|Throughout history, the yogic concept of brahmacharya has been reincarnated into ever-evolving social contexts. Unlike the other Yamas the meaning of brahmacharya is not so explicit.
The Yamas – The Five Social Conducts of Ashtanga Yoga
There are many lineages of yogic philosophical teaching and the yamas appear as the first “limb” of the Ashtanga, or “8-limbed” path towards “Yoga”. You could also think of the yamas as the first rung on the ladder towards spiritual enlightenment.
The other four of the five yamas are:Ahimsa – Non-injury / non-violence
Satya – Truthfulness
Asteya – Non-stealing
Aparigraha – Non-attachment / non-covetousness
Pretty standard in the way of commandments eh?
So what does bramacharya mean and what does it add to the yogis’ peaceful and healthful choice of lifestyle?
The Preservation of Energy
Literally, brahmacharya is translated as “walking in god-consciousness”. This priestly demeanour can be practiced as “restraint of the senses”, and more specifically as celibacy or chastity. As times a-changed (and the likes of Osho came on the yoga scene) the meaning has been adapted from complete sexual abstinence to mean “the preservation of energy”.
As you can imagine, or may have already experienced, the journey towards spiritual liberation, and even simply good health, requires energy. Any kind of over-indulgence and instant gratification, sexual or otherwise, bleeds the mind, body and soul of the energy it requires to achieve a sense of wholesomeness. Essentially, if your energy tank is running on empty, your sense of self-completeness is going to start falling apart. I’m sure we all know the feeling all too well!
Everything in Moderation
Another way brahmacharya has been expressed is through the mantra of “everything in moderation.” This phrase is mostly uttered by Westerners when it comes to limiting our alcohol consumption or “naughty” foods. Our gut health also suffers greatly from the overindulgence of toxins, or even of “good” foods. Ever eaten too much spirulina?? Well don’t!
You may be aware that this familiar phrase “everything in moderation” also roots from Ancient Greece’s Delphic Maxims, of which there were two:
“Everything in moderation” and “Know thyself”.
These two basic principles work well enough together to keep the individual and their gut in check: listen to what the body needs, and to when it has had enough. It appears that our gut health can already greatly benefit from these simple practices of restraint found in the ancient teachings shared by the west and the east. So why is it not always that easy?
Brahmacharya Ain’t Allowed
Unfortunately, the consumer-led modern world does not easily allow for the practice of brahamcharya in any of it’s guises. As with moderating the consumption of food and alcohol, the actual preservation of energy through rest and sleep is very much undervalued by the day-to-day of a western working individual. Negative social implications are experienced by someone who avoids the overconsumption of fast food and booze and they are often left out of conventional social occasions. In the same vein, someone who sleeps a lot is considered lazy, and the 9-5 plus hours of the daily grind does not allow for someone to rest when they are tired.
Aside: When we were living in Sri Lanka, it took us a while to understand that when someone calls another person “lazy” it was not so much of an insult but a term of endearment. There was a lot less rushing around, less focus on stimulation and action, and more on leaning back on your laurels…slightly frustrating when queuing at the supermarket, but possibly a necessary lesson in brahmacharya for us!
Brahmacharya As “Rest and Digest”
In terms of Yoga for Gut Health & Healing, I would like to entwine another branch into the brahmacharya tree. I proffer a gut specific incarnation of brahmacharya to be in the recently popularised maxim, “rest and digest”. To allow the digestive system to function, we must be in “rest & digest” mode – the parasympathetic state of the autonomic nervous system, and out of the “fight and flight” sympathetic state designed to tackle incoming danger. The parasympathetic state is when the body processes energy, repairs, digests and heals. In a sense, this is when the body is cultivating the energy it needs to function, as well as indeed preserving it. If we do not enter this state enough, we cannot secrete sufficient digestive juices, absorb the nutrients we need, and allow the gut to repair any damage.
For anyone with chronically impaired digestive function such as in cases of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or any kind of leaky gut, dyspepsia or dysbiosis, rest and digest mode is even more essential to gut healing and disease recovery. Furthermore, these diseases, especially those that increase inflammation in the body, can be exhausting for the sufferer as the body is in a perpetual state of “fighting and fleeing” from what it perceives as dangerous (as in auto-immunity). Inflammation is essentially a stress response therefore, put simply, to counter this we must rest more.
Despite the over-stimulated, over-stressed, over-consuming, over-complicated world we live in, we can use our yoga practice to listen to our guts, and to our entire physiological organism (which includes the big bad brain) that our souls dwell within, and give it a chance to rest, digest and do whatever else it needs to do to preserve precious energy.
The secret is this: resting is a productive activity! Not only do our body’s need to rest, but so do our over-active minds that are constantly working to try and save us from the “threat” presented to us in this wonderfully wicked world that runs on stress and toxicity. Therefore we shouldn’t be averse, let alone ashamed to do what is sometimes the most pro-active thing to do: absolutely nothing.
A great way to enter into “rest and digest” mode on demand, is to practice Adham pranayama, or “buddha belly breathing”. Check out my YouTube demo here: