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The power of restraint

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In the West, the search for pleasure can extract a heavy price. There is a better way; brahmacharya.

The fourth concept of the Yamas, or social code of ethics as outlined by Yoga philosophy, is brahmacharya. Directly translated from Sanskrit as “continence,” brahmacharya describes the responsibility to restrain sensual pleasures (distractions of the mind) in an effort to preserve and therefore expand our energy. By withholding our sexual energy we increase pranic energy and therefore become stronger both mentally and physically.

Over time, the definition of brahmacharya has expanded and shifted. It is now more often tied to the idea of moderation, which is how it is most often practiced today in the west.

Moderation allows us to enjoy the pleasures of life without going too far. A little extravagance here and there, but then come back to discipline. I think this fits nicely into much of our lives. Party all weekend, study all week.

Or eat the chocolate cake today, go to the gym tomorrow.

But in this we also lose the original intention of brahmacharya—to preserve and gain energy. Both of the examples above deplete energy, as was the reasoning behind abstaining from sex. When we are depleted, we need to move to the other end to create balance. Thus, we are really just trying to put back the energy we lost in the first place.

Our western culture of indulgence is not really set up for us to understand this without our back going up: if life is not for pleasure, than what is the point? But let’s pull back just a bit to see the cost of this pleasure. In order to afford these extravagances, we need money. The greater the spoils, the more money required. We work long hours and take on more projects, exhausting ourselves. In order to balance out this depletion we reach for comforts like sugar or treat ourselves to shopping sprees or expensive vacations—and so the vicious circle continues.

Moderation is also challenged in ways that have nothing to do with money, but sometimes tax us even more.

This is for those who put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own. The people who give and continue to give even when their cups are empty. We started off loving what we were doing, passionate to make a difference, but without proper breaks, time for self-care, and down-time, we end up bitter, exhausted, and burned out.

In both of these cases, we become prone to anxiety and depression and our physical health suffers. The practice of brahmacharya is meant to help us increase pranic energy, not make up for the loss of it through a careful balancing act. Observe how we feel after a meal: energized or needing a nap? After we wake up in the morning, or at the end of our workday. Pause throughout the day to be mindful and present.

Are our actions really serving us and those we love? This is brahmacharya in practice.

Author: Lisa Greenbaum, E-RYT 500 and C-IAYT yoga therapist, has worked with countless individuals by using yoga to release trauma, find ease from chronic pain and tension and develop a deeper connection to Self: mind, body and spirit. She has over 750 hours of yoga education and logged 4000+ teaching hours. She is also a certified fitness instructor and personal trainer with canfitpro, and a Women in Fitness Association (WIFA) Global Ambassador. You can find her online here. She is a regular contributor to Optimyz.


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