Working with our life force energy is a primary, physical yogic practice. We “stretch the muscles” of that life force with the body and our breath. The philosophical and spiritual aspects of yogic practice are also primary to working with life force energy. Brahmacharya falls into this latter category of working with “mind stuff.” Brahamacharya is one of the Yamas, the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Brahmacharya is the mindful practice of conserving life force energy, making it more available for our spiritual journey.
To focus our life force energy we can start with Asana, the physical body postures of yoga. Asana is probably the most recognizable form of yoga. Most people understand that yoga involves body postures such as downward facing dog, sitting in Lotus posture, or holding some variation of the Warrior postures. And from Asana, we move into the breath practices of Pranayama. Asana and Pranayama are practiced together. Our gateway to generating and directing life force energy is through the body. We move, we breathe. We focus, we transform.
Brahmacharya is the fourth Yama. The Yamas are a listing of ethical guidelines, although not necessarily worked through in a particular order! The 5 Yamas are as follows:
Ahimsa – non-harming
Satya – truthfulness
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – non-excess
Aparigraha – non-grasping
Taken together, the Yamas give us a way to recognize how we are directing our life force energy with our words, actions, thoughts, and intentions. By examining ourselves in meditation and contemplation, we begin to recognize where we are sending our energy. Another term for life force energy is Prana. And as the saying goes, “Where the mind goes, the prana flows.”
Brahmacharya asks us not to waste our life force energy in excessive behavior. If we become too heavily invested in something (you name it: fame, fortune, sex, money, rock and roll, and so on . . . ) we pour all our life force energy in a single focused direction. Sometimes single focus is needed to achieve goals and to accomplish things. A sign of single focus overload, and imbalance is when we describe ourselves as burned out, wrung out, or stressed out. The ability to bring our energy back in balance allows the life force energy to flow with comfort and ease.
A yoga practice gives a full range of tools to achieve balance. We prime the body for balance by moving the limbs, stretching, holding, centering, and breathing. Breathing deeply and thoroughly. Breathing into the posture, visualizing the breath as it rises up through the body and moves gently downward in a easeful and grounding direction. We engage the muscles and experience the sensations of that muscle activation. The body moves and is stimulated. The nervous system is queued by the breath for either action or to reach a calm state. The mind becomes focused on every experience of the body, and the monkey mind is tamed by being given the task of total awareness. And then we step off the mat!
Yoga has both “on mat” and “off mat” components. Both require yoga practices to develop a keen awareness to our own personal experience of body, mind and emotion. Brahamacharya and the other Yamas of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, and Aparigrapha are off the mat yoga practices. By watching our thinking and questioning our intentions, we may become aware of a mind/spirit imbalance. Here are a few subtle examples of how Yamas may give us opportunities for more balance:
Ahimsa (non-harming, or doing no harm) – we realize we are making judgement calls about a complete stranger. Rather than looking away or avoiding them, we decide to smile and offer a few words of friendly conversation. We do this because we realize others may sense they are being judged and rather than continuing to perpetuate that harm, we choose differently.
Satya (truthfulness) – we notice one day that something we have believed in is a “truism.” It turns out to be fully formed by our personality, upbringing and culture. We may have been believing something simply because “it’s always been done that way.” We realize it isn’t really true, after all. We experience the difference between our distorted thoughts and our own true nature.
Asteya (non-stealing) – after realizing our constant tardiness is an irritation to our family and friends, we decide to stop wasting their precious time. Rather than “stealing” their time by making them wait, we decide to return that valuable item! We show more patience, we offer to do a favor or a task that will lighten their load. We begin to understand we should not take that which is not offered (someone’s time, their energy, their self-respect, etc.).
Brahmacharya (conservation of life force energy, non-excess) – after reading some old journal entries we notice a pattern of negativity. Granted, the journaling project has helped us clarify our feelings. But in this hindsight we realize how much energy we have expended on worry, doubt, and agitation. We decide to start a gratitude journal!
Aparigraha (non-grasping, attachment) – We begin to question why we are hanging on to this idea of the perfect relationship. It’s caused us to “unfriend” people and disengage from others who seem to care for us. We wonder why we are so attached to having some need met, why we keep grasping for some great prize. It’s making us tired and depressed. We decide to give it a name. We call out its name when we see it working its way into our thoughts. Here’s a great story about that very thing: “I see you Mara!”
Brahmacharya helps us consider how we are spending our energy. A practice of Brahmacharya may be one where we take time to watch thought forms in the mind. This can be done on the mat, such as during seated meditation or during Asana. Or off the mat, by developing a “radar system” to detect patterns of excess. Patterns of thought, particularly reoccurring themes may clue you into places where you may want to consider conservation of energy. Developing awareness to sensation in the physical body, emotional activation in the nervous system, and awareness to thought forms are all tools to be sharpened through yoga practice. Through a regular (non-excessive!) yoga practice, a greater sense of balance will be achieved.