Brahmacharya: Non-ExcessThe Yamas & the Niyamas are the foundational principles of all Yogic thought. Yoga is a philosophy of existence that extends beyond the physical postures that have facilitated its rise in mainstream repute. Yama is the first limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path of Yoga. The Sanskrit word Yama literally translates as “restraints.” In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali details five universal Yamas: non-violence (ahmisa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), non-excess (brahmacharya) and non-possessiveness (aparigraha). Over the course of the last three months Mountain Yoga has explored three of the five Yamas. This brings us to the fourth jewel, brahmacharya. Brahma is the Sanskrit word for Creative Force or God. Charya means, “to follow.” Though brahmacharya is classically interpreted to mean celibacy or abstinence, it has been secularized for today’s modern practitioner and is often understood as moderation. Yet the practice of non-excess can also be seen in an expansive light that invites us to welcome the sacredness of all life through a careful attendance to each moment as holy, and this dear ones, includes our sexuality.
We live in a culture of excess. We overdo food, work, sex, entertainment, material possessions and exercise. Not to call anyone lazy but some of us even overdo relaxatio. Why do we continually move beyond the place of contentment into excess? Yogic thought tells us that it is because our mind has an emotional investment in certain foods or activities. As we begin to become more aware of the ways in which we indulge in excess, it is important to discern the difference between what the body truly needs and the story the mind is telling us. In her book “The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice,” Deborah Adele shares:
“We are on this world, in part, to feel enjoyment and pleasure. If we are in pleasure and not addiction, we are practicing brahmacharya. If we are feeding our mental stories and have moved past bodily comfort, we are in addiction and out of harmony with this guideline….Non-excess is not about non-enjoyment. The questions before us are: Are you eating the food, or is the food eating you? Are you doing the activity, or is the activity doing you?”
A discussion of brahmacharya wouldn’t be complete without some mention of its implications on sexual energy. Someone once shared a definition of brahmacharya that stuck with me, though the person’s name did not. This person said that in practicing the first three Yamas – non-violence, truthfulness and non-stealing - within our sexual relations we, by default, practice brahmacharya. This definition is particularly relevant when considered within the framework of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The Yoga Sutras are a series of 196 terse aphorisms that define the method and ultimate aims of Yoga. Sutra means thread. The Yoga Sutra is a carefully woven and masterful tapestry in which no word is superfluous and each thread relies upon the previous. The order in which the Yamas appear in the Yoga Sutra therefore holds significance just as kleshas (afflictions) appear in geniuses order; ignorance (adviya) being the field in which all other root obstructions grow. I digress but I hope you will humor me and give this idea some consideration.
If we find ourselves living in the throws of addiction in any facet of our life, a period of fasting or celibacy can be very useful in returning to a place of balance. These practices are powerful tools that pull in the reins, cultivate contentment and help us to regain our center. We have all, at some point or another, moved beyond the line of bodily satisfaction and discovered lethargy. That’s the thing about overindulgence; it smothers our life force like too many logs on a fire. Practicing non-excess preserves the life force within us so we may live with clarity and purity.
Brahmacharya beckons us to acknowledge the sanctity of all life and the interconnectedness of all beings. It invites us to open to the magic and fullness of each and every moment. When every task, no matter how mundane or familiar, becomes an opportunity to be amazed an avenue for gratitude is created. With an attitude of gratitude, there is no need for excess. At times, I struggle with a nagging sense of dullness that leaves me feeling sad and afraid. Deborah Adele suggests that this is a result of maintaining too fast a pace for too long. I concur. In my world this pace eventually results in living life on autopilot. She also states that we wear our busyness like a badge and go to bed with a sense of accomplishment because we checked a lot of things off our task list. “The ego likes to feel important, and it doesn’t feel very important when I am resting.” Deborah has me pegged. The desire to get comfortable in the uncomfortable place of stillness was one of the promises that first drew me to Yoga. Though I have learned to sit in silence, honor my limits and make time for the spaciousness of Mother Nature, I am still a recovering Type-A Personality. As I write these words, I can’t help but be amused and honored by how the process of Yoga continues to stealthily grant me opportunities (i.e. writing about non-excess) for self-inquiry and growth.
Brahmacharya reminds us that we are embodied to serve the world with our passion and that that vitality is best cultivated through moderation, not excess. In the words of Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”