The Fourth Yama

In this blog series we’re exploring the basics of yoga philosophy, and how to make them relevant to our everyday lives. This month we’ll look at the fourth Yama or universal observance, which is Brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya is a little trickier to define in western terms than its predecessors. Its direct translation is ‘merging into one-ness’, but what does that actually mean? Broadly speaking, it’s to do with how we use our energy and maintaining healthy boundaries. More specifically it refers to sexual energy, and how we choose to share our sexuality. The ancient yogi ascetics took it to its limits and practised celibacy, but for those of us who don’t live in isolation, meditating for years in caves in the Himalayas, it’s a little more fluid (phew!)

For ‘householder yogis’ like you and me, the sexual aspect of brahmacharya is to do with healthy, mutually respectful intimate relationships, and refraining from using our sexual energy in ways likely to cause suffering either to ourselves or others. It’s a tricky subject because we all have our own ideas of what constitutes acceptable sexual behaviour. Are casual hook-ups ok? Do we wait until the third date? Until we’re engaged? Married?

As I’ve said before, the tenets of yoga are intended as guidelines rather than rigid sticks with which to beat ourselves every time we fall short, and they invite intelligent self-enquiry. So whilst it’s wholly up to the individual how they conduct their intimate life, contemplating brahmacharya offers a wise framework for intimate relationships.

We might ask ourselves questions like:

– Is everyone in this liaison being treated with compassion and respect?

– Does everyone understand where they stand? Are they on the same page, or is one party in it for the long-haul and the other playing the field?

– Are all parties being open and honest with each other?

– Is everyone happy and fulfilled within the situation? Or is someone being coerced into behaving in a way they’re not comfortable with?

– Is a mutual expectation of monogamy being honoured? Do both parties feel secure and confident of the other’s love and fidelity?

– Are both parties honoured as the only one, or is there a habit of commenting on attractive third parties?

Couple in Love

Our sexual energy, shared wisely, can be one of the most liberating and life-affirming parts of our human experience – something to be revered and celebrated! Sex between partners with a true connection can be a deeply spiritual experience, when our barriers dissolve and we merge into one-ness – the literal definition of brahmacharya – together.

Whilst sexuality is the central theme of this yama, an additional interpretation encompasses our boundaries in other parts of our lives – how we use our energy in a wider sense. If you regularly find yourself saying ‘yes’ to things that you don’t really want to do in order to please other people; if you’re overwhelmed and never have time for yourself because of demands that you routinely give in to; if you don’t feel that your needs are as important as everyone else’s; if you find it hard to keep information given in confidence to yourself; if you feel that your rights to be heard, express yourself freely, and not be touched without permission are not respected; then it might be time to reassess the boundaries that you set, and become more assertive in maintaining them.

People with healthy boundaries generally also have healthy levels of self-respect and self-esteem. They are firm but flexible, asking for support when they need it, and are respectful of other people’s boundaries as well as maintaining their own. They understand that they are responsible for themselves and their own wellbeing. They are compassionate with others, but are clear about their own separateness, listening fully and being helpful but not taking on other people’s problems as their own. They understand what they need in order to feel supported and respected, and are confident about making sure they receive it.

When we practise brahmacharya, the people around us feel valued, secure and confident that they can trust us to treat them with kindness and respect. And, most importantly, we feel that way about ourselves!

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