The Fourth Yama: Brahmacharya

Saturday, 17 October 2020 15:41
The fourth Yama (the Yogic ethical observances) is Brahmacarya. Literally meaning chastity. The word chastity according to Wikipedia means 'a virtue related to temperance, is defined as refraining from unreasonable sexual conduct or romantic relationships.' This is probably the most difficult of the Yamas to discuss. It is absolutely a very personal issue. To a large degree our relationship to sex is based on our gender. Our experience is very different if you’re a male compared to being female. I’d go as far as to say it’s miles apart, like the 1990s bestseller: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

I can speak undoubtably more precisely from the female perspective, but to be clear this is only my own personal viewpoint. When I looked up the word chastity the image of a chastity belt comes up. This is a seriously bizarre and scary image. It represents wholeheartedly the plight of women and struggle for power. Women have existed and continue to live in a patriarchal, male-centric tradition whose history is rooted in control and possession.

The plight of women can be mapped through Coverture (the legal doctrine from the Middle Ages where a wife’s legal rights were subsumed by her husband at marriage) and the Suffragette movement finally resulting in the right to vote in 1902 in Australia. Germaine Greer’s 1970s novel The Female Eunuch became a global bestseller and a highly influential text in the feminist movement. It challenges the role of Australian housewives suggesting it leads to a repression. And gender inequality. Prior to the sexual revolution movement in the 1960’s and 70’s women were expected to be chaste, men on the other hand, having a higher degree of freedom in their sexual expression. So the feminist movement gave women a sense of liberation from their former repressed state.

Chastity, therefore, challenges this progression in the rights of women.

As with all complex issues, there are always many different ways of looking at it and also in varying degrees.

Early texts on yoga relate to male practitioners only. There are no pre-modern depictions of women practising yogic postures. The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by NE Sjoman points clearly to the history of yoga stemming from the wrestling and gymnastics tradition practiced by young men and boys only. Women were generally discouraged from practice until Indra Devi was accepted to be taught by Sri Krishnamacharya (the original source of modern yoga) around 1937. She was the first female and Western student to be taught. She worked hard as she had to tough it out with the boys. She was instrumental in bringing yoga to the West as she was well-connected and also multi-lingual. Her book Forever Young, Forever Healthy published in 1953 focuses on a female perspective, but also initiates yoga into the realm of fitness and beauty to ensure its public appeal.

The asana named Paschimottanasana alternatively named Brahmacharyasana

These original Indian yogic texts can be seen as being highly male-oriented, as Mallinson in Roots of Yoga (Penguin, 2017) says: 'north Indian ascetic traditions are highly misogynistic' with many mentioning the great seminal fluid. ‘The seminal fluid gives strength and stamina to brain and nerves… Seminal fluid is our life.’ (interpretation of Sutra 2.38 in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satcitananda) Feuerstein says: ‘Urdhva-retas meaning “upward-[flowing] semen"… This concept refers to the curious psychosomatic experience of the ‘seminal’ life energy, or libido, flowing out of the genital area into the brain.’ (Feuerstein, G. Yoga Morality p.171) The sexism at play here is related to the fear that women are the primary thieves of “bindu”, or semen, which many medieval yogis sought to sublimate into ecstatic awareness. Ironically, the yogic global culture now consisting of approximately 80% women.

The history of men and celibacy has not had a happy one. For example, the Roman Catholic clergy being expected to practice celibacy has historically been attendant with paedophilia and rape. The yoga community is by no means immune from the corruption of the mind in the predatory nature of the male (and less commonly, females) in positions of power. Well-known (mainly male) teachers, ‘gurus’ and masters reportedly abusing (mainly female) students.

The origin of the issue of celibacy stems from the interpretation of the Patanjali’s Sutra 2.38.

The sutra:
Brahmacaryaparatisthāyām vīryalābhah

Brahmacarya = continence
Pratistha = establishing
Virya = virility, potency, manly vigour (?!)
Labha = acquisition

The word Brahmacarya can be interpreted as celibacy, as in a sexual sense, as discussed above. Alternatively, the word Brahma means ‘spiritual, holy, or divine’, someone who is seeks to dedicate his/her life to the purity of transcendental Reality (called Brahman). So it’s a method to direct your energy towards God or spiritual enlightenment.

Therefore, Brahmacarya can be about utilising your resources effectively to achieve your aspiration, not wasting your energy or your vital resources.

Sexual energy in yogic terms is life energy but with the production of pleasure brings desire and the quest to repeat. This is where the issue lies. As with the other Yamas the root issue is the uncontrolled, uncontainable drive to have MORE. Bringing continued suffering. This is the struggle we have with ourselves - the constant desire.

Let’s go back to the definition of the Yamas. The Yamas are the ethical disciplines that ensure that we live well amongst others. So essentially they are how we should treat others. Don’t hurt others, don’t lie to others, don’t steal from others, and Brahmacarya - don’t exploit or abuse others in a sexual manner. Gannon says: 'When sexual energy is used to exploit, manipulate, or humiliate another, however, it propels us into deeper separation and ignorance (avidya).' She goes further to say in her book Yoga and Vegetarianism: 'The sexual abuse of animals is ingrained in our culture, and it expresses itself in the practice of breeding, genetic manipulation, castration, artificial insemination, forced pregnancy, routine rape, and child abuse, which all fall under the category of ‘animal husbandry.''

Common practices, such as these, in modern society offer little direction or wisdom about the destructive nature of sex and exploitation.

'The proper management of all our energies is vital to the success of spiritual transformation to the point of enlightenment.' (Feuerstein, G.,Yoga Morality, Hohm, Arizona, 2007 p.173)

Let reason and wisdom abound.
The Content Library is available on weekly subscription ($24/wk cancel at any time). 150+ classes to choose from, and growing weekly. Subscribe Now


Yoga Path
An Iyengar Yoga School
5 Hall St
Newport Vic 3015

Return to top
Subscribe to our Newsletter and stay in the loop
© 2010 - 2021 Litte Lotus Ltd. Web Design | Flow