My Yoga study continues to reveal some underlying similarities between Christianity and Yoga. Which isn’t surprising since neither tradition emerged in a vacuum. They influenced and impacted each other over thousands of years.
Traditionally, in the Eight-limbed Path of Ashtanga or Raja (Royal) Yoga there are five yamas or abstentions and five niyamas or observances. These could be understood as life directives like the Ten Commandments. One of the yamas or abstentions is brahmacharya. The word brahmacharya is made up of two words: Brahma, the absolute, eternal, supreme God-head and charya, which means “to follow” meaning follow a “virtuous” way of life.
In the tradition of Yoga, brahmacharya refers to sexual abstinence or celibacy. Like the monastic traditions of Christianity, celibacy is practiced as a way of harnessing energy from the relationships of one’s sexual life and diverting it toward deepening one’s spiritual life. In the Yoga this was traditionally taught and practiced only with regard to men.
However, if we understand sexuality as a part of our wholeness as human persons we can begin to interpret this yama of brahmacharya more expansively. If God is present within each person, then gnostic dualism (anti-body or spirit is better) is death-dealing. God within each of us means that God hears what we hear, feels what we feel and suffers what we suffer. We meet God in and through our bodies, including our sexuality. God experiences the world through our bodies. To know this is to value ourselves and our relationships with others. It is to be honest and truthful about the role sexuality plays in our lives.
The same energy that brings sexuality enlivens our spiritual life as well. Learning to become open and intimate with another also prepares us for opening ourselves to life, reality or God. Using our sexual desires in a way that is life-giving for us and for others honors our value as persons. This means that we must be willing to take the time and care required to go more deeply into a relationship with someone else. This takes effort, time and commitment. It takes monogamy. It is impossible to have the time or energy to maintain deep, committed, thus honest sexual relationships with more than one person at a time.
It also requires developing good boundaries. We develop enough self-understanding to know our own values and choose actions that respect those values. We have the ability to consistently choose those actions and responses that will keep us in a calm and abiding place. We learn to do this within the context of our own sexual relationships and within other relationships too. Simultaneously we respect others’ boundaries.
Brahmacharya in my own life means honoring my own sexuality. For me, this means choosing to be in a marriage because the relationship is life-giving and brings out the best of who I am. Earlier in my life I understood the vow of marriage (“until death do us part”) to mean staying in a marriage no matter what – even if it was abusive or soul-killing. I thought that breaking the vow meant breaking with one’s personal integrity. But gradually, I came to see that this vow is made by two parties and therefore must be honored by both parties. One person can’t honor the vow alone. When the other party is no longer committed to the vow, or was never committed, then the contract is broken.
Regardless, to remain in sexual relationships that hurt, abuse or cause sadness is to dishonor not only ourselves but others as well. This is a profound distortion of what sexuality is meant to be in our lives. We are all interconnected. Brahmacharya dictates that we seek sexuality in relationships that leave us feeling loved, valued and cared for.