In this monthly series on the Yamas and Niyamas, Swami Karunananda offers wisdom and reflections on applying these foundational principles of Yoga in daily life. This month’s focus is on Brahmacharya, moderation.
Sutra 2.38: By one established in continence, vigor is gained. —from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
MEANING OF BRAHMACHARYA:
- Brahman refers to the Absolute Consciousness; Highest Reality; Godhead.
- Charya means to follow or move with.
- So, brahmacharya means to engage in conduct that leads to the realization of Brahman, the ultimate Reality, which is, in essence, the same as one’s own Higher Self. This entails purity in thought, word and deed.
MEANING OF CONTINENCE:
- Self-restraint or moderation
- Partial or complete abstinence from sexual activity
FROM THE BHAGAVAD GITA:
“It is impossible to practice Yoga effectively if you eat or sleep too much or too little. But if you are moderate in eating, playing, sleeping, staying awake, and if you avoid extremes in everything you do, you will see that these Yoga practices eliminate all your pain and suffering.” (Slokas 6.16 – 6.17)
- Brahmacharya is about energy. Life depends on energy. Anything we do, anything we wish to acquire, accomplish, or attain requires energy. Brahmacharya is about optimizing the energy in our system, prioritizing how we use it, and converting it into an inner spiritual force.
- Self (or God) – Realization is the highest goal one could attain. In life, the higher the goal, the more energy and focus are needed to accomplish it. In order to attain the highest spiritual realization, we need to conserve our energy and direct it toward that end.
- Anything in excess will drain our energy. So, brahmacharya entails moderation in all our activities. It is especially associated with sexual activity, with celibacy or continence, because the ancient yogis found that this activity expends very concentrated, refined energy. If you consider that this can bring forth new life, it makes sense that it draws upon powerful, subtle energy.
- Through spiritual practice (asana, pranayama, meditation, prayer, study, and service), sexual energy gets diverted into spiritual channels and gets converted into spiritual energy. It is a process of sublimation, not suppression.
- Conserved sexual energy gets absorbed in the system and converted into a subtle energy called ojas, which is associated with personal magnetism. Ojas builds the nerves, calms the mind, and improves brainpower, memory and will-force. It bestows good health, inner strength, vigor, and longevity.
- Ojas, when stored, gets converted into tejas, which relates to the aura or glow that we can perceive in some people.
- If you wish to be in an intimate relationship, yogis recommend finding a good partner and observing moderation.
- It’s best to avoid external stimulants (like certain movies, books, or pictures) that would kindle desire.
- Internal thoughts may come. Treat them as guests; be selective as to which you choose to entertain.
- Diet is important. According to the Upanishads, food has three levels. The grossest level gets eliminated as waste; the middle level builds the body; the subtlest level builds the mind. To keep the mind in a pure, or sattvic, state, have a clean, vegetarian diet. Sattvic foods include: fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and beans. When the same products are mixed with a lot of spices and become sour or hot, they become rajasic. That means they can stir up passion and restlessness in the mind. Food that is old and cold is considered tamasic and can produce dullness or lethargy in the system.
- The clothing we wear (fabrics and styles) also can have an impact on the observance of
REFLECTIONS FOR THE PRACTICE OF BRAHMACHARYA:
- Are there any areas in my life where I don’t practice moderation? Does this cause harm to myself or to others? Are there ways I could do better?
- Do my entertainment choices support purity in thought, word and deed?
- Do my dietary preferences tend to be sattvic, rajasic or tamasic? Can I observe the effect of food on my body, mind and energy?
- Does my lifestyle, in general, support my spiritual aspirations?
- If in an intimate relationship, do I always consider the needs, health, energy and circumstances of my partner as well as myself, so as to nurture the relationship and support both of our wellbeing?
About the Author:
Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had almost 50 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and well-being. She developed, and for 30 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.
Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia.
Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, With One Voice. She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.