The fourth Yama (restraint) in Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga is Brahmacharya. In its most ancient and literal form, Brahmacharya means celibacy. In more modern day vernacular, Brahmacharya might mean holding yourself to the standard of leading a wholesome and clean life.
The concept of Brahmacharya can be thought of as being mindful as to where we put our energy. Will the reality TV show I’m about to watch bring me closer to the Divine? If not, why am I watching it? The same with violent movies and video games, and other forms of exploitative entertainment.
What about gossiping? Can you imagine a spiritual master (pick one)standing by the water cooler sharing the latest trivial scoop about someone else in the community? No.
Brahmacharya might mean conserving the energy we were going to use for these types of activities and instead meditating, or studying, or completing an act of service. Before sitting down to watch The Kardashians, what would happen if we asked ourselves, “Is this program worthy of my time and attention? Is it serving my spiritual growth?” If not, maybe we decide to turn off the TV and instead say a prayer, or do something thoughtful for a neighbor or a friend? Or maybe just go to bed early to get enough sleep.
Brahmacharya might mean taking seriously the notion that your physical body is a gift, given to you by the Divine, and treating it that way. It might mean eating clean, and exercising in a healthy (not obsessive)way. It might be as simple as drinking more water or resting when the body needs rest.
Brahmacharya might mean doing a moral inventory and asking ourselves just what it is we lust for (money, fame, recognition, sexual prowess, status, the perfect body, even spiritual growth, etc.), and being brave enough to delve deeper into why?
Brahmacharya might mean cultivating a daily prayer or meditation practice. It might mean, pausing and literally asking, What would Jesus, or Mohammed or Allah, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa,….what would they do, in this situation I’m grappling with?
Back to sexuality. Brahmacharya might mean not misusing our bodies, (or the bodies of others) in a sexual way. Not exploiting another for one’s own pleasure, impulses or needs. In a modern world where celibacy isn’t a reality for most (and likely never was) it might mean at the very least treating sexual encounters as sacred.
Only you know what brings you into closer communion with the Divine.
Brahmacharya is about refraining from things that take us further away.