Life Without Sex?
In 1985, Adrian Piper stopped having sex. A longtime yoga practitioner, Piper committed herself to the practice of brahmacharya (celibacy), which is touted as an important step along the pathway to enlightenment. Still resolutely committed 17 years later, Piper calls this practice the greatest spiritual gift she's ever been given.
"Brahmacharya has changed my perception of myself, of others, of everything," she says. "It's been so interesting to realize how much of my ego-self was bound up with sexuality and sexual desire. And the effect on my sadhana [spiritual practice] has been most profound. I'm not sure I can put it into words. Let's just say there's definitely a good reason why all spiritual traditions recommend celibacy. Sex is great, but no sexual experience-and I've had a lot of them-could even come close to this."
Piper is not alone in praising the transformational gifts of brahmacharya. Celibacy plays an important role in the yoga tradition-indeed, some would say, a critical one. The father of classical yoga, Patanjali, made brahmacharya one of the five yamas, or ethical precepts in the Yoga Sutra [Chapter 11, verse 30] that all aspirants should adhere to. Other yogic texts name abstinence as the surest and speediest way to boost our deepest reserves of vitality and power. And as Piper notes, many other spiritual traditions-including Buddhism and Christianity-incorporate chastity into their codes of conduct. Spiritual luminaries ranging from Mother Teresa to Ramakrishna to Mahatma Gandhi all practiced celibacy for at least some period of their lives. Gandhi went so far as to call life without celibacy "insipid and animal-like."
But the thought that yogis shouldn't have sex-or at the very least should rein in their sexual energy-challenges our modern notions about both yoga and sex. We live in a radically different world from that of the ancient yogis who spelled out the discipline's original precepts. Those yogis lived lives of total renunciation; today, we toss in a Friday yoga class as a prelude to a gourmet meal, a fine wine, and-if we're lucky-sex for the grand finale. Even though much of yoga is based on ascetic precepts that counsel denial, today the practice is often touted for its ability to improve one's sex life, not eradicate it-and some people even seem to view yoga classes as prime pick-up spots.
So how do we square time-honored ascetic traditions like brahmacharya with our modern lives? Can we pick and choose among yoga's practices, adopting those we like and sweeping the trickier ones like brahmacharya under the yoga mat? Or can we fashion a modern reinterpretation of this precept, adhering to the spirit of brahmacharya if not the letter of the ancient law? In other words, can we have our sex and our yoga too?The Gifts of Abstinence
Ask students at a typical American yoga class if they're ready for yogic celibacy, and they'll likely roll their eyes, furrow their brows, or simply laugh at the absurdity of such a question. But according to yoga's long tradition, celibacy offers potent benefits that far outweigh its difficulties. Abstention is said to free us from earthly distractions so we can devote ourselves more fully to spiritual transcendence. It is said to move us toward a nondual, genderless state that promotes a profound sense of relationship and intimacy with all beings, not just a select few. Celibacy is also said to support the important yogic principles of truth and nonviolence, since promiscuity often leads to secrecy, deceit, anger, and suffering. And it is touted as a way to transform our most primitive instinctual energies into a deeper, brighter vitality that promises good health, great courage, incredible stamina, and a very long life.