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Does Practicing Brahmacharya (the 4th Yama) Mean a Life Without Sex?

Sujantra McKeever
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Yoga was codified over 2,000 years ago by the scholar and yogi, Patanjali. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali described the yogic path as an “Eight Limb Path” that provides ethical guidance for a purposeful life. The practice of Brahmacharya is one step on this path.
 
Patanjali conceptualized the yogic path as having limbs, like the branches of a tree. The limbs are interrelated and deeply connected to each other. The Yamas are the first limb and represent ethical principles or standards of living.
 

What is Brahmacharya?

Brahmacharya is one of the 5 Yamas. In Sanskrit, “Charya” translates to “conduct” and “Brahma” refers to the “Ultimate Reality,” found through heightened consciousness and connection with the divine. Buddhism calls this highest reality “Nirvana,” while Christianity uses the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven within.”
 

Brahmacharya points to the importance of responsible behavior, which is achieved when your thoughts, words, and deeds align.

 
Responsible behavior is an inherently personal effort – after all, only you know your own thoughts – and whether your thoughts match what you say and what you do. Alignment of thought, word, and deed leads to liberation and happiness.
 
If you want to learn more about the Yamas, read Yoga’s Life Lessons: Learning from the Yamas and Niyamas.
 

The History of Brahmacharya

Ancient Indian texts refer to Brahmacharya as the first of life’s four stages. This stage focuses on learning and generally refers to the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
 
This stage is characterized by spiritual learning and strict devotion to moral ethics, including celibacy.
 
The monastic traditions also embrace Brahmacharya as the practice of celibacy. The idea is that sexual energy (yes, this includes sexual thoughts) is the same energy that fuels spiritual pursuits. By channeling this energy, the seeker gains focus and discipline, which ultimately brings him or her closer to the divine.
 
There is, of course, a vast difference between healthy and balanced channeling of sexual energy into spiritual pursuits, and the suppression of sexual urges. One must walk this path with wisdom and guidance.
 

 

Brahmacharya for Modern Yogis

For modern yogis, Brahmacharya encourages responsible, intentional sexual behavior, as opposed to outright celibacy. It highlights the value of taking time, whether single or in a relationship, to retain sexual energy for the purpose of transformation.
 
While this doesn’t necessarily point towards a life-long practice of sexual abstinence, it does encourage you to consider the value of celibacy for a period of time.
 
For the single yogi, channeling sexual energy (often visualized as a coiled serpent in the base of the spine) can energize the mind, heighten creativity, improve focus and clarity, and ultimately bring liberation. For a partnered yogi, a period of celibacy may also open up new dialogue to create the potential for deeper intimacy.
 

By retaining sexual energy for a period of time, you can learn how to optimize your unique expression of sexuality so that it aligns with your highest self.

 
What length of time should you practice Brahmacharya? If you retain your sexual energy and spend time each day in meditation, you will experience distinct, heightened levels of energy. Experiment to find the right length of time for you.
 

How to Apply Brahmacharya

Sometimes behavior (sexual or otherwise) is so programmed that you aren’t even aware of it. If you are used to acting on impulse, then you may lose awareness of how certain behaviors contribute to your quality of life.
 
Celibacy does not need to be a lifelong practice. Rather, it can be valuable for a period of time in order to gain a clearer understanding about what contributes to your happiness.
 
Usually, celibacy accompanies other spiritual practices, like meditation and yoga. It is helpful to find a like-minded community that can provide guidance and perspective on the practice and how it can best serve you and your specific goals.
 
 
Over time, some yogis enjoy the discipline of Brahmacharya and choose to continue their celibacy practice as a lifelong endeavor. For other yogis, it is a temporary adventure that helps to clarify sexuality. Regardless, Brahmacharya is designed to teach practitioners about balance and responsible behavior. Ultimately, it leads to better relationships, with yourself and others.
 

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Sujantra McKeever

Sujantra McKeever is the founder of Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga in San Diego, which serves over 1,000 yogis a week, and also helped create Pilgrimage Yoga Online (pyo.yoga). He is the author of five books on eastern philosophy, success and meditation. Sujantra studied meditation with spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy and has lectured on meditation and yoga in over 30 countries.

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