Self Restraint

Brahmacharya is traditionally translated as “sexual continence” or “abstinence.” The word also refers to adolescence – in the culture where the ten practices originated, it was traditional for people to enter school and undertake religious studies during the period of their lives when their hormones raged.

Raised in the WASP tradition, I was taught from my earliest years to eschew creature comforts in favor of physical exercise and activities of the mind.  In my family we restrained ourselves and to tried to be good, habits which have propelled me for better or worse through most of my life.

Perhaps this is why I am particularly sensitive to the dangers of abusing the principle of brahmacharya.  My wasply tendency to abstain has carried with it a kind of discomfort with easy physical pleasures, providing fertile ground for all kinds of mental torment.  It is hard for me to look at the principle of continence deeply without being aware of the dark qualities it shares with my own culture.

The etymology of the word brahmacharya seems to offer some refuge.  It means “Brahma’s path.”  Thus the translation by BKS Iyengar, the colossus of modern yoga, is roughly, “to see Brahma in everyone.”  To me this interpretation is appealing and instructive. It reminds me of an ancient Greek aphorism I have read and loved, that every stranger may be a god in disguise.  But to my ear, brahmacharya in this translation lacks the subtlety of the other yamas.  Appealing as it is, this translation seems too easy a sleight of words; it has the too-sweet smell of a platitude.

A Hindu friend of mine offered another interpretation.  He views the tradition of abstention during adolescence as a practice in learning how to manage desire.  One waits to enact sexual desire in the context of one’s deeper values – the expression of the permanent bond of marriage, and the creation of a family.

From this experience the youthful practitioner learns an important lesson – that he or she is capable of sublimating toward a deeper purpose even the most powerful energies.  Having learned and practiced the skill by managing adolescent sexual energy, one can then apply it to the subtler and darker energies – such as frustration, anger, resentment, or yearning in its many varieties.

This interpretation resonates fully with the lessons of my own middle age.  Slowly I am learning that the powerful emotions – either negative or positive ones – are potent catalysts for internal change.  This is a lesson that surprises me over and over again.  Sometimes lately when strong feelings arise, I neither express nor repress them, but only try to feel them fully, with my mind and body.  In these moments my self-understanding seems to grow by leaps and bounds; my experience of living deepens by the fathom.


When I feel hunger

my body wants to eat

so it seeks relief:

crackers, chips, an empty box.


When I feel anger

my bruises need to hurt

so they seek a tender thing

their bitter voice can cut.


And when sadness comes

my heart, to be heard

finds the widest plain it knows

and lets its stories gallop there.


Do you see the crow’s home,

lone and high in the crook of a tree?

This is the nest of nerves

that nestles in my bones,


where my self returns

sated with seeking,

ready to leave its sweet carrion.

And when I finally feel


those black majestic wings

close in upon themselves,

I can be content

to observe the stars


whose gravity hungers for earth

and the wind, endlessly restless

and the luminous soil, so tired

from giving life.


Then comes the knowledge

that in stillness my own hunger

too, and anger, and even sadness

can be savored,


in the way that I love the shape

of a barren branch,

or the mineral taste

of a rock my roots embrace,


the beautiful intelligence

of the crow with a shiny thing

in whose blackness there is gold

before she flies.  



The listing of the Yamas and Niyamas

The next yama (letting go)


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