Let’s Talk About Brahmacharya, Baby! ~ Lakshmi Nair

Via elephant journal
on Mar 23, 2012
get elephant's newsletter

Remember brahmacharya?

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cannot seem to reconcile with the idea of brahmacharya, so they tend to just ignore it altogether, seeing it as an outdated relic from yoga’s ancient past.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.

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

Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook.


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


19 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Brahmacharya, Baby! ~ Lakshmi Nair”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  2. Alva says:

    Amen to every word! such a pleasure to read. thank you Lakshmi!

  3. […] I am not in that space to get laid—I’m a man who likes bringing masculine asexual energy into that space. […]

  4. H2OM says:

    Of course it would take a Desi (Indian) person to write about sexual restraint on a post-modern sexy yoga website. LOL.

    Thanks Laksmi!

    "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. "

    I don't understand why parents think its impractical to expect teens to abstain from sex. Most of the Indian teenagers I know remain virgins, often long into adulthood, many until they get married. If they can manage, why can't the rest of us?

    Why do we *expect* that teens will have or should have sex?

  5. Lakshmi says:

    It's not unrealistic to expect Indian teenagers to abstain, but it is unrealistic to immediately expect Western teenagers to abstain because nothing in this culture supports that mindset. But I also wouldn't romanticize what goes on in India. Having traveled alone as a woman in the Motherland, I've experienced enough of what sexual repression does to a society. I feel it is important for all people, Western and Eastern to accept sex as a natural urge that can be healthful or harmful depending upon the personal choices one makes. In this culture, teenagers are given a lot more independence and agency…that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The only problem is that they are not given enough sage advice. Also, it's human nature to sometimes rebel against expectations that are imposed from the outside. I think rather, we should empower people to make educated decisions for themselves. Let the expectations be self-imposed…that's where true discipline comes in.

  6. Lakshmi says:

    Thank you, Alva!

  7. […] for men, brahmacharya may mean training themselves to contain or gain control of their sexual energy, for women, it may […]

  8. H2OM says:

    Part 1:
    "Having traveled alone as a woman in the Motherland, I've experienced enough of what sexual repression does to a society. "

    Eve teasing! The problem in India is that they give you two choices: marriage (and that too often arranged), or celibacy. There's no middle ground. And they expect people to remain completely celibate way beyond their teen years, until they get married. Its not practical. There's a huge difference between expecting your teen sons and daughters to be celibate and expecting your 23 year old son or daughter (what to speak of 30 year old!) to be celibate. My opinion is that a healthy, socially accepted dating culture needs to be introduced in India for the late teens and 20 somethings. Are you aware of the fiasco that was the "Operation Majnun" in Meerut? The police were commisioned to crack down on eve teasers and instead they beat up and arrested consensual COUPLES, both married and non-married, for public displays of affection.

  9. H2OM says:

    Part 2:

    In conclusion, Its a culture that has a hard time distinguishing between consensual and non-consensual because well, even consensual relationships are a taboo. When you demonize consensual relationships that leaves open alot of room for dysfunction to flourish.

  10. Lakshmi says:

    I hadn't heard of Operation Majnun, but I'm not at all surprised. I guess if the West has its horses running amok, India is choking theirs, and no one's getting where they want to go! I think this concept in particular tends to get corrupted by patriarchy (which is why it is also often ignored altogether). But I feel that in its essence, it's actually meant to promote respect between the sexes.

  11. H2OM says:

    Patriarchy: well brahmacharya, celibacy, the vairagi path has often served women well who never wanted to get entangled in samsara. They could always become nuns, or in India wandering ascetics. In fact in India many women still see it as a viable means of liberation, and I don't mean moksha, but female empowerment. I don't see brahmacharya as particularly patriarchal and in the case of Operation Majnun it could be seen as misandrist because if you watch the videos, its the males who are getting physically harrassed by police – all for being normal, healthy, redblooded young men in love! In fact this shaming of unmarried consensual relationships in India is particularly harmful to the male psyche because it essentially shames male sexuality and natural male emotions. Once I started looking at the phenomena through the eyes of a guy, I was able to gain some empathy for eve-teasers, who I otherwise wanted to beat the hell out of (and occassionally did!)

  12. […] Let’s Talk About Brahmacharya, Baby! ~ Lakshmi Nair […]

  13. Lakshmi says:

    Yes, true that celibacy has often given women in India an escape from traditionally defined gender roles, as in the great bhaktas, Mirabai, Mahadeviakka, etc. I don't see true brahmacharya (sexual self-discipline) as patriarchal either. I actually think that in its truest sense it is more respectful of feminine sexuality than any of the current paradigms we have operating now. I do think that when the term brahmacharya is used to justify sexual repression…that is patriarchal. Sexual repression causes profound lack of respect for women in that it promotes molestation, rape, etc. Patriarchy is bad and oppressive for men too. When these goonda police harrass couples for their public displays of affection, it is usually that they are working for fundamentalist political gangs. Fundamentalists object to any displays of "Westernization" and love is seen to be Western (by them). Women have also been beaten up outside of pubs and discos for wearing jeans and smoking. Those behaviors are ok for men, but love…that is threatening the girls back home. It's also threatening the control of the powers that be…it promotes caste-mixing, etc…. Eve teasers still deserve to be slapped straight though 😉

  14. H2OM says:

    Wrote a new EJ article about the topic here http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/04/dont-copy-

  15. […] become an instrument of the Divine (of Brahma), the yogi/yogini uses the fundamental technique of Brahmacharya. It means ‘being like Brahma,’ in the most basic grammatical sense, but the sages and scholars […]

  16. […] today’s health conscious society, we’re told that sugar is bad for us and anything that tastes as sinful as chocolate should be avoided. Well, I have good news. Not only is chocolate good for us, but it actually has quite a few major […]

  17. […] Yoga has its roots in India some 5000 years ago. How can one incorporate in a yoga teaching training program some of the deep techniques and practices that come from a tradition of over 5,000 years in only 200 hours? How can a school teach the deep and significant vast array of knowledge both physical and spiritual in such a short time? […]

  18. […] you read my homework?” I asked. “What homework?” she said. “My brahmacharya homework!” I […]