The fourth ethical practice (yama, summary here) listed in the Yoga Sutras is brahmacharya, which translates literally as "to follow the Absolute". It suggest a lifestyle that moves you towards knowledge or union with what is eternal. Classically, it is interpreted as practicing sexual celibacy, or "continence", as it is often charmingly translated. This might be done for a short period of time before a ceremony, for a matter of years in adolescence and early adulthood, or for a lifetime in the case of renunciate yogis. Wikipedia has a decent summary. But what does it mean for us householders?
I think the word continence is telling, because it points to a broader practice of containing our energies rather than dispersing them in pursuit of sensual experience. If we want to move towards our highest potential, we need to harness all of our energies, and we can't do that if we're constantly using them to pursue transient rewards. Imagine how many tasks don't get done every day because of Facebook!
Brahmacharya is a necessary bulwark against the pull of modern consumer capitalism, which seeks to harvest our attention and dollars with ever-more-seductive campaigns and offers. There is also the siren song of text messaging and email, always tempting us with the promise of something interesting, something exciting, if we'd just stop what we're doing and take out our phone. Technology makes it so easy to become distracted and dispersed, it has become more necessary than ever to consciously train ourselves to be continent, to hold fast to what is precious and let the rest go. Brahmacharya is thus a call for strategic moderation in a world of excess. We don't need to deprive ourselves of sensual experience, but we are wise to "spend" our energies wisely in a way that nurtures us.
This month, we will explore how hatha yoga offers an ideal training ground for brahmacharya in this broader sense. As spring energy surges out of the ground, let's practice channeling it towards what we truly seek.