to another, we are not detached from Spirit. We infuse everything with reverence and sacredness.

Whether we are eating breakfast or making love, if our ideation is that our food or lover is an expression of God or Spirit, we are indeed practicing Brahmacarya.

In ancient, Tantric, or Shaiva times, this meaning of Brahmacarya was apparently accepted. Later, when Indian society was dominated by Vedic priests and Vedic dogmas, fear and inferiority complexes were infused in people’s minds.

In turn, people started believing that they, by leading regular lives, had committed a serious sin, and that they indulged in activities against Brahmacarya.

The monks, who observed celibacy, were therefore thought to be far more spiritually advanced and thus could maintain their political hegemony and religious superiority.

Make no mistake about it. I am not downplaying the spiritual benefits of authentic celibacy. I am also not saying that sexual indulgence is a form of spiritual practice. It is not. But the point is, Brahmacarya has nothing to do with abstinence or celibacy. Brahmacarya is a state of being, a state of consciousness. That is the Tantric interpretation and also the literal meaning of these Sanskrit words.

Isn’t it about time American yogis start embracing yoga’s Tantric heritage?

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Shubhajit Dec 26, 2013 3:11am

Well written! It is all about experience that one can receive irrespective of the practice one performs. Well, we can deny the fact of physical being when it comes mental progress because both are subtly intertwined together. every spiritual aspirant must conserve sexual energy (I am not saying that, but experienced it) because we can't deny the power of that energy that creates as well can destroy things in a gigantic ways. Brahmacharya doesn't mean (as i feel so) suppressing your seminal fluid by some force, but it means channelize your sexual energy into more higher purpose. It is indeed tough but then spiritual practice is the ultimate work so it has to be tough when we are not tuned with reality.

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Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: prama.org and rameshbjonnes.com.