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yogi’s guide to public health: brahmacharya

The first three yamas, or ethical restraints, of the Yoga Sutras typically meet with little resistance from the modern western audience. No harming, no lying, no stealing? No problem. Things get interesting, however, when Patanjali unveils his fourth instruction: brahmacharya.

The literal understanding of this sanskrit term is celibacy, restraining from sexual thoughts and acts. This yama provides an important opportunity to pause and consider that the Yoga Sutras were compiled over 2,000 years ago and present a practice that existed for generations prior to that.

Patanjali practiced and taught yoga in an ancient indian society which organized life into four phases: spiritual student, house holder, retiree and renunciate. This first phase of spiritual learning was a celibate period, prior to marrying and having children. Our lives as 21st century westerners are organized quite differently — and differently even today than last week. The call to celibacy, then, invites an updated understanding.

The spirit behind the instruction of abstinence can be found in the breakdown of the word brahmacharya itself. “Brahma” means “God” —  and if “God” doesn’t sit well with you, try perhaps: divine nature, source consciousness or pure energy.

“Charya,” comes from the root “char” which means to move (hence the English word “chariot”). So then “brahmacharya” emerges as a practice to move us towards the divine.

Perhaps that brief detour into Sanskrit etymology was enough take your mind off the COVID-19 crisis, but an exploration of this yama can help us even beyond that.

What does it mean to move toward the divine, especially now? How can we direct our energy towards a holy purpose?

It depends on what you consider holy, sacred or of higher order importance. While we all no doubt define it differently, this crisis has brought into sharp focus the preciousness of human life and human connection.

To “move toward” humanity in this moment means to prioritize and protect each other’s lives, to keep each other healthy and whole.

To begin, we can start where Patanjali did: with the physical body. While abstinence per se may not be the solution (but if homeschooling and working from home leave you feeling less than amorous, that’s a topic for a different blog… ) social distancing is a critical practice of physical restraint to prioritize the lives of others — and definitely precludes sleeping with anyone you aren’t self-isolating with.

A more subtle practice of brahmacharya in the age of COVID-19 would be to practice mental restraints that move your mind towards a holy place. Notice when your mind goes negative or gets resentful of the limitations placed on your life at the moment. Remember that you are staying home for the health and wellbeing of all humanity. Redirect your thoughts to wishing wellness to all beings, worldwide. Rejoice in the mental effort. It may feel like a small thing, but it could make all the difference.