Special Series on Yamas and Niyamas: Brahmacarya

by Melissa West on

This week in yoga we moved forward to the fourth yama, or ethical principle, brahmacarya. Brahmacarya has to do with the conservation of vital energy, especially around sexuality. However, the yama brahmacarya was taught in that way during a time when the culture who defined it was sexually reserved. It was then believed that if one preserved all their sexual energy towards their spiritual practice that they would become enlightened. We know today the practice of celibacy does not usually lead to enlightenment, and so for us it has more to do with conerving our vital energy, generally speaking. My friend Jessica told me that brahmacarya means living in the fullness of Brahma, the divine creator. 

    Beginning on May 1st, I chose to cultivate brahmacarya within my life for an eight week period. I have currently practiced brahmacarya for just over four weeks. For me, practicing brahmacarya has been a way to put ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), and asteya (non-stealing or generosity) into practice.  When I think about conserving my vital energy by practicing moderation I’ve had no choice but to be more kind to myself. When I am practicing the conservation of my vital energy I am more compassionate with myself and demand less of myself.  Another thing I’ve noticed is I must look honestly at my life and realize where I’m being excessive and practice being moderate. Finally brahmacarya has finally allowed me to be generous with myself by nurturing myself with life-affirming activities that give me more energy. 

    When practicing brahmacarya it is important to be kind and honest with yourself. When I notice my life spinning out into excess with work, I take a step back and see how I can be more moderate. We are in a constant cycle of moving in, out and round equilibrium. When you notice you are living excessively, simply notice and allow yourself to move back to balance. For example, this past weekend I went to my sister’s bachelor party. We were out super late on Saturday night, my head didn’t even hit the pillow until 2:00 a.m. This is a practice of excess, a night of partying, not enough sleep, not filling my body with substances that nourish it. The following day I intentionally made plans to restore balance in my body. I spent a quiet day, sitting in my backyard, drawing with my daughter, feeding my body nourishing foods, resting and getting to bed early. Brahmacarya simply means noticing when you are out of balance and taking steps to restore balance. 

    Nischala Joy Devi defines the sutra on brahmacarya as, “Devoted to living a balanced and moderate life (Brahmacarya), the scope of one’s life force becomes boundless.” As Nischala Joy Devi points out, we used to live in a time where our outpouring of energy was determined by the time of day and the seasons. We now live in a time where we are able to manipulate heat and cold, light and darkness. That kind of manipulation of the natural cycle of activity and inactivity means that we are pushed to expend energy for longer periods of time with way less rest. In our culture excessive expenditure of energy takes the form of overeating, too much TV, too much work, too much exercise, too much reading and studying, talking too much and the list could go on. Nischala Joy Devi points out that we already know how to be excessive, it is actually our challenge to practice moderation. 

    When we practice brahmacarya (moderation) we are left with more energy for our spiritual practices. I hear over and over again that people do not have enough time or energy to start a yoga or meditation practice at home. This is because people are stressed out and exhausted from their incessant demands of their lives. When we live a life of moderation and balance then less of our energy is spent restoring the equilibrium. This conservation of vital energy works in a loop as well. What really feeds your spirit? For me things like spending time in nature and sketching in my journal feeds my spirit. With this extra energy I am able to be more present and energized for my clients and students. Additionally my yoga and meditation practices channel my vital energy and help me to maintain a healthy body, heart, mind, and spirit. During yoga and meditation practice I restore my energy and build up my energy reserves. 

    Reflect on your life and notice how excess and “too much” shows up right now. What things do you do to excess that really drain you of your energy? How could you practice being more moderate? What is something that feeds your spirit and adds to your energy reserves? How could you make space for yourself to be more moderate and engage in activities that build your energy rather than deplete it? What’s one small thing you could do this week to bring brahmacarya (conservation of vital energy) into your life? 

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