If you’re familiar with the text, you already know Patanjali is famous for his eight-limbed (ashtanga) yoga system. Asana, or the third limb of Patanjali’s system, is hands-down the most familiar to modern practitioners. It’s the system of postures we all know and love from our yoga classes.
Many contemporary practitioners may not even be aware of the two preceeding limbs in Patanjali’s system: yama and niyama. The yamas and niyamas are a simple code of ethics – a set of personal and social restraints which act as a foundation for a yogic lifestyle. For Patanjali, living according to this code of ethics is just as important as regular asana practice for persons interested in attaining enlightenment.
One of the yamas or social restraints is brahmacharya, which means chastity or continence.
In Patanjali’s day, this social restraint was just as important as more well-known yamas like nonviolence (ahimsa) and truth (satya). To a modern western practioner; however, taking a vow of chastity probably sounds a little extreme if not completely outrageous!
To understand Patanjali’s advice in a contemporary setting, it’s important to first delve deeper into the sutras themselves and then to situate Patanjali’s text in its proper historical context. According to the guru, “Vigor is attained by one established in continence” (YS II.38). In other words, Patanjali is not advising celibacy for moralistic reasons but as a practical technique for cultivating vitality and vigor. Sexual endeavours, as we all know, can sap our energy and waste life force. Anyone who has been on a first date can attest to this fact! It’s also important to know that yogins understand sexual desire as a form of raga or attachment. For serious practitioners, attachments should be avoided because they inevitably lead to pain and suffering. Chastity is, therefore, a way to avoid unnecessary expenditures of energy and bypass the pain that comes from chasing bodily desires.
It’s also important to remember the Yoga Sutras was written over two millennia ago in a culture where serious spiritual aspirants were expected to remain celibate. Patanjali’s yoga is also particularly challenging form of renunciate yoga which isn’t for everyone. As such, it seems reasonable for modern practitioners with families or active social lives to reinterpret brahmacharya for themselves. For some, this reinterpretation may take the guise of sexual moderation or simply heightening one’s awareness of how sexual desire influences our energetic being.
A wonderful pose for honouring Patanjali’s advice and cultivating personal vigor is Brahmacharyasana or Celibate’s Pose. Don’t worry…it won’t ruin your love life but this pose will strengthen your wrists, arms, shoulders, and core muscles. To achieve Celibate’s Pose, sit on your mat with your legs extended. Depending upon the length of your arms and torso, you might need to bend your knees to perform this posture. If you’ve got an extra-long torso or short arms, two blocks can also be helpful.
With your legs extended and knees slightly bent, flatten your palms on the mat outside the hips and slightly forward (6-8 inches). Round the back slightly, drop your shoulders away from the ears, and press firmly into your hands until your buttocks lift. Tuck the chin slightly to apply throat lock (jalandhara bandha). If you’ve got the core strength, try lifting one or both legs until your whole body is balancing on your hands. Hold for 5-10 breaths and release.
This pose is contraindicated for yogins with recent or chronic wrist, arm, shoulder, or abdominal injuries. It should also be avoided by pregnant women as it may cause strain in the abdominal region.