Here’s a Sanskrit word to chew on: Brahmacarya.

Brahmacarya is one of those yoga concepts that been interpretated over the centuries in a variety of ways from celibacy to abstinence to self-control.

I’ve had a lot of students ask me, Do you have to be celibate to be a real yogi? There certainly was a time when many people believed that. And somehow the idea that celibacy is more spiritual has gotten into the collective mind of yoga practitioners.

But in general most commentators have not examined the literal translation of Brahmacarya: To walk while chewing on God. Perhaps ruminating would be a better word choice here. Brahmacarya is the fourth of the yamas, the ethical guidelines of yoga. Now when you look closely at the yamas and niyamas, you see that there are two categories; the yamas are about how we deal with the external world, like non-harming, honesty, etc. and the niyamas are how we deal with our internal world, like cleanliness, contentment, etc.

So, if you translate Brahmacarya as celibacy, it seems a little weird. I mean, sex is a very personal thing. And the people who were writing this stuff were thinking about one-partner-for-life kind of sex. So, with that in mind, why would they put a principle about sex in with a bunch of other principles about dealing with others and the external world? With the celibacy translation, Brahmacarya ends up looking more like a niyama than a yama and this gets kind of confusing.

But if we translate it literally, as walking with the Divine always in mind, then it actually becomes the cornerstone of the yamas. If I am always with the Divine, then I will behave towards the external world kindly, with honesty and without greed. I don’t think the yogis who outlined the ethical principles of yoga were terribly interested in other people’s sex lives.

Here’s my story about how the term became mis-used: There were probably some yogis traveling through a town one day, the inhabitants of which had never seen a renunciate before. And one guy goes up to the yogis and asks them, Hey, what are you guys all about?

The yogis explain their quest for truth and enlightenment. They mention that they follow the path of Brahmacarya and attempt to see everything as an expression of the Divine. The villager asks them where the children are and they explain that they do not marry and are celibate renunciates.

So the villager goes back to his village to report about the strangers and tells them, Wow, how bizarre. They don’t have sex! They call it Brahmacarya. Then the villagers name the people Brahmacaryas and the name sticks.

Renunciates = brahmacaryas = celibates.

That’s simple. Kinda misses the point a bit, but, oh well.

The yogis were attempting to see everything that happens as an expression of Divine Consciousness. This is quite a practice. It might help some people to not get distracted by sex, but it’s not essentially for everyone. With a literal translation of Brahmacarya in mind, sex itself becomes a divine act. Everything in life becomes divine. It’s a beautiful practice.

Try Brahmacarya for yourself: Before having a difficult conversation with someone, take a moment to pause and remember everything is an expression of Divine consciousness. Close your eyes and breathe in this reality, then go on with your conversation. Notice the outcome. It might be pleasantly surprising.


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