By Laura Hansen.
Prior to the practice of Asana, are the practices of the Yamas and Niyamas which serve as an ethical code and foundation for the practice of yoga. These are moral ideals to strive for and the idea is improve the practice of these disciplines. The fourth yama is Chastity or Brahmacharya. This can have several different meanings. Generally, Brahmacharya means control over the senses, specifically it means chastity.
For beginners, the important thing is to begin to recognize when we are indulging our senses in ways that are not healthy. For example, I often having cravings for sweet things. I know that my body does not need more sugar. Furthermore, I know that more sugar is harmful to my body, yet I continue to consume sugar. In this case, I have no control over my taste or hunger; sugar is dominating my mind. At the most simplistic level, Brahmacharya advises me to control my urge for sugar.
An important distinction is made between suppressing desire and ceasing desire. Suppressing desire is seen as problematic because in the long term it can result in greater craving. Rather than trying to artificially suppress desire, Brahmacharya asks the practitioner to be pure in thoughts, words and deeds. By focusing on purity, the goal is achieved. Teachers concur that the practice of Brahmacharya is difficult and requires a strong will, a strong meditation practice, and a good teacher.
The ultimate form of Brahmacharya is chastity or refraining from sex. Some teachers stress the importance of avoiding all sexual enjoyment. Much of the discussion of chastity is written from the male perspective and talks about retaining the sperm. Nevertheless, chastity is a difficult practice for most men and women. According to Patanjali (1999) this practice is not required of householders but is encouraged for those who are devoting their lives to God and enlightenment.
According to Patanjali (1999) the reason chastity is so important is because it is the first step towards learning to control the mind. The mind prefers to be distracted than focused on meditation. The senses often lead to all sorts of distractions from the spiritual life and from meditation. The sages tell us that control of the mind is not impossible, only very difficult. By turning away from the distractions of the senses, the mind is free to concentrate on the nature of existence and to seek higher consciousness.
According to Patanjali, the practice of chastity results in self-realization/higher consciousness much more quickly. When we cling to the physical world, the mind too clings to the physical world. In order to enter spiritual realms, we have to leave earthly concerns behind. For many people, sexual enjoyment may be the most difficult thing to leave behind. We may cling to the world of the senses because we cling to sexual enjoyment. When we give up sexual enjoyment, then we are truly free of this world’s hold on our mind.
According to Patanjali (1999), the goal of yoga is self-realization or Jivanmukta. Jivanmukta is a state of perpetual bliss where one is completely liberated from the cares of the world. This is only possible when we leave behind all cares in the world. Those cares that we cling to tightest are often the most difficult to leave behind on the path to enlightenment.
Patanjali, Edited by Satchidananda, S. (1999). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga.