Life Without Sex?
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a key fourteenth-century text, says those who practice brahmacharya need no longer fear death. The Bhagavad Gita names brahmacharya as a fundamental precept for a true yogi. And according to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra-a sort of bible for many Western yogis-brahmacharya is a crucial practice that leads to profound vigor, valor, and vitality. Patanjali even says that brahmacharya leads to disgust for the body and for intimate contact with others. "For Patanjali, brahmacharya has a very strict interpretation-celibacy-to be practiced at all times under all circumstances," says Georg Feuerstein, founder of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Santa Rosa, California. "For him, there are no excuses."A Modern Interpretation
Fortunately for spiritual aspirants who aren't interested in giving up sex altogether, other ancient yoga texts are a little more lenient in their interpretations. These offer special exceptions for married yoga practitioners, for whom brahmacharya is understood as "chastity at the right time," Feuerstein says. "In other words, when you're not with your wife or husband, you practice brahmacharya in body, speech, and mind. It means you abstain from casual sexual contact and casual sexual conversation, like sexual jokes. You are also not supposed to think sexually about the other gender-or the same gender, if that's your inclination. So you restrict your sexuality to moments of intimacy with your spouse."
Many of today's yoga masters have gone even further-indeed, some purists would say, too far-offering a modern interpretation that they say adheres to the intent if not the details of the traditional precept. Today brahmacharya is often interpreted as moderation, monogamy, continence, or restraint. Since the literal translation of brahmacharya is "prayerful conduct," luminaries including B. K. S. Iyengar and T. K. V. Desikachar say the precept doesn't necessarily rule out responsible sex. But these teachers also tell us that brahmacharya requires us to carefully consider the relationship between our lives on the yoga mat and our lives under the sheets.
"What brahmacharya means is a deep clarity about sexual energy," says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., a San Francisco physical therapist and yoga teacher since 1971 and author of Living Your Yoga (Rodmell, 2000). "First and foremost, it means being aware of your own sexuality, being clear about your feelings and needs at every moment. I don't think one needs to be celibate in order to progress in yoga and spiritual practice, but I definitely think one has to be very careful and clear about the sexual choices one makes. You're not going to be a whole healthy person unless you're whole and healthy in your sexuality."
Lasater explains that in previous eras, celibacy was the only certain way to prevent parenthood, offering a pragmatic reason to require abstinence among those who devoted themselves to a spiritual path. "In other words, if I'm having a sexual relationship in the time of Patanjali, I'm going to have babies, I'm going to have a family, I'm going to become enmeshed in the world," she says. "That's going to change my spiritual practice."