This week in some of my yoga classes we are focusing on brahmacharya (bra-ma-char-ee-uh). The word itself, in Sanskrit, breaks down to
Brahma= ultimate reality and charya= to move.
So the practice of brahmacharya moves us closer to the ultimate reality. The highest truth. And it also has to do with sexuality. Fun!
In Hindu practice, brahmacharya is the first life stage (or ashrama in Sanskrit) and spans birth to 25 years of age. It is the time one is a student, devoted to their studies, both formal and the general education of how to be a person in the world. After that time in life, it refers to celibacy for monks and other unmarried folks, and practicing sexual fidelity in marriage. It is a form of self-restraint and, when practiced, can open up space in our lives for deeper understanding and self-work. The practice of yoga, really, is to gain control of the thoughts and to cultivate a life lived with intention. Brahmacharya is a piece of that work. Author and yogi Deborah Adele also explains this principle to mean restraint in pleasurable activities. Her example involves food. What happens when we eat our favorite food? We savor it, enjoy it, and feel satisfied. But what if we have a second helping, and a third? What was once pleasurable becomes too much, making us feel unfulfilled. If we turn to food, or sex, or any other pleasure too often, it can morph from self-care to self-sabotage.
As I worked on my lesson plans for the week concerning this topic (and preparing for an early 2019 lecture in the Indianapolis yoga community on the same topic), I started where I usually do. Strengths. Empowering language. So one of the first sentences I jotted down to offer my classes was “Sexuality is powerful. That's why most religious traditions and societies have so many rules about it. It speaks to a great energy. But we can decide how to use that energy.”
I stopped writing as I imagined my students before me. Most yoga classes are full of women, with a few men here and there. Statistically, 1 in 6 of the women in my class will have had a sexual encounter in which they had no choice. For men, it's lower but still present and unacceptable—1 in 33. For our transgender students, the rate is as high as 47%. I realized that even though I've spent a bulk of my career in sexual violence prevention and education, and even though I myself am a survivor, my initial language erased that experience. An experience that can already make us feel alone and erased.
I think I began with this language because in an ideal world, what I originally wrote would be the case. It's the world I'm working so hard toward, after all, as a sexual health and healthy relationship educator. For some people, it is already the case. They have always been able to choose when to use their sexual energy, and with whom, and how. In the world I am working toward, our sexuality would be a place of safety, expression, and growth--rather than doubt, fear, and unease. And I find yet again an intersection of my seemingly separate spheres of work. Yoga calls us to work toward bringing together our mind, body, and spirit (however the practitioner defines that). We do this by noticing our bodies in space and time. Through intentional movement, we observe the ways our bodies respond, what they want, and how the external impacts our internal experiences. Through focusing on movement and breath, we calm the constant chatter of the mind, opening us up to new revelations and insights. We many work through a mental block and literally also feel a physical space open within us, a release of muscle tension, and relaxation of the fascia.
What if our sexualities were like that? What if the ways we moved in our erotic life mirrored the yoga practice, were also done in pursuit of wholeness, integrity of self, and peace? What if our sexual experiences were mindful, bringing us to presence in our bodies, in our minds, and in our spirits? When we engage in sexual experiences we have chosen to engage in, can we begin to see them as healing and integrative? I often say that no one comes into their sexuality without some hang-ups. How could we? We all grow up in a culture of over-sexualized media content, but a startling lack of sexual health education in our homes and schools. We begin from a young age to compare our bodies to computer-enhanced models. If sex is discussed with our youth, it is often only to point out the danger in it ("good touch/bad touch"). How can we expect to thrive when the foundation is one of shame, fear, and misinformation?
Yet like the lotus flower in yogic philosophy, beauty can grow from mud and muck.
As our nation watches testimony from a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual violence, and the testimony of one of his accuser's, we see the power that sexuality holds. Regardless of our feelings on this example playing out in front of us, we can agree that at the root of sex can be joy and pain, pleasure and fear, indifference or intention. I join you all in the work of eliminating this violence, and bringing us all closer to a sexuality that is chosen, peace-making, and integrated. We do this work through training and learning best practices together in a classroom, or via the work on our mats, dialing in to our inner teacher so that we may show up in the world less afraid and more whole.