In classical yoga the yamas-niyamas are very demanding obligations. They represent the yogi’s commitment to a life where ethics, discipline, constraint and self-control plays and integral part in the spiritual as well as mundane life of such a yogi. For the serious yogi they are his/her way of life and there is no negotiation. In Patanjali’s framework they are absolute in their compliance and meaning and very little room for interpretation.
In classical times, yoga used to belong to the sphere of the Ashram where monks and sannyasa (final stage of the ashramic life, total renunciation) and other spiritual aspirants practiced yoga. The yamas-niyamas were their guidelines for right conduct and they were prescribed and followed to the letter. However, by 1947 when India gained independence from Britain, yoga was practiced as an exception and not a rule. Many of the gurus and swamis of the time were extremely worried about the lack of interest in yoga in India during this time. This prompted great yogis to send disciples to the West to promote yoga and Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh to send his disciple Swami Vishnu-Devananda in 1957 with these words ‘many souls in the East are reincarnating in the West. Go and reawaken their consciousness and bring them back to the path of yoga.’ And the stellar growth of yoga in the West is from there astounding till this day.
But with it came a huge problem, many of the Western yogis were normal householders, they were married and many were initially part of the Hippie Movement in the 1960’s where especially the Brahmacharya yama was extremely problematic in an age of free sex. I have read many interpretations and as a teacher it remains the most difficult yama to explain to students who are married and have a duty and obligation towards their partner regarding sex. All the explanations of being constantly aware of the universe, immersed in divinity, divine conduct, continence, celibate when single, faithfulness when married etc. has never really satisfied me or my students and I hope my interpretation might add another view on this very important yama.
Unfortunately in the West we had mistaken the yamas-niyamas as a canon of behaviour, describing what is preferred and what is not. We have classified and codified them as superficial guidelines to regulate and explain certain behaviours, choices and even personality traits. The problem is they are not any of this, no matter how much we want them to be the above, the yamas-niyamas represent distinct classes of human manifestation and need not be narrowly interpreted as doing this or that.
Brahmacharya or “abstinence from sex” is a classic example of loss in translation. I do not think for one moment Patanjali was so naïve to overlook a need for the perpetuation of the human species and sex is the vehicle for that. I also am certain the Patanjali realised the pleasure factor that goes with sex. And in a way I think if he wrote the Yoga Sutras, which contains the yamas-niyamas, for the ordinary man, he would have most probably worded Brahmacharya completely different.
I think that Patanjali had no problem with sex between two people in a loving relationship per se. I think he most probably would understand the need for sex and also the pleasure we as humans derive from it. What I do think would have been problematic for Patanjali in this context would be total over indulgence and our mind’s attachment. And I think for that matter Patanjali would have a problem with over indulgence whether it was sex, eating, gambling, gossip, judging other, internet surfing, addiction or anything else.
One of the great pitfalls for many yogis is attachment. Our attachment to indulgence in anything is then a problem. For me in a modern Western context, Brahmacharya is then not a warning not to have a sexual life, but it is a warning against something much deeper – our attachment to such acts as sex and the pleasure we derive from it.
I know may yogis who are guilt ridden because they find Brahmacharya just so difficult to adhere to. This guilt burns them up and instead of becoming more joyful and contends with life, they fall into depression, anxiety and a life of guilt. They way out is to realise that Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras for a completely different audience than who is doing yoga today. I don’t even think that Patanjali contemplated the possibility of yoga in the West and how it morphed into different branches and styles. The way out is to understand the necessity for sex, but without the over indulgence and attachment to it.