This is part four of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.
Desires come in many guises. Perhaps we long to take a vacation, or maybe we are yearning for a pay raise. We may crave sex, or maybe we just need a cup of coffee. Different though they may seem, they have one thing in common—for a moment, however fleeting, when we get what we desire, a sense of peace and joy overcomes us. “Ahh… All is good now that I’ve had my morning coffee,” we think….
Brahmacharya is the fourth of the five Yamas in our eight-limbed path of yoga, and its meaning is often debated. The most common interpretation is ‘moderation’—keeping our desires under control—but this can be misleading. The word moderation tends to imply ‘no fun,’ or, taken to an extreme, ‘suppression.’ All those things we desire? Let’s just do our best to ignore them and live a life of mediocrity… But this is not brahmacharya. Far from it.
Brahmacharya wants us to feel our desires. Indeed, it encourages us to get to know them intimately. Brahmacharya is the inner voice that never goes away, that asks: What is it you truly want?
To answer such a question requires great courage. Sadly, in our society, we have grown up to believe our desires are worthy of punishment. How many times have we felt the torment of wanting a second slice of pie? How many of us in committed relationships believe that if we feel the energy of desire for someone other than our partner, we are bad? How often do we dream of being wealthy, only to judge ourselves as ungrateful?
“The very act of turning to allow and welcome desire is not something that will sidetrack you from the path of awakening, but will take you vertically into the Heart of God.”
We have become accustomed to look at our desires, and hang our heads in shame. But brahmacharya gently lifts up our chin. In the teachings of The Way of the Heart it is written: “The very act of turning to allow and welcome desire is not something that will sidetrack you from the path of awakening, but will take you vertically into the Heart of God.”
Brahmacharya reminds us that without desire, there is no creation. And creation is our direct connection to the Divine. We, ourselves, were created out of desire. We wouldn’t be here right now if two people many years ago had said, “Oh, you know what? Let’s ignore our desires today.” Desire is sacred. Who would stop the flower from its desire to open? Who would deny the bird its desire to fly?
When we start to look at our desires with the innocence and wonder of a child, we can begin to discern which desires come from our own divinity, and which come from our restless minds. What are our true desires, and which are simply habits or addictions? Rather than feel we must suppress these mind-made desires, we know we are safe to feel them when they arise in our consciousness. We understand we have a choice as to which ones we wish to make manifest. We become masters of our desires.
Furthermore, by listening to our desires, we can begin to align with our soul’s purpose. When we say we want to be wealthy, what lies beneath this? Perhaps a deep desire to feed the hungry and provide for others. Maybe this will encourage us to volunteer, or even start a non-profit. Who knows where the path will lead us, but we can be sure it will be in line with our hearts.
Desire is sacred. Who would stop the flower from its desire to open? Who would deny the bird its desire to fly?
The Universe wants to help us fulfill our desires, but it has been confused. While we have been pushing down some desires, how could it know to support us with our one true one? Now heaven and Earth can move to our side.
Like this we become co-creators with the Divine, and we begin “walking with God”—which is the most literal translation of brahmacharya. As we do so, everything else pales in comparison. The vacation, the pay raise, the sex, the coffee? Yes, they may still be things we enjoy, but we no longer crave them. Now we are guided only by one desire—to know our divine nature. This is why we walk the eight-limbed path. And the peace and joy we felt when we got what we wanted? We learn that this had nothing to do with our morning coffee. It was simply because, in that fleeting moment, the desires had left us. This doesn’t have to be temporary. As we move towards samadhi, where we will let go of our one final true desire, we come to realize that this peace and joy never leaves us, it was just hidden for a while.
3 Ways to Put Brahmacharya Into Practice
What? Wait a minute… I thought we just said we’re not supposed to suppress our desires? Yes, but abstinence is the quickest way to find out which desires come from our hearts, and which, as Nisargadatta Maharaj says, are “mind made.” It can be helpful every so often to give up the things we desire simply to learn which are controlling us. Go without the morning coffee. Take a social media fast. Notice when the mind says you “must” have something, and make the choice to go without.
2. Asking the Question
In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, ask yourself: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Keep asking until you find out. Perhaps your desire is to be a loving, healing, and inspiring presence in the world. Perhaps it is to know your true nature. Perhaps it is to align with your soul’s purpose. Hear the deep desire of your heart, and let your focus on it become unwavering. Return to this feeling and desire inside you throughout your day like a heartfelt mantra, and trust that the Universe is listening.
3. On the Mat
Our practice is full of desires. We desire to be present. We desire to master a posture. We desire to stop thinking about all of our desires. When we practice brahmacharya we no longer have to be frustrated with ourselves, or push so hard. They are only desires. How beautiful! Which do we wish to manifest today? Intention can help us stay on track, which is why we begin our class with a mindful message to ourselves. If our deepest desire for our practice is to experience our true nature, then by setting an intention we are more likely to be reminded of this when we are cursing our teacher in Utkatasana.
Working with hip openers we can encourage our desires to safely emerge. Shame, guilt, judgment? These beliefs and emotions can be stuck in our sacral chakra. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, pigeon pose, can help us get some of that blocked energy moving. Bhujangasana is also a wonderful posture for practicing brahmacharya. We can feel the energy of our desires from our second chakra rooted into the Earth, moving up and out of our heart chakra to become an expression of love.
Finally, a walking meditation is a wonderful way to silently observe desires and thoughts as they pop into our heads, and to remind ourselves that with each step, we can indeed choose to walk with the Divine.
Join us in the coming weeks as we journey deeper into this series and learn about the fifth and final Yama, aparigraha: non-possessiveness.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, Wisdom, and Wellness channels on Wanderlust.com and YOGANONYMOUS. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and full-time dog walker of Millie.