Yama – Yoga Sutras II.30 & II.38

trans. chastity, impeccable behaviour, conduct mindful of ultimate reality

II.38 “The chaste acquire vitality” (Hartranft)

I have long had a sense of curiosity and slight unease about translating this sutra as ‘chastity’ and the succeeding sutra as ‘the chaste acquire vitality’.

The unease begins with a recognition that its inclusion within the yamas makes it a central building block in the practice of classical yoga as described by Patanjali.  That being so, translating it as chastity implies that a full engagement with yoga is not possible within the context of a sexual relationship.

However, such an interpretation seems at odds with the fact that many of the leading proponents of modern yoga, have been men and women with life partners and families.  Krishnamacharya, Jois, Iyengar, Desikachar, Vanda Scaravelli, Indra Devi etc to name but a few.  They, and indeed the majority of western yoga practitioners, are examples of what is sometimes referred to as ‘householder yogis’.  The term differentiates between renunciate practitioners (ashram dwellers and nomadic ascetics) and those who choose to incorporate yoga practice within ‘normal life’.  There is no particular lifestyle implied by this term.  It simply allows the inclusion of career, life partner, parenthood, home and community, material possessions and any of the other trappings of ‘normal life’.

Some commentators on Patanjali deal with the apparent incompatability of brahmacarya  (as chastity) with this non-renunciate lifestyle by simply adjusting the meaning to ‘fidelity’ for these so called householder yogis.  The logical inference being that ‘impeccable behaviour’ within a monogamous relationship is fidelity.  While I have no problem with such an inference, such adjustments seem rather convenient, simplistic and something of a cop out to me.  The contrast between chastity and sexual activity (albeit in a monogamous relationship) being too extreme.

Exploring the original meaning

I felt I must be missing something.  So, although I am no Sanskrit scholar, first I looked at the translation.  Here immediately inconsistencies began to emerge.  Brahmacarya is formed from :

Brahma – universal self, ultimate reality

and, Carya – engaging with, conduct

Hartranft uses the translation ‘impeccable behaviour’ at one point in his commentary as I have done above, although in translation he seems to prefer ‘chastity’.  I offer the phrase ‘conduct mindful of ultimate reality’.  It is noteworthy that nothing in these direct translations refers to sexual relationship.

I then turned to the learned Georg Feurstein’s ‘Yoga Tradition’.  I have always admired Feurstein’s honesty and attention to detail, but immediately the contradictions appeared again.  Feurstein translates brahmacarya as chastity but also describes the use of the term in the early yoga texts such as the Vedas and the Upanishads, as being synonymous with a person who devotes their life to a spiritual quest.

At this point I began to suspect that there were cultural contexts and stories at play in how this term and sutra is interpreted.  Many spiritual communities and ascetics choose to turn away from society and the intimate relationships of spouse and family as part of their journey.  Why is this a common approach in groups as disparate as Christian and Buddhist monks and nuns as well as ancient and modern yoga sects?

Why be celibate?

I suspect that originally brahmacarya implied a general attitude to life and one’s actions and relationships.  An attempt to live in connection with the ‘divine’, the ‘universal truth’, keeping one foot on firm ground, out of the slippery mud of my life stories.  Over time disparate groups have come to the conclusion that such an attitude should include a withdrawal from daily life and all the associated complications and distractions (including sexual relationships).

Of course, there have been (and continue to be) many examples of where such a strategy has backfired and repression has emerged as inappropriate sexual activity or abusive behaviour.  Perhaps this fact itself has something to tell us about this sutra.  Sexual drives are part of our basic biology and deepest urges.  It takes a high state of mindfulness to be able to watch them arise and choose how to respond.  Whether expressed as generic attraction, full blown lust, romantic love or a heady mixture of all three, these reactions can generate a huge amount of energy and demand a very large part of our attention.  This alone may be the reason why many communities have come to see such urges as obstacles or distractions to ‘spiritual practice’.

However, the same argument could be made for hunger or thirst.  Clearly, we can exist without sexual intimacy but not food and water so there is a difference in level of need.  Nonetheless grouping all three under the category of ‘biological urge’ seems appropriate.  Beyond short term fasting however, we cannot ban eating and drinking!  Generally, the guidance for the spiritual practitioner in relation to hunger and thirst is to be mindful of the urge, respond moderately and avoid the pitfalls of extreme indulgence or denial.

A philosophical split?

Somewhere amidst this discussion of ‘biological urges’ there emerges a philosophical split on the spiritual path that mirrors the renunciate / householder division introduced above.  One path considers the everyday needs of the bodymind as something that must be managed in order to move beyond the realm of daily existence into some other state whether referred to as Samadhi, Nirvana or heaven.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, at times at least, has something of this tone.

However, other groups including Tantra, Mahayana Buddhism and Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga take a radically different position, considering ‘enlightenment’ to be a shift in our perspective.  A new way of being right here and now, in this body, within our life circumstances and cultural context.  These groups point towards the inclusion of all aspects of ‘daily life’ within the realm of ‘practice’ and indeed ‘enlightenment’.

As a ‘householder yogi’, I have, perhaps inevitably, chosen the latter path.  I seek to see under the patterns and confusion of my body-mind, with its complex social conditioning and ever evolving interpersonal relationships.  The goal is to find a peaceful, joyful freedom within the ‘whole catastrophe’ (as Zorba the Greek and later Jon Kabat Zinn called it).

From this perspective, it seems that if Patanjali is to be relevant, then brahmacarya needs to be interpreted more in line with its original meaning.  Something along the lines of ‘engagement in the world while holding a wider sense of who and what I am’.  This seems to sit comfortably alongside the niyama ‘isvara pranidhana’ which points to the ‘surrender to a sense of being something beyond my life stories’ (see earlier in the blog series for a discussion on isvara pranidhana).

But what of vitality?

But what of the issue of ‘vitality’.  Does my interpretation of brahmacarya present the possibility of greater vitality?  In other words, does personal experience support Patanjali’s statement in II.38?

My suspicion is that most of us will have experienced times when interaction with others can leave us feeling energised or conversely, drained.  Sometimes this seems a permanent feature of interaction with a particular person.  If prana is ‘life force’ then ‘prana-suckers’ leave me feeling a bit down or drained, while ‘prana-givers’ leave me feeling cheerful and energetic.  However, there are also times when difficult interactions with a loved one leave me feeling drained, whereas engagement with the same person yesterday left me feeling buoyant.  Perhaps the variability has as much to do with me being lost in the stories of the interaction (big row vs loving encounter) as it does with the other person.

It seems possible that it might just help to step back, to see my family dynamics or intimate relationship, my preferences, fears, frustrations and desires, from a perspective that recognises their context in the patterns and stories of life.  If I can ‘show up’ completely while maintaining a clear perspective of the impermanence and interconnection of ‘ultimate reality’, I may indeed ‘gain vitality’.  At the least, it perhaps affords the possibility of engaging with the dynamics of relationship (sexual or otherwise) in ways that emphasise the possibility of mutual support, shared engagement and enthusiasm, without the ‘prana drains’ of clinging, projection or judgement.

Embracing the ‘whole catastrophe’

In conclusion, my version of ‘householder yoga’ might be seen as staying wholly present and engaged in life’s stories while recognising my place in their midst.   The point is that the ‘whole catastrophe’, with all its joys and tears, highs and lows, and all the myriad moments between, becomes the ground of practice and learning.  A dance with the simple truth of being.  It even seems possible at times to rest amidst it all, to arrive at a stillness that tastes of freedom.  Maybe Zorba the Greek, Tantra and Patanjali are pointing to the same place after all?!

This is the final part of a 10-part invitation to inquiry centred on the yamas and niyamas from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The full series is available at bodybeing.co.uk/blog-yoga-circle/