There’s no doubt that Patanjali intended brahmacarya (brahmacharya) to mean “celibacy.” He wrote for and to young men who were monks in training. Let’s break the word down just a bit. Brahma means God, specifically the God of creation. And it also is a shortened form of Brahman, The Absolute, used in compounds. Carya derives from the verbal root car which means to behave, act, conduct oneself, live, move. So, together as a compound, it literally means to carry oneself as God, or to move about as God, or to behave as God. For monks in training that means celibacy.
How can we approach this yama in today’s modern world and as it would apply to anyone, whether cisgender, transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid, etc.? Swami Satchidananda highlighted the benefits for yogis today when he explained, “Brahmacarya is the control or regulation of one’s own vital energy. Without much prana, you can never give anything to anybody, just as only a fully-charged battery can give power, never a weak one. In observing brahmacarya, you build up conserved sexual energy, which is of great benefit in being of service and on the spiritual path.” Thus, he recommended celibacy for monastically-included or single people and moderation in sexual activity for householders.
Viewing brahmacarya through a non-dual Yoga lens, we can also put our focus on the “carrying oneself as God” meaning and then ask, “How does God carries Itself?” Reverently, I submit. With reverence. Treating all things—people, animal, plant, mineral—as holy, as the extension of God they are, as the divinity they are, as Reverence. Perhaps even reciting as a mantra, “I am Reverence.” As the nondual Yoga teacher Joan Ruvinsky reminds us, “Walk in your God shoes.” Can you begin to hear the melody of brahmacarya pick out the notes that point to essential nature? The One? The Whole? The All?
A second non-dual rendering of brahmacarya roots itself in theology. Let’s start with the basics. Brahmacarya is a compound composed of two words: brahma (God) and carya. I must admit I did not list all the possible meaning of carya at the outset. It does mean to move about, etc. And that’s exactly what Patanjali meant, only restricted to sexual activity. With an elongation of the final “a,” caryā becomes a feminine noun that means “in music a kind of composition.” Thus brahmacaryā is a feminine noun that could mean “the Song of God.” Imagine that. Not just trying to be God’s song, but being God’s song. The song that God sings through you your entire life. Because each of us is a mini-me of God and what is true for each is true for all. What a difference it could make were we to listen for the Song of God in all, to sing with it, to sing the song into hearing!
About the Author:
Rev. Dale Ann Gray, PhD is a Yoga, pranayama and meditation, and Level 2 iRest teacher. She leads workshops, offering private classes and teaching in studios, churches, and online. She is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds a Ph.D. in Theology.