We all like to believe that we are truthful. However, there are countless facets to this precept. I narrowed my study to the aspect of being honest, or true to myself. Then narrowed it even further to an aspect of my life that I have struggled with for years: my job. In my job I am faced with multitudes of situations that I am personally and ethically opposed to on a very deep level. These situations ultimately make me feel like I am not living my truth. I work in a hospital, in direct care with patients…people. I work alongside doctors, nurses, case managers, therapists, and numerous other staff members responsible for some level of patient care. On any given day, I would literally run out of fingers to count how many negative, speculative, ignorant, and sometimes simply cruel comments I hear regarding patients…people. They are usually centered around the “choices” that a patient has made in their life that has led them to the sad destiny of needing medical attention. Often, the favorite subjects of these commentaries are: 1) alcoholics and drug addicts, 2).psychiatric patients, and 3) bariatric, or very overweight, patients. The commentaries often include a statement like, “How could anybody ever ______!” I’ve even heard such blatantly cruel statements as, “What an idiot.” This was a comment from a doctor regarding an alcoholic. Another comment, “How stupid…” was from another doctor, regarding a 23 year-old who nearly overdosed on prescription pain medicine. I have actually heard a nurse refer to an overweight woman as “disgusting”. She was not referring to something that came out of the patient, but the actual person. Over the years, I have become somewhat desensitized to this type of banter among so-called professionals, simply because it is so prevalent. However, I am still amazed and appalled at the complete lack of compassion from healthcare professionals who are trained and paid to care for others. As much as I love certain aspects of my work, I am deeply affected by this overt dispassion for humanity. It leaves me feeling as though I am being untrue to myself, to allow myself to work in this climate everyday. It also leaves me questioning humanity, itself.
I chose Tapas as my Niyama. I have seen Tapas defined as, “passion, or zeal for yoga”. I practiced sadhana every day for 15-45 minutes – first, pranayama, then meditation. I also practiced asana, when I had the time. I diligently got up between 4:30 and 5:00am on work days, around 6:00am on non-work days. I practiced before sunrise, while my space was still relatively silent.
I noticed immediately that I was able to disengage, personally and emotionally, from these situations. It was as though I was a passive observer in a protective “bubble”, not allowing the emotionality of the situation to affect me. It may seem as though I was becoming dispassionate, but that was not the case. I was able to observe the situation without allowing it to enter into my being. It was still just as disturbing, but I did not internalize it and carry it with me. I was able to disengage both passively and actively, especially when a co-worker would deliberately try to engage me in a conversation about a patient that was not pertinent to my direct involvement in that patient’s care. Frequently someone would even start talking to me about a patient whom I did not even know. In these situations, instead of engaging in the conversation, or even listening, I would consciously and graciously excuse myself and walk away. This process seemed to happen organically. I did not have a plan or intention for how it was going to unfold. It was amazing! It was as though I had discovered some beautiful secret that had lay dormant in me for years!
I have noticed a remarkable shift in both my attitude and energy at work. Where I used to leave work virtually every day emotionally drained, I now feel like I have my emotions and my energy intact when I walk out the door. Where I’ve thought that it was my patients who were sapping my prana, it turns out it is my co-workers. I realize that, although I cannot change how other people think, act or speak, I can change how I allow it to affect me.
Axis Yoga encourages its teacher training students to understand yoga’s yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) through real-life application. This student explores the application of Brahmacharya (continence) in the modern American world and how it applies to his individual situation. He also finds greater overall connection of body and mind through his focus on Santosha (contentment).
The yama of Brahmacharaya, what might be called celibacy in traditional interpretations is more than just celibacy of the body, but of the mind. To be celibate from sexual thoughts, and to control oneself in a way that allows for one’s own potency to grow.
In the modern day American’s life Brahmacharaya for many is a foreign concept and nearly unachievable short of becoming a hermit. If not because many are in a relationship and sex is a distinct portion of that relationship (taken that edge because there are fewer consequences of safe casual sex in these modern times), then because we are bombarded in our daily life by sexual images, innuendos, porn, and alike which focus our mind on the external body of humanity. To walk out the door in modern America is to engage in sexual thoughts, to be brought up in America is often to have a bi-polar view of sex. I have found that my own American sexual upbringing has been something I’ve had to struggle to overcome.
Having just lived in Eastern Africa for a time, where HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted disease are a continuing part of daily life in terms of political policy, expression within church and culture, work within the healthcare community, etc I believe it’s essential not to become that hermit. To hold a conversation lucidly and frankly about sex and it’s part of human nature is necessary if one is to be a honest, engaged, and enlighten being.
In this we must adapt to the new environs and so I see the heart of the traditional Brahmacharaya view as rather dogmatic and unachievable within my existence. I am not in a relationship and haven’t had sex in several months and I feel sex should be accepted as part of our nature not bottled and pushed away.
With that said, the notion of purifying myself from daily vritti is a goal that could also help one to “attain power.” To this end I see my experiment as being my trial of yoga as part of my therapy to my clinical depression.
Approximately 4 months ago I started daily yoga practice in order to help engaged a more balance life, one to which I can live with my depressive cycle in the wilds outside of the medicated west. Intentionally and organically I’ve changed my lifestyle to adapt to a lifestyle of daily yoga. Coffee, which was a lately acquired taste has had to be all but given up. Although some how the idea of a coffee shop crowd and a yoga studio crowd seem to be similar, the notion of doing yoga whilst on an Ethiopian coffee, or personal double tall soy latte, is… shall we say a caffeine fueled state of injury. Food in my life has had to adapt generally. Fewer meals over all, but more balanced and focused on muscle recovery and mental balance. Drinking alcohol too has all but had to be given up due to how much it tends to screw with the ability to focus during the day after. As much as Denver’s micro-brews call, it been out weight by a desire for clean, focused, engaged practice. Sleep has become more regular, television/movies and the desire to watch them has lapsed. The daily vritti has organically evaporated to a much more tolerable rate, and not by force of rational will, but by connecting with my body.
In this the niyama of Santosha has also become a part of my life organically by connecting my body with my mind. I have become more content with being myself more balanced. I might add that for me, being a very rational and cerebral being, I struggle with using willpower to engage in enlightenment.
Having found myself with a biological predisposition towards depression, one to which I am unable to fully control with willpower or by thinking my way out of it, I have begun to doubt the usefulness of using willpower in all situations.
In this way I find my achievement over the last several months of becoming more balanced without force of mind, willpower, or trying to think my way out to be an amazing achievement. One that has allowed me to be more content with my life. The sheer desire to connect more fully with my body (and to my mind, and to god) has driven this change and allowed me to be both more content with my own failings, as well as overcome them to some degree.
The Yamas are the first limb of the eight limbs of yoga. Axis Yoga Teacher Training students choose a yama to explore in-depth by experimenting with its application in their lives. This student was surprised by what practicing Brahmacharya (continence) taught her about finding peace.
When first posed with experimenting with Brahmacharya in my own life I instantly wanted a new yama. When talking about sex I tend to do it in an abstract way, as if it is something completely separate from my reality. So, talking and writing about it for other people to observe was not something I particularly wanted to do. After getting over it, I realized that in its most crude definition of chastity, that brahmacharya would be extremely easy for me to practice. I often abstain from sex and sexual thoughts/urges. However, doing what I do all the time didn’t seem like the point of these yama experiments to me. I ended up finding two new ways for me to experience brahmacharya and I was really surprised by what it taught me.
At first I decided to practice brahmacharya through celibacy. I was all set on my plan when one day, while practicing Svadhyaya, I came across a Tantra text in the bookstore. Now, if you haven’t caught on already I was raised in a very conservative religion. So, even now, when confronted with something like Tantra (insert scary, dramatic music here) I feel like I should cross my legs and thoroughly wash my eyes out with soap. I guess old habits die hard. However, the book was nothing like I expected it to be. Tantra can be separated into two paths: Dak?i??c?ra and Vamachara. The more “extreme” path that Westerners hear about is Vamachara. These tantric yogis practice things like the 5 M’s and revere sex. What really surprised me was that they don’t have sex willy-nilly. From what I understand, true Vamachara practitioners view sex as sacred. It is a very literal way for them to yoke opposites, to experience yin and yang/Shiva and Shakti through the joining of two bodies (classically male and female but not always). For this reason they view sex as more than something that just feels good. They view it as a type of bhakti, sadhana, asana, pranayama, and meditation all at once. Even orgasm is seen as a way to glimpse the timelessness and lack of space of Samadhi. Due to this they advocate conscious sex rather than having sex for pure pleasure.
After reading all of this I went back to look at the definition of brahmacharya. There are many “direct” translations from Sanskrit, so I have come to see it as continence as a pathway to the Divine. I decided to practice my bramacharya by consciously acknowledging my sexual energy and then instead of surrendering to it, or my usual practice of completely ignoring it, using it as a form of meditation. I used this to formulate two hypotheses:
1. By acknowledging my sexual thoughts when alone and applying the energy to pranayama and meditation I will have a new, deeper experience.
2. By consciously participating in partnered sex as a form of yoga I will experience a style of meditation previously not encountered.
For my individual practice I would set a time each day to allow for pranayama and meditation. Before beginning I would declare my intention of donating my energy to my practice. When you think about it, we spend an ENORMOUS amount of energy thinking people are cute, making ourselves look attractive with makeup and sexy clothes, fantasizing about sex, reacting to sexy things on tv, etc. I tried to imagine all that energy pushing through my nadis and shining outwards in every direction while I meditated. After a few days I didn’t have to imagine the energy, I could just sense it, and so would concentrate on it. I eventually noticed that I was able to sit in meditation for longer and I had more periods of blank thought. Off of my mat I noticed that I didn’t think about sexual things nearly as much. It happened so effortlessly that I didn’t realize it at first. My mind felt clearer; I felt peaceful.
All that being said, not thinking about sex as much made testing my second hypothesis a little difficult. When I finally was presented with the opportunity I made sure to honor their divinity, to recognize my partner as a person and not just a body to have sex with (or even to use for yoga purposes). I practiced specific breathing exercises and concentrated on my prana and kundalini energy in my body. Being new at it, it was hard not to surrender to sex as everybody else does. After time it became easier and I realized that I was experiencing the same feelings of supreme peace as I do after a meditation or asana practice. My mind was very focused and I felt as if I had already done my pranayma practice. So, I decided to sit in meditation afterwards and I found, again, that it was easier to sit in meditation. It was almost as if conscious sex was a kind of mudra, or even a physical asana practice. Even the breathing exercises were like a pranayama practice in that they settled my mind for meditation.
In the end the two very different experiments yielded similar results. After thinking over it I believe what I have learned from my experiences is that practicing brahmacharya (no matter how you do it) can lead to a feeling of peace. Following brahmacharya led to different meditative experiences than I experienced before and I can see why it is practiced.
The Denver Yoga Underground began in 2003 at the request of dedicated students who wanted to study yoga as a holistic system. Over the years, a diversity of people, seeking education outside of a studio, found a welcome refuge in DYU.
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