Practicing This Yoga Principle Made My Partnership Stronger

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I was at a monastery in India on a retreat when I met the love of my life.

As I had been toying with becoming a nun; he was considering becoming a monk. We shared our passion for Spirit. He courted me by inviting me to see the Dalai Lama speak, and he kept singing “Oh Susanna.” Sparks flew.

After many months of deep practice and connection, we decided to forgo the monastic robes. Now we share a home, a child, a marriage—but not just any kind of relationship. We were intentional that we were going to approach our path as a spiritual one. Brahmacharya played an important part.

Defining Brahmacharya

Brahmacharya has multiple meanings in yogic and vedic culture—and these meanings change based on context. The fourth yama, or moral restraint, in the Eight Limbs of yoga, brahmacharya is often defined as “celibacy” or “moderation.” Like most yogic concepts, it’s much more nuanced than that.

The Sanskrit word brahmacharya comes from brah meaning “expansion (of consciousness)” and charya, which means “path” or “to follow.” Brahma is also the name of the Hindu god representing creation. The full meaning of brahmacharya, then, is to follow the path of Brahma or expansion of consciousness.

In the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions, brahmacharya can refer to the complete renunciation of sex, marriage, and other material pleasures. It can also refer to the practice of virtue and describe managing one’s various energies toward the aim of becoming one’s highest self. It means utilizing your life-force energy—including your actions, your movements, your breath, your sexuality—for your highest aims. Overall, we can accurately understand brahmacharya as “energy management” or “aligned use of energy.”

Brahmacharya is also the term for the first of the four age-based life stages, or ashramas, in Hindu culture. At this first stage—the age of study and learning—all of your energy is to be conserved and used to focus on gaining knowledge through education. That includes managing life force, sexuality, even breath. A person who commits to this practice is called a brahmachari.

Traditionally, brahmacharya encourages practitioners to use their life-force energy for a higher or more spiritual purpose, rather than for simply satisfying pleasure or external desires. That is where the celibacy interpretation comes in. A value-based, virtuous lifestyle can include celibacy for people at the student stage of life or for someone who has chosen a monastic or renunciate path. But when you move beyond the student stage—or if you aren’t planning to become a monk—there are still many possibilities for applying brahmacharya.

How I Put Brahmacharya Into Practice

My exploration of brahmacharya happened directly at the intersection of its many different definitions.

During our first summer together, when my partner and I were in the honeymoon phase of early love, we traveled to the romantic landscape of Europe. In the midst of France’s gourmet restaurants and world-class wineries, we spent weeks camping in vineyards—completely sober, eating vegan, and practicing yoga, meditation, and noble silence. It was a joyful and amazing practice of brahmacharya.

Later, when we met with challenges in our interracial relationship, we turned back to yoga ethics to ground us. I’ve found that being in relationship sometimes also means being in conflict. Having tools, values, and guidelines for managing the energy of those conflicts has helped preserve love, kindness, understanding, and a long-term, mutually supportive relationship.

The practice of brahmacharya eventually transferred to our parenting together. I never thought I’d marry or have children. I was too afraid to lose myself. What I started to see in a love relationship built on this philosophical foundation, is that I could be myself and even grow more fully, while engaging with others. That is brahmacharya in balance.

Practicing Brahmacharya to Create Boundaries

In daily life, brahmacharya often looks like practical spiritual considerations around boundaries and energy management. Say, for example, a friend invites you to socialize but you really feel like curling up with a good book. In these moments, I practice brahmacharya by tuning in to what I really want. I do what is aligned with that. And then, I practice satya, truthfulness, by saying something like, “My dear friend, I know this party is important to you, but it isn’t right for me to come at this time. Can we get tea later this week so we can connect?”

This way, I’ve honored my connection with the person as well as my own energy. This kind of self reflection, energy awareness, and communication is a constant dance in the practical application of brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya Involves Give and Take

Sometimes brahmacharya seems like the opposite of reserving energy. I experience it as a dance of giving and receiving. There are ways that giving to others nourishes their energy and my own. Here, brahmacharya spills over from concerns that are just personal to being in connection with others and with the universal.

We can practice brahmacharya in the world—conducting our lives in such a way that we are “walking in presence of the divine god.” When we are in alignment with our energy, compassionate action often flows forth.

How Are You Practicing Brahmacharya?

Bringing mindfulness to your energy and observing where your life force energy flows is powerful because your energy is so precious. What can you release to regain intimacy with your energy and direct it towards your and others’ highest good? To explore how to bring the practice of brahmacharya into your own life, here are some questions to ask yourself. Consider the ways that you can imagine and begin to work with your precious life-force energy.

  • What gives you energy? What drains it?
  • What is important to you to spend your energy on?
  • What do you want right now?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • Are there areas of your life where there are energy “leaks”? Are you constantly scrolling social media, poring over endless to-do lists, or attending to tiresome obligations that don’t truly serve anyone?
  • Are you invested in being a “savior”? Do you try to “help” people in ways that don’t truly serve them or you?
  • Are you involved in relationships that are one-sided, toxic, or otherwise harmful to your spirit?
  • How can you give less energy to negative attachments, and enjoy more things that nourish and support you and others?


About our contributor

Susanna Barkataki is the founder of Ignite Institute for Yogic Leadership and Social Change. She helps yoga teachers, studios, nonprofits, and businesses become leaders in equity, diversity, and yogic values so that they embody thriving yoga leadership with integrity and confidence. Learn more and get the Honor Yoga Manifesto at susannabarkataki.com.

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