Just Right: How to practice Brahmacharya (moderation) in the modern world


As any dedicated yogi will tell you, yoga is so much more than a physical practice. If you dive into the tradition, the concepts of yogic philosophy will influence your thought patterns, your understanding of the world, the way you treat yourself, and the way you treat others. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali discusses how yogis should behave off the mat. He begins by describing the five social observances, or yamas, which make up the first limb of yoga. Some are fairly straight-forward, like ahimsa (don’t harm) and asteya (don’t steal). But the fourth one, brahmacharya, is a source of much greater controversy.
Does brahmacharya require celibacy?
Brahmacharyais sometimes translated into English as “chastity.” This definition leaves people thinking they have to commit to celibacy in order to live out the yamas. And traditionally, at least in some lineages, brahmacharya was intended as a means to conserve sexual energy. If yogis didn’t spend energy on sexual activity, they’d have more energy to dedicate themselves to the yogic path.
What else does brahmacharya mean?
But brahmacharya has much broader interpretations. Let’s first back up to its literal definition. “Brahma” is a word for the creator god in Hinduism, and “charya” roughly means behavior. Taken together, brahmacharya gives us something like “behavior consistent with Brahma.” As such, it is widely interpreted to mean “right use of energy.”
How can we apply brahmacharya today?
In most cases, mindfulness and moderation are key to pursuing the “right use of energy.” Brahmacharya is about paying attention to how you use your energy in everyday life. It’s about providing your mind and body with what it needs – and enjoys – without going to a place of excess. Listen to your body. Paying attention to what your body is asking for will naturally lead you toward brahmacharya. What does that look like in practice? Eating when you’re hungry, but not stuffing yourself. Resting when you’re tired, but not lying in bed all day. Exercising regularly, but not overtraining. Set limits. Sticking to limits can also help us apply brahmacharya in daily life. For example, professional accomplishment is an important source of fulfillment for most people. But working excessively leads to burn out, so we need to set work/life boundaries. Similarly, some amount of social media use can be beneficial. But we need to limit our time on it, so it doesn’t become excessive and mindless or move us away from our true selves. Using an app to connect with old friends is consistent with brahmacharya; scrolling through other people’s photos for hours on end is not. Look for balance. Finding moderation can also mean striking a balance. For example, spending time alone and spending time with others can both be considered right uses of energy. But we need both. If you only do one or the other, instead of finding moderation, you won’t be getting everything your mind and spirit needs. Brahmacharya is a vast concept, and it can be applied to modern life in so many ways. Do you want to learn more? Join us at Vikasa for a teacher training program, where we dive deep into the yamas and other key concepts in yogic philosophy.
About the Author
Jennifer Ambrose Jen is a freelance writer, blogger, and yoga teacher who left her office job in Boston to travel the world with her husband. She previously worked in international development and academic research, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda. Some of her biggest passions include promoting responsible and mindful travel and helping her students develop their personal yoga practice.