Ah, brahmacharya: the fourth yama defined in the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. Translated, this yoga sutra says, “By one established in continence (abstinence), vigor is gained.” Taken literally or not, you may find value in this sutra’s message of responsible behavior.
Sex can deplete you both physically and mentally and be quite taxing on the nervous system—all of which can affect your yoga practice. And in order to achieve spiritual strength, we need to be at our best. Therefore, we should aim for abstinence, or at least restraint.
Sri Swami Satchidananda describes his interpretation of the sutra. In Sutra 2.38, he writes:
“Young people say, ‘When you love somebody, how can you stop giving?’ But, out of love, they do not know what to give. Sometimes they give venereal disease. They lose their health and spoil the health of the ones they love. Can you say you love me and completely drain my blood and poison from my system? No. If you love a child, will you make him eat a box of candy? That isn’t love. It’s mere thoughtlessness.”
Satchidananda highlights the pitfalls of overindulgence. But many of us will still argue that, hey, we just really like candy. Or sex. And therein lies the challenge.
Why is celibacy important when moving through the eight limbs of yoga? Some feel that the eight limbs (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) must be achieved in order. As you climb higher, you require more energy, so maintaining as much of your prana (energy) as you can is vital. Built-up energy is let go during sex.
People claim a host of other benefits to brahmacharya such as contentment, a better immune system, improved memory, and sharper eyesight. Because yoga is a path of self-discovery, one of the most important gains, aside from energy retention, is that you get to know yourself better through the process. Here we are contributing to self-study, which is a niyama.
If we look at this sutra more broadly, it speaks to an overall control of the senses. So, while this sutra specifically discusses sexual abstinence, we can also take it to mean, “Do everything in moderation.”
In moments of weakness, we should think twice about whether or not what our minds are asking for is best for our overall well-being. Are you eating too much junk food? Are you in an unhealthy relationship? Are you spending all of your money unnecessarily?
Just think about how awful you feel after overeating, or when spending time with people who don’t appreciate you or treat you well. These situations diminish energy and the mental focus that Satchidananda says is so important to maintain.
The most helpful way to practice moderation, sexually or otherwise, is by avoiding those triggers that will make it hard for you to stay the course. Only you know your vices. Stay true to yourself, and have fun on the journey.
Sri Swami Satchidananda. “Sutra 2.38.” Integral Yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Buckingham: Integral Yoga Publications, 1984. Print.