Yoga for difficult times: Brahmacharya

Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. In previous posts, I looked at ahimsa, satya, and asteya, the first three yamas. Today I’ll be focusing on the fourth yama, brahmacharya (“bra-ma-CHA-ria”).

Brahmacharya can be understood as “non-excessiveness and moderation”. How can we practice brahmacharya during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:

Too much of a good thing: If the yamas and niyamas suggest ways to free up energy, a practice of brahmacharya goes a long way to achieving this aim. Anything in excess is a drain on your energy. Over-eating, even delicious healthy food, strains your digestive system, and your body responds by redirecting blood from the arms and legs to the digestive tract, leaving you drowsy and lethargic. After all, who doesn’t love a nap after Thanksgiving dinner? The same can be said for alcohol. A few glasses of wine can feel lovely, but spending the next day in a brain fog is the trade off. Of course, you may believe the adage, “everything in moderation, including moderation”, so the occasional indulgence of rich food and drink may be something you look forward to. No judgement here! Just be aware of the energetic costs. Make informed decisions about how you spend your energy so you aren’t left feeling robbed in the end.

Moderation in difficult times: When you’re going through something hard, it’s easy to let good habits slip. Occasional indulgences transform into harmful coping mechanisms if you aren’t careful. Using food, alcohol, screen time, shopping, sex, exercise, work, or anything else in excess as a way to disengage from your problems is short-term thinking with long-term consequences. It’s natural to want to numb out the pain of difficult times, but a habit of over-indulgence will only compound your problems. In this sense, a practice of brahmacharya is a practice of ahimsa (least harm), and can help you weather the storm of hard times.

Doesn’t brahmacharya mean celibacy? While it’s true that a traditional definition of brahmacharya is celibacy, this isn’t the best interpretation for a householder audience. Celibacy, as practiced by monks and nuns, is an austerity that isn’t expected of lay people (after all, somebody needs to make the babies!). Celibacy is an important part of monastic life because sexual relationships distract from the spiritual path. Householders, however, can practice in the spirit of brahmacharya, which means being vigilant about how you spend your energy. For example, if you want to make a habit of early morning meditation, don’t squander your energy with late night Netflix binges. If you want to attend a pricey yoga retreat, don’t spend all your disposable income on concerts and restaurants.

Know thyself: We all know where we struggle with moderation, and it’s different for different people. For some, it’s a coffee habit, for others, it’s online poker. Once you’ve identified where you’re prone to excess, you can begin to work with that area of your life. Sometimes simply acknowledging a problem can shift your behaviour. Sometimes it helps to keep a record, as in a budget or a food log. The point isn’t to use this exercise as an opportunity for self-reproach, simply to shed some light on a behaviour you’d like to change, so you can redirect your energy in a more intentional way.

Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of brahmacharya when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.

How else can you practice brahmacharya in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.

Image © 2016 Erin Bidlake

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