There is mention of the word “Bhramacharya” in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. “Bhramacharya” is a word that relates to sex and understanding this word will provide us insight on what yoga thinks about sex. But before we go there we must first step back and make sure we understand what yoga is about. The core idea of yoga is that it is a journey out of the ego and into a mental state where there are no thoughts and the mind is completely still. When we reach this state, Patanjali says, our consciousness resides with our true Self or the “Seer”.
So what are the obstacles to Yoga? One big obstacle is our obsession with sex. Studies show that we may think about sex hundreds of time during the day. Even when our thoughts are not directly about sex, it can still be the underlying root. This is because so much of our ego-identity is a product of our sexual behavior. So thoughts about what others think of us, or how we look can have their origins in sex. This begs the question: can we really put our minds in a state where there are no thoughts when so many of our thoughts are driven by sex?
This leads to another question: does this mean that to be a true yogi one must abstain from sex? To answer this one must understand the beautiful way in which yoga is structured. Patanjali realized that “having no thoughts” was something that did not get achieved overnight, so also is the case for freeing up from sexual thoughts. This is why he used the technical word “Bhramacharya”. This word is folded into the eight limbs of yoga. And just as the limbs of a tree grow slowly and simultaneously, the limbs of yoga allow you to make gradual progress in each limb.
The word “Bhramacharya” has sometime been interpreted too rigidly. Its interpretation as “complete abstinence from sex” for the previous few centuries led to the decline of yoga in India. This is because it meant that married people could not practice yoga. However in modern times we have seen a revival of yoga, and this has come about by interpreting the word “Bhramacharya” correctly. T Krishnamcharya’s teacher was married and he insisted that T. Krishnamacharya also get married too. (T. Krishnamacharya is widely regarded as the father of modern yoga as practiced in the west.) Also all key students of T. Krishnamacharya were married. This single fact has allowed the flowering of yoga in modern times as it correctly interprets Bhramacharya as a journey.
For those who are married or in a relationship, the word Bhramacharya simply means faithfulness. This means one has to be faithful in both deed and thought: Do not entertain any thoughts of sexual relationship with anybody other than your current partner. As your journey into yoga slowly unfolds and you practice all eight limbs simultaneously you will find that it becomes easier to control the sexual urge. Indeed you may find that at the outset it may increase your sexual urge but it will nevertheless allow you to channel it properly into your current relationship and remain faithful. But as you progress you will find that while love blooms in your life the desire and urge for physical sex may slowly diminish. This is a natural unfolding process and there is nothing forced about it. Patanjali realized that spiritual progress cannot be forced nor can the desire for sex be curtailed by force. Each of the limbs of yoga is like a staircase. You make progress one step at a time. Trying to rush things only backfires.
If you are in a relationship and serious about pursuing the broader aim of yoga then it helps that both partners are similarly committed. If on the other hand your yoga practice has a limited objective of improving your health and well being then this discussion of Bhramacharya and sex does not apply to you. You will find that your physical and emotional health will improve and your sexual urge becomes healthy and strong. It is only when all eight limbs are practiced simultaneously that the journey of Bhramacharya begins.
Yoga is about growth. This growth is with respect to becoming beings. The journey of yoga shows that while activity and action is part of our daily life, it is best done when it is centered on a calm internal being. The journey of yoga is about finding this inner calm. And as we integrate our identity with this calm center, we slowly realize that we are not the body, we are not our mind or our ego, and we are also not our sexual self. We are simply beings.