This is part four of a five part series on the Yamas, the ethical guidelines for how to live a yogic life. (Parts one, two, and three are over here: Non-violence, Truthfulness, and Non-stealing.)

The fourth Yama is Brahmacharya, traditionally translated as celibacy. I struggle with how to interpret Brahmacharya. I’m definitely not celibate and probably neither are you, but our behavior doesn’t negate the relevance of this teaching. I have trouble with the idea that I can just pick and choose the teachings I like or find to be interesting. I’ve signed on to this whole system of Yoga, and yet sometimes I’m not sure what to do with this teaching. 

One thing that I’ve found useful is to investigate the spirit of the law, as opposed to trying to follow the letter of the law to a T. We can ask,

“What is the intended effect of this teaching? What are some other ways to get to that intended effect?”

Just like in the asana practice, not every pose is for every body. For a variety of reasons, a student might be better off skipping Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), for example. But rather than just sitting that pose out, we can ask, “What is the intended effect of this pose? How else can I create those effects?” In Wheel Pose, we might practice Bridge Pose (Setu Bhanda Sarvangasana) instead to open the hip flexors, or practice a backbend supported on a chair to find opening through the chest and shoulders.

With Brahmacharya, one intended effect is to better enable us to focus on our spiritual pursuits. If that’s the case, we can then ask, “What is distracting me from my practice? Are there things I can put aside in an effort to have a more intentional focus on the Divine?” Another intended effect might be to allow us to practice self-control. So then we can inquire, “Where are the areas that I feel tempted to engage in activities I’ve committed to stop doing?” Quitting smoking, getting off sugar, fasting from the Internet, etc, are all opportunities to practice self-control.

In this way, we remain true to the spirit of the law even if we’re not able to or interested in following the letter of the law.

Even if we’re not giving up sex altogether, the yoga teachings still offer plenty of insight into how to govern ourselves in romantic interactions. We can look to the other Yamas for guidance.

Are you harming other people in your pursuit of sex or romance or are you practicing Ahimsa (non-violence)? Are you willing to lie or manipulate others to get what you want or do you always practice Satya (truthfulness)? Are you wishy-washy about getting consent or do you take only what’s been freely offered, aligning yourself with Asteya (non-stealing)? By making sure that we’re practicing ahimsa, satya, and asteya in all our romantic and sexual partnerships, we minimize pain and suffering for ourselves and others.

Have thoughts or questions? I'd love to hear from you!

Much love, 


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