Part 1: What is it?
Brahmacharya is the fourth yama, or ethical observation of a yogic practice. Commonly translated as celibacy or chastity, brahmacharya is derived from the root words Brahman (Brahman is the ultimate divine deity in Hinduism. Brahman encompasses everything and is everywhere) and acharya (priest, teacher, spiritual student.) Traditionally Hinduism recognizes Brahmins as a varna, or caste, whose male members served as priests in temples, ceremonies and rites of passage.
As with many religions and spiritual paths, to be an aspirant requires devotion and focus. Therefore, along with celibacy or chastity, brahmacharya can also be translated as “right use of energy” and is an encouragement to observe and restrain the ways we very often become distracted, unfocused and even pulled off a spiritual path entirely with cravings for external desires… sex, being a significant desire for most of us.
In today’s context, brahmacharya should be considered with a significant amount of attention to context and history. While most of us can agree that sexual cravings, flings and fantasies can definitely derail focus, it’s also important to be critical of the ways that sexual desires and instincts (for women and men) have been oppressed and manipulated by religious fundamentalism and patriarchy for thousands of years. Instilling shame and fear as well as overt sexual violence have all been used as means of control, manipulation, coercion and war. If these issues are not taken into consideration when discussing brahmacharya we risk alienating our students/community and reinforcing systems of oppression and violence.
The yamas are meant to be practiced in unison, as a way of life. Each observance always has to reflect upon the previous observances, in this case: not-stealing, not-lying, and non harming.
Brahmacharya in relation to the previous yamas leads to a consideration of sexual energy that:
doesn’t take what isn’t given freely (mutual and enthusiastic consent!)
is engaged with honestly (full transparency of STI status and honest, clear communication about expectations, other relationships, and hopefully, desires.
does not involve coercion, manipulation or violence of any kind.
Considering the world we live in and the fact that in the USA there is an act of sexual assault every 98 seconds (every 8 minutes a child is assaulted,) this precept asks us to consider our sexual energy as a force that can devastate (or be devastated) as much as it can be a source of pleasure or simple distraction.
Part 2: Self-reflecting and discussion on brahmacharya
As with all the yamas and niyamas there is no formula for right practice. Particularly in regards to brahmacharya we should understand that sexual preference and desires vary widely. Some people might find that engaging sexual energy boosts their ability to focus and show up for their lives while others will find that sexual energy feels depleting or fragmenting. Ultimately the goal of any of these reflections is not to become something you’re not, rather, the goal is to know yourself better and gain tools to care for yourself and the people you love more effectively.
As we research this area let’s keep in mind that sex and sexuality are still topics that many people are highly uncomfortable talking about in public and that carry a considerable amount of vulnerability. Furthermore, for the most part we have not been educated in sexual/sensual literacy so questions and prompts such as the ones below might require ample time for reflection.
Finally, since there has been such a long history of sexual violence and abuse in our world, we should assume that most people are carrying at least a minimal amount of sexual trauma. Some basic considerations for working with trauma and brahmarcharya are:
This topic of conversation and personal inquiry are entirely optional! It’s always up to you how much of this reflection you want to do. You can start and stop as many times as you like, as often as you need. If you start to feel anxious, fearful, spaced-out or dissociative you might want to pause for at least a few minutes to practice basic mindfulness or any other tools you have for grounding.
Prioritize self-acceptance and forgiveness. If you notice that shame or self-negating are present, pause what you’re doing and take a few moments to sit and breathe with basic mindfulness. Shame and self-negation are entwined with many of our sexual identities whether or not we have ever directly been victims of assault. We live in a rape culture, and are constantly bombarded with violent sexual imagery, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. The more you can practice acceptance and forgiveness towards yourself, the more you will have access to a healthy sense of your own sexual needs.
Reach out for support. If this exercise brings up trauma or discomfort that you would rather not be alone with then ask a trusted friend to do the exercises with you. You can each do them on your own, or you can ask for witness as you do them by yourself. Alternately, you might choose to do the worksheet with a therapist or counselor.