As part of Denver’s Axis Yoga teacher training program, students choose a yama (yogic principle) to apply to their daily lives. They are asked to design experiments that challenge them while deepening their understanding of the yama’s application. This student chose to experiment with Brahmacharya to re-direct his sexual energy into his spiritual practice. He finds that by experimenting with one yama. he became aware of others and thus more accountable overall in his life.
In researching this yama I looked at readings from several books and wrote down the following quotes which spoke to me:
- A person who is a Brahmacharya lives in Brahmin (god) and sees Brahmin in everyone.
- Continence is chastity* in word, thought, and deed…Sex is inseparable from attachment, and attachment is an obstacle to spiritual knowledge – Patanjali
(*chastity is defined as celibacy or virtuous character)
- Brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths… it means responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth. – Desikachar
- Brahmacharya is not abandonment of sex but transcendence of it. – Baba Hari Dass
My understanding or synthesis of these definitions raised the following questions:
- How much energy do I put into non-virtuous words, thoughts or deeds particularly in relation to other people and sex/relationships?
- How does the way I speak about people, to people or even think about them affect them, and the way I interact with them?
- Am I pursuing relationships that help move me towards my highest self, or am I too focused on ego-based relationships that seem to meet my baser needs?
If Bramhamacharya is about re-focusing sexual energy, then if I focus that energy on spiritual practice, I will become more aware of my interconnectedness with others on an energetic level and that will reduce my focus on the more primal physical or ego-based connections (ie the source of my non-virtuous words, thoughts, & deeds).
The simple explanation of my experiment is to be chaste or ‘of virtuous character’ in word, thought and deed. On the philosophical level this means to me that I will honor the divinity or authentic self of others by being virtuous in the way I speak to them, about them, act towards them and even think about them. In practical terms I will practice to the best of my ability virtuous character in:
- my words – how I speak about others, and how much I talk about sex (a popular topic amongst my friends).
- my thoughts – I will refrain from fantasizing about others in sexual or romantic ways.
- my deeds – looking at my motives when acting towards others (ie not talking to someone just because I think they’re cute)
I will observe my behavior and journal about it over the course of this experiment.
Before beginning this experiment I had already begun examining my attitudes towards sex and relationships. I had found that I was constantly looking for a partner, and primarily evaluating people I met on that basis, which I found to be self-centered and disrespectful. I also had found that being in a relationship consumed my time and thoughts so that my meditation and yoga practices suffered, and I chose to make my spirituality a priority rather than be in relationship. I would like to achieve moderation in that area and be able to enjoy a relationship that is based in spiritual practice. Having already made a mental shift in this area, this experiment provided the formal structure necessary for deeper self-examination and more defined changes in behavior.
My hope is that this experiemnt will continue a shift in attitude that I began earlier this year, help me to see people for who they are rather than who they can be to me, and begin to develop a sense of spiritual or energetic connectedness to all other beings.
CHOICE: The earliest observation I made in this process was about choice. Having set the above intentions, I became aware of every opportunity that arose to break those intentions and having to make a conscious choice about my behavior. Some obstacles I ran into:
- Limiting how much I talk about sex or other people in that context, made me question one of my closest relationships. I had to struggle at times to find other topics of conversation, and wondered if the basis of that friendship was strong enough to survive a shift in my behavior.
- My thought life is more active than I thought in this area. Fantasizing is a form of entertainment or distraction that comes up a lot especially in the evening or when falling asleep. My mind wants to fantasize that a certain person might ask me out and during this experiment I choose to say no to that. But what harm will it cause?
- Frustration at my focus on what I “can’t” do, rather than a redirection of that energy.
- Falling into value judgements like sex = bad, celibacy = good. A hard habit to break in our Judeo-Christian-centric society.
- On a humorous note, my neighbors were having a lot of sex, and overhearing that was a challenge to my thought life.
One of the biggest choices I made was not to go to the monthly dance party I always go to. I was torn between wanting to go to be there with a different attitude versus not going and avoiding the challenge of the situation all together. My motivation to go was to dance, but I know that I check people out constantly too. I feel that when practicing a yama it is important to bring that into daily life, but taking Bramacharya practice to a setting specifically designed to promote sex seemed like going overboard. I felt it was a better choice to practice by choosing not to put myself in such a challenging situation.
EGO: I experimented with who I choose to interact with in a few ways. For people who I feel physically attracted to I have purposely avoided flirting or even interacting with them, and I have also attempted to interact on a more authentic level by checking my motivation. After a class discussion about desires being at the base of things, I realized that in this case it’s not sexual desire that is at the bottom, but the desire to be loved/noticed/appreciated. Putting value in another’s reactions to me motivates my thoughts and deeds when it comes to sex and relationships. Furthermore I observed that because this is often my motivation for interacting with a person, I presume that someone who approaches me has the same motivation, that they are attracted to me. Which is a huge ego-trip.
BEING PRESENT: I experimented with talking to a girl I had a crush on, and she engaged me in a conversation that led to us making plans to spend some time together for non-romantic reasons. However, this led my mind to extrapolate what might happen in the future. Through this situation I realized that it is one way that I have a hard time being present. If I am truly present in the moment I can have a conversation, not project into the future, and not worry about what will happen next.
OTHER NOTES: When forming our experiments, our group brought up the question ‘how can Bramacharya be accessible to everyone in our modern society?’ Later group discussions reflected that our individual experiements were not proving to be terribly difficult. I think we anticipated them being more challenging because we entered them with limiting thinking like “I can’t…” have sex, fantasize, etc. For me, forming my hypothesis helped me focus on the positive saying “I want to respect people by thinking of them in ways that see them for who they are as people, and the Divinity within them”. That shift from the negative to the positive is in itself a redirection of my energy from the base to the spiritual, which is the point of Bramacharya.
I have taken away some very positive results from this experiment.
- Changing my motivation around who I interact with has opened up more possibilities for friendships and values-based relationships.
- A much greater awareness of where I have focused my sexual energy in the past, and where I would like to focus it in the future.
- Clarity around how I have gotten into poor relationships and new tools to avoid repeating that behavior.
- Practicing one yama made me more subtly aware of other yamas, and therefore more accountable in multiple areas of my life.
Axis Yoga’s teacher training program in Denver invites new students to apply one of many yogic principles to their daily lives. This student explores the application of Brahmacharaya (sexual abstinence) in her marriage. Her partner is also a student of the program, so they were able to collaborate and design their experiment together. By bringing more mindfulness into their relationship, she and her husband hoped to develop a deeper spiritual connection to each other, and to God.
The experiment related to Brahmacharaya and it’s application to my life as a married person. This yama was chosen randomly, as the group size was the smallest and therefore, most appealing to me personally. In recognizing that the concept of Brahmacharaya is essentially explained by Pantanjali as abstinence of sexual behavior with the intention to redirect creative energies toward higher spiritual purposes, I recognized that this would require some modification in my married situation. As my husband is also in the same group, we collaborated on this project and in this experiment.
Pantanjali ‘s description of Bramacharaya is chastity and continence, which is traditionally interpreted as celibacy, but is also described as moderation or control of the senses. After careful consideration of how these concepts may be applied to married couples, my husband and I decided that we would embark upon the experiment with regard to the purity of intention and sense of moderation which occurs from neither over-indulgence nor abstinence in sexuality. Furthermore, considering that some of Pantanjali’s concepts, such as Bramacharaya, are contextualized for his social and cultural time in history, we maintained that this yama can be applied within the context of our own relationship, by practicing intentional “mindful and lovingness” towards one another within our relationship. B.K. Iyengar, also interpreted that Bramacharaya need not necessarily consist of abstinence in the physical manner. He indicated within his writings that one can practice Bramacharaya within a marriage by being mindful and loving in the relationship.
The hypothesis developed by myself and my husband is, “If we practice mindfulness within our relationship (which includes creating a spiritual intention for shared space, time, intimacy/sexuality) and apply principles of chastity in the sense of purity, specifically purity of intention through mindful lovingness, then we will experience a deeper connection to the divine through mutual shared and selfless devotion to God within our relationship”.
The experiment interestingly resulted in an increase in awareness to the “energy drains” on our lives including housekeeping, organization of time, personal relationships outside of the marriage, and work. Additionally, we realized that in order to participate in the act of mindful intimacy and lovingness, we needed to unencumber our minds with worldly concerns, worries and barriers. Further, we tended to “unfinished” business and projects within our home, essentially clearing stagnant energy while tending to our “bedroom” space. Through the commitment of attending yoga classes together, reading discussing and planning our spiritual growth both individually and as a couple, we have increased our participation in each other’s lives on a spiritual and physical level. To deepen this connection through the application of the experiment, we have taken greater steps towards building a more sustainable spiritual and emotional lifestyle. In terms of the actual application of practicing moderation and chastity within the relationship, I believe that we are still working towards what that might look like as we continue to develop from within. We have definitely increased our discussions around our sexual practices, present levels of emotional intimacy, spiritual connection to one another & God, and our intentions for our relationship on a day-to-day basis.
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