Life Without Sex?
During the second stage, the grihastha (householder) phase, sexual activity was considered an integral aspect of family building. Abstinence returned as a common practice at age 42 or so, when householders turned inward for the final two stages of life, the vanaprasthya (forest dweller) phase and the sannyasa (renunciate) phase. Yogis and monks were typically the only exception to this pattern, skipping the householder stage altogether and remaining celibate throughout their lives.
Some modern yoga teachers point to the "life stage" approach as an important model not just for the practice of celibacy but also for other practices, interests, and values. According to this model, codes of conduct vary with age. "It's reasonable to think that celibacy is not a black and white choice," Lasater says. "There might be periods in your life when you practice it, and others when you do not."
That's certainly the way Adrian Piper sees it. She didn't turn to celibacy until age 36, after a long and active sex life, after marriage and divorce, and after achieving success as both a philosophy professor and a conceptual artist. "I definitely think it's OK and healthy to abstain at certain times," she says. "Sex is a lot of work, and negotiating a long-term sexual relationship is even more work. Sometimes it is very important to do that work. But there are some other kinds of work-inner work, creative work, intellectual work, healing work-that it's sometimes even more important to do, and no one has an infinite amount of time and energy. And sex is so consuming that sometimes it can be really useful to take a time-out to do the inner work of processing the lessons it offers us."
Piper, who contributed an essay about brahmacharya for the book How We Live Our Yoga (Beacon Press, 2001), says that she was surprised to see how far-reaching the benefits of this practice have been for her. "One of the gifts brahmacharya has given me is the discovery of how much I like men," she says. "Now that I'm no longer duking it out with them trying to get my needs satisfied, I find that I really enjoy their company. The most amazing part is that this seems to generalize beyond the narrowly sexual sphere to all of my social relationships. My friendships with men-and women-have deepened enormously.
"I believe that Patanjali and others spelled out these principles as guides to help us tune into the deeper parts of the self that are hidden or silenced by the call of our desires and impulses, which are usually so loud that they drown out the signals from these deeper levels," she adds. "If we don't realize there's an alternative to being driven by our desires, we don't have any choice in how we act. Our culture does a really good job of encouraging us to indulge our desires and ignore any signals beyond them."
After reaping the benefits of celibacy for nearly two decades, Piper challenges the less stringent modern reinterpretations of brahmacharya. "I think continence, moderation, responsibility, et cetera, are all valid and very important spiritual practices," she says. "I also think it only creates confusion to interpret all of them as varieties of brahmacharya. The problem with talk about more moderate interpretations of brahmacharya is that it makes practicing brahmacharya in the traditional monastic sense of celibacy sound extreme and radical."