I’ve got needs Just like you. Give me conversation, good vibrations through and through. So come on baby, won’t you show some class. Why you want to move so fast? We don’t have to take our clothes off to have a good time.
Brahmacharya (Lit. pursuing/following Brahma) is the yama that is the hardest to integrate into mainstream American yoga culture: it often refers to the practice of sexual abstinence. Contextually we can assume that it’s male sexual abstinence being discussed. It also describes the first phase of life for hindu males: a brahmachari is a devoted student to a guru, hardworking and perforce celibate. He later becomes householder, a forest-dweller, and finally a renunciant, before death. Within the context of marriage, brahmacharya can mean monogamous fidelity.
We contemporary yogis tend to be more at home with definitions that refer more generally to sensual restraint. Restraint of the senses means putting your pleasure, and desire for pleasure, aside. It means viewing your pleasure as secondary to the big picture, and relating to other people as honorable equals, rather than through the personal lens of desire or repulsion.
It’s funny, when I’ve taught the yamas and niyamas in my classes, I’ve always tried to interpret brahmacharya away from literal sexual abstinence, but as I’ve been working on the Conceivable Future project, it bears mention that the most direct practice of brahmacharya for individual carbon minimization would be not creating one’s own biological kids, or having only one. But as I’ve said in other places on this blog, our own individual choices are not the whole story, nor the most essential climate actions we can take. Yoga for climate action is also about building an ethical foundation for doing the large-scale collective work the climate crisis requires.
So how does ethical sexuality address the climate crisis? Restraint is a definite part of it: as we distinguish between our needs and our wants, we recognize the equal value of the needs, rather than the wants, of others, and we come closer to a justice of needs met. We mobilize the fortitude that comes from saying no to frivolous, distracting pleasures. Mastering our libidinal energies the best we can, keeping our passions aroused, but pointing them toward the good, not letting them drain away pointlessly.
In partnerships especially, ethical sexuality is honoring your partner’s complete being, not treating them as a needs-fulfiller, but working to see them completely, supporting them on their path, and having faith that a sustained, selfless effort toward others will bring you the care and fulfillment you need.
I try to practice a kind of restraint in conversation with my partner and friends. The urge to talk about myself and to relate other people’s experience back to my own in conversation is a form of instant gratification that is draining, and a pleasure seeking behavior that brahmacharya addresses. I practice not giving my two cents, listening, asking questions, answering more slowly. I find that I am still as much a member of the conversation, but what I’m bringing is not my unceasing supply of anecdotes and frantic thoughts, but open space and calm. This is a work in progress, I am not great at it.
A final thought on brahmacharya: libidinal energy is yet another kind of energy that must be used with care and efficiency. It is renewable, but not endlessly or effortlessly. When we are in good physical and emotional health and we engage with others in ways that turn our whole selves on, with focus and support, we can be big forces for transformation, replacing fossil fuel energy with our own.