The fourth yama, brahmacharya, means to have control of your sensual cravings. Yep, this is the one about sex. (So far, this is the most difficult yama for me to write about. Interesting.)
Satchidananda translates the sutra like this: “By one established in continence, vigor is gained.” (137)
Devi’s version is a little different: “Devoted to living a balanced and moderate life, the scope of one’s life force becomes boundless.” (193)
In the past, brahmacharya was interpreted as necessitating celibacy. Satchidananda talks about continence, meaning “self-restraint or abstinence”, and tells us that our sexual energy can give us great power to use in our meditation (i.e., “vigor”), which is why monks practice a celibate lifestyle. However, he states that each person should practice brahmacharya as best suits his or her stage in life. Over time, each person passes through different stages: being young and a student; becoming an adult and perhaps marrying and supporting a family; eventually growing more interested in spiritual pursuits as age comes. Most of us are in that second stage – we’re adults, householder yogis, yogis who live in the world, and so for us, brahmacharya isn’t about abstinence, but about spending sexual energy in an appropriate manner.
Devi talks about brahmacharya in terms of moderation and balance. These are important words to keep in mind. We should try to practice moderation with all things that give us pleasure – not just sex, but food and drink, going to the gym, watching TV, everything. When we go overboard with these activities, we tire ourselves out, maybe make ourselves sick. That disturbs our mood and makes it harder to do our work or be kind to others. If we’re being moderate in our activities, then they fill us with energy, not the opposite.
I think for me, it’s very easy to binge out on things I like. If one cookie is good, ten cookies will be better; if one episode of Buffy was pretty awesome, then clearly I should spend all day Sunday watching seven more episodes. This is something I do struggle with. Instead of packing the whole bag of chocolates to take to work, I will pack five chocolates in my lunch – if I brought the whole bag, I’d eat ’em all, arguing with myself with every bite, causing a great deal of stress, plus guilt and shame once the bag was empty (and probably an upset stomach and a headache). So I’ll just bring a few, and then they’re a nice treat, not something that weighs me down. A day of marathon TV watching can be fun, but you can’t do it every weekend. Go hiking, visit your mom, go to a museum, cook a new recipe, and when that rainy day comes around, you can enjoy all the Lord of the Rings extended edition movies back to back, guilt free.
But back to the sex, because I know that’s what you’re really interested in. Satchidananda argues that making love should be saved for one’s marital partner. Don’t be out there sharing your sweet energy with anyone who wanders by – save it for someone special, and when you release your energy together, it’ll be a celebration of everything that’s great in your relationship. Satchidananda notes there there are many different kinds of love, not just sexual love; he says, “If people want to know each other before marriage, they can become friends. That is how our ancestors lived” (140). Even from my modern feminist perspective, I have to admit he has a point there.
On the topic of sex, Devi recommends the following approach: “Your only desire is to pleasure the other person, and their only desire is to pleasure you. Each is fulfilled and satisfied, and when we are satisfied, we are moderate and balanced” (200). I think this links back to asteya, too – if you’re all “me, me, me” when making love, aren’t you taking the other person’s energy and love without giving back? I like her idea of approaching the act with generosity, not demanding gratification. If you go into the bedroom just wanting your own pleasure, nothing will ever be enough to satisfy you, but if both partners come together just wanting to be generous to each other, they’ll both be happy afterward.