Let’s Talk About Brahmacharya A Little More! ~ Lakshmi Nair

Via elephant journal
on Mar 26, 2012
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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.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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!

Lakshmi Nair is a yoga teacher, educator, artist, mother and seeker who is living, loving and learning in Denver, CO.




Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul

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18 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Brahmacharya A Little More! ~ Lakshmi Nair”

  1. Lei says:

    This is great! I've always been a little unsure/uncomfortable about the implications of brahmacharya, but this article really displays it in an accessible light. I really see now how crucial of a component it is in maintaining a yogic lifestyle. If we are to emphasize restraint in our mind, our eating, our consumption of goods, etc., why would we not exercise the same restraint of our sexual energies? Great metaphors and insight, thanks for sharing!

  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  3. Evelyn says:

    Excellent post addressing this often misunderstood concept. Easy to read and, I can say from experience, on target. Thank you!

  4. trueayurveda says:

    Great article. Thank you. In this day and age where true yoga is nonexistent and a lot of attachment/ego driven changes to what makes the grade, the teachings of yoga are truly being dissolved. Brahmacharya is celibacy, pretty straight forward. When it is not it gets bastardized and misunderstood. just look at John Friend. The same definitions fit a householder is not a yogi. They are all different paths. In the dissolving of all of these tenants of yoga, the masses go wild with the sales of spirituality and JF as well as all the others are left to live a life of loss of integrity which is the building blocks of what this great science gives us. The integrity continues to degrade. Only the path that is clearly described gets you there. No changes to it to fit the messed up social norms but a withdrawal from the norms will fit the bill.

  5. H2OM says:

    Excellent article Lakshmi!

    “That rise in testosterone is precisely what makes men in positions of power more sexually attractive as well.”

    Exactly my point when I wrote this;


    However I do feel that the traditional Indic understanding of brahmacharya in yoga gets used by Indians (and sometimes non-Indians invovled with Dharmic religions) as a means to shame and shun healthy consensual relationships between adults who do not qualify as “grihastas” or “householders”.

    We can see in Trueayurveda’s comment above an example of this; “In this day and age where true yoga is nonexistent and a lot of attachment/ego driven changes to what makes the grade, the teachings of yoga are truly being dissolved. Brahmacharya is celibacy, pretty straight forward. When it is not it gets bastardized and misunderstood. just look at John Friend. The same definitions fit a householder is not a yogi. They are all different paths. In the dissolving of all of these tenants of yoga, the masses go wild with the sales of spirituality and JF as well as all the others are left to live a life of loss of integrity which is the building blocks of what this great science gives us.”

  6. H2OM says:

    Part 2 Continuation of above…

    The common belief is that we are given 1 of 2 extreme choices:
    1. grihasta/householder life (marriage, family, complete samsar) OR
    2. complete brahmacharya/celibacy
    This lack of a middle ground has given rise to the intense sexual repression and its concurrent dysfunctions in India that you wrote about in the comments section to your first article on the subject.
    In the mind of our commenter above, John Friend, or anyone practicing yoga or a dharmic tradition, has only 1 of the 2 above choices. Non-married dating and relationships are not accepted. Hence you have grown adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s and even beyond in Hindu culture who are shamed like children over having healthy consensual relationships.
    I give the Operation Majnun debacle as an example again wherein the police of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, were commissioned to crack down on eve teasers (public sexual harrassers), and instead they went after consensual couples, married and non, who were enjoying romance together in public!

  7. H2OM says:

    Part 3 Continuation….

    By giving people, whether they are Indian or non-Indian yoga practicioners, just 2 choices: marriage or complete celibacy, we run the risk of demonizing healthy consensual relationships. When consensual relationships are condemned, society will have a hard time distinguishing between consensual and non-consensual relationships, or between rape and mutually consented to sex. This is the collective consciousness regarding consensual human sexuality in India. As a whole, they find it hard to distinguish between the two because BOTH are shamed (unless the consensual relationship is a legally/religiously married one).

    I don’t know the details of John Friend’s case, but I personally see nothing wrong with a grown, unmarried yoga teacher dating his/her yoga students.
    Surely we do not expect grown men and women to be completely celibate just because they are not married, or just because they teach yoga, do we?

    The grihasta or brahmacharya dichotomous choice model that is offered from India with no nuance or middle ground in between is not something I wish to see replicated here.

  8. patent says:

    I just read on the Springield Vintage Grand Prix website that the event has been cancelled for this year. They are hoping to bring the event to town in 2012.

  9. yogasamurai says:

    Both articles were terrific. It's not only a neglected topic but a completely misunderstood one. I'm old-fashioned, and 50 , so if it were up to me, you couldn't even teach yoga unless you were over 35, a parent, and hopefully long married. You were probably fairly wise before you became any one of those things, but I suspect that those life passages also grounded you profoundly, which is what they are meant to do? And if you're not profoundly grounded, you have nothing of greater value to "teach" – the technique in the narrow sense might be there, but little else.

    Much of what you say about the various qualities of sexual experience isn't even on most American yogis' radar screen. The teachers as well as the students. It's completely over their head. I have heard a number of American yoginis try to explain bramacharya in a class setting and it was embarrassingly feeble. I suspect that when most come to that part of their teachings, they say, oh, isn't that quaint? Those "archaic" Indians. Next!

    Thanks again.

  10. H2OM says:

    Yogasamurai, yeah. Recently one American yoga teacher returned from Mysore for Ashtanga training and explained how surprised she was that when Indians say “brahmacharya” they really mean celibacy! I’ve noticed over here its commonly translated as “conscious relationships” or something like that. That being said, like Lakshmi said, any choice to abtain from sex either short or long term really has to come from within and not be imposed from outside, in order for it not become unhealthy.

  11. yogasamurai says:

    I don't think anyone's really doubting that, but you do seem intent on invoking the requirement for freely chosen celibacy simply to defend more libertine sexual engagements. Maybe in that case, just dispense with concern for "brahmacharya" altogether?

    You seem to be forgetting that unconscious or unrestrained sex can also be extremely unhealthy, and that various forms of re-channeling and sublimation can access otherwise inaccessible spiritual realms?

    Lakshmi, as I understand it, wasn't seeing the issue primarily in terms of abstinence or non-abstinence only but the relationship of sex and spirituality. She's also speaking more from the context of a committed intimate partnership since that seems to be her primary frame of reference.

    There's also the sheer fact that short-term but concentrated fasting with sex and relationships more generally, like other forms of fasting, can be very cleansing. This could occur whether you had an ongoing partnership or not.

    The upshot – if the discussion remains at the level Old World sexual "repression" versus New World sexual "freedom," we won't be making much headway in addressing contemporary problems with sex – in the West no less than in the East.

  12. rocket says:

    Hey I so liked reading your writing. I’m considering writing my own blog now Best Wishes.

  13. H2OM says:

    Wrote a new article about the topic with a link back to this one;

  14. H2OM says:

    Yogasamurai, I detail my experiences and opinions on the topic here; http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/04/dont-copy-

  15. […] and pondering, and I suddenly realized how moot any of my maunderings about it were. Whether Brahmacharya is the secret unacknowledged petal of yoga and tool for transcendence or not, the bald fact is that […]

  16. […] yogi in me ponders, “Does this go against Brahmacharya, continence? What about Saucha, […]

  17. umang dave says:

    Very true.
    Lucky are people around you.
    I look forward to stay in contact.
    [email protected]

  18. […] Managing your highs means not going to the extreme, even when you really feel like it. […]