Thursday, May 15, 2014

Yoga, Brahmacharya and Relationships

(March 2013)

The role of celibacy in spiritual practice is something that is largely misunderstood, even by advanced yogis who should presumably know better.  As a tantrika and former celibate, maybe I can shed some light on this.

In classical mainstream yoga, celibacy has been regarded as superior to married life for a couple of reasons.  On the one hand, the practice has its roots in the insidious influence of gnostic dualism, “spirit is good, flesh is evil.”  This negative view of sex and bodily incarnation has unfortunately managed to corrupt the spiritual traditions of both east and west.  The yoga tradition that I began practicing as a teenager (SRF/Kriya) advocated celibacy even for married people, on the basis that sex is un-spiritual.  Even in my youth I found this doctrine quite dubious, always having intuitively felt that sex is sacred.

“Brahmacharya,” the fourth ethical rule in yoga, is most often interpreted as “celibacy” by the sex-negative mainstream tradition.  In fact, however, brahmacharya is the preservation and cultivation of sexual energy for spiritual purposes.  The ordinary biological function of sex is an outward flow of energy, a release of tension, aimed at reproduction.  The spiritual function of sex is the awakening of kundalini, where the energy is drawn inward and upward by means of tantric technique.  This latter function has been considered scandalous by the religious mainstream, which insists that the only morally acceptable purpose of sex is to make babies.  Brahmacharya prevents conception when practiced carefully and competently, but the technique has not been widely known.

Hence the other, purely practical, reason for celibacy:  To have more time and energy for spiritual study and practice.  Until fairly recently in human history, before the advent of modern birth control technology, sex usually resulted in children – lots of them.  Women married young and had no control over whether, when or how many children they would have.  Monasticism was the only viable alternative if you wanted to devote your life to prayer, study, and meditation, rather than raising a large family.  In the Anglican tradition, as my priest explained, “Celibacy is not about saying no to sex; it is saying yes to God.”  It is the opportunity, being free from worldly responsibilities, to spend undistracted time alone with God, to immerse oneself in Divine Union.
Of course, not everyone is interested in that.  In fact, most people do yoga simply to help them survive, or at best, enjoy their ordinary life.  That is why my teacher Mark Whitwell introduced The Promise practice, yoga for everyone: just 7 minutes of yoga every morning will make you feel better and enjoy your busy life!   And that’s great, but some of us live for yoga.  It’s the subtle difference between working to live and living to work.

At this point no doubt one of my yogini friends will object, “Family doesn’t interfere with my practice!  I do yoga with my 4 children, pack up their organic lunches and send them off to school, then I go to the gym and work out before I go to the office, then come home & fix dinner, clean house, bathe the children, and still have energy for great tantric sex with my husband, then I study the Yoga Sutras and meditate before going to sleep.”  Well, good for you, Superwoman.  But, the other 99% of working women with children tell me they are lucky if they can find time for a shower – or a moment, or 7 minutes, never mind an hour! – to themselves for personal practice or anything else.

Modern society tells women that we can, and shouldhave it all, which I think is unrealistic.  And from the feminist standpoint, it is a step backwards.  Weren’t we supposed to have a choice?

In the early 1980s I belonged to Ananda Yoga Fellowship, which had a ministry teaching Kriya Yoga to Franciscan [Catholic] monks and nuns in Assisi.  Even more radical, Ananda also founded communities of “householder yogis,” serious yoga practitioners with partners and children!  At the time it was believed to be a bold new idea and many were skeptical that it could work, although we now know that T. Krishnamacharya, the “father of modern yoga,” was a married yogi with children back in the 1930s.

Today partnerships and family are all the rage and celibacy has become passe’ at least in the west.  Tantric sex is no longer scandalous; it is out in the open, even discussed in watered-down terms on popular t.v. shows.  More and more people are jumping on the bandwagon, declaring celibacy dysfunctional and family life preferable in terms of spiritual practice.  Mark Whitwell, who lived and studied in the home of Krishnamacharya and is himself unmarried, says that celibacy can be a “gift,” but only when it “arises naturally” as an incidental phase of life, and not voluntarily chosen.*

Yes, the recognition of family and relationship as a valuable part of spiritual life is long overdue.  However, the modern overemphasis on relationship may have given rise to a popular belief that merely being a couple, or having a baby, automatically qualifies as “yoga.”  If this were the case, there would be no need for asana and pranayama.  All moms would be instant buddhas, and I would not need to counsel so many depressed, lonely women trapped in toxic relationships, struggling to raise children conceived by accident.

While teenage girls believe the Hollywood (or Bollywood) myth that romantic love is Nirvana, most adults eventually realize that it is not.  Yes, God is Love!  But, if you can’t find that Love within yourself, you will not find it in somebody else.  And that is the potential pitfall of relationships:  Seeking happiness outside of ourselves creates a duality, projecting our deep need for Love onto another person and expecting them to fulfill us, to make us whole.  In reality, it takes two reasonably whole people to form a healthy relationship.  A private yoga practice is necessary to unite the duality within ourselves so that we do not project it onto our relationships.  One must already know Love in oneself, in order to share it.

In my youth I was exploring that Love through yoga and wanted to share it, but could not find a willing partner.  In college I learned tantric sex from an older graduate student who had studied in Tibet.  After being together for a year, I thought we were in a relationship. One day I went to his house and found a scantily clad woman there, frying chicken for him.  I’m not sure whether I was more upset about the woman, or the chicken; the woman seemed very nice, but I was a strict vegetarian at that time and he supposedly was, too.  My apparently carnivorous non-boyfriend calmly explained to me that we were not in a relationship.  He said relationships are bad because they involve emotional attachment, which prevents enlightenment.  This is a claim I heard many times over the years, and later I wrote my Master’s thesis on “The Psychology of Non-Attachment in the Bhagavad Gita” to address this common misunderstanding.  And I continued to search and pray for a partner.  The men I liked best were celibate yogis; I loved that they loved God, but unfortunately they didn’t want to share Him with a woman.
I did make a serious effort at dating several non-yogis, with disappointing results for everyone involved.  Romance which is not rooted in divine Love is fickle and uncommitted, a transitory state of emotional and hormonal arousal always seeking new sources of excitement at the urging of genetic instinct.  For the non-yogi, sex was just a form of entertainment.  As my spiritual practice deepened, I completely lost interest in pursuing sexual relationships with men who could not relate.  I decided I was happier being celibate.

Now, what most people don’t understand is that there are different kinds of celibacy.  The traditional mainstream religious approach is to repress, ignore or attempt to transcend your sexuality, based on the flawed premise that doing so will bring you closer to God.  By contrast, tantric celibacy, or brahmacharya, embraces and offers up sexual energy in devotional practice, which can be very fulfilling.  Motivated by bhakti, with enough time and undistracted focus, you can go places in meditation by comparison with which, ordinary sex is a pale shadow.  There is a place in the heart where God lives, where Shiva and Shakti are united in Love, which can be experienced by means of various advanced yogic practices.**  When you experience that Love, there is absolutely nothing like it.  Nothing!  It is pure bliss consciousness.  You suddenly realize that the Love you were seeking out there, in a husband or wife or baby, was right in here all along.  You are never lonely again, because you are One with every other yogi on earth, an intimacy unbounded by time and space.  It is incomparable, unimaginable ecstasy.

One could argue that this ecstatic meditation which provides utter fulfillment is “dysfunctional” if it replaces the desire for a “normal” life, i.e. marriage and family.  But, this argument imposes an arbitrary definition of “normal” which for me would have been a living hell, namely, to marry a non-yogi and give up my spiritual practice in order to keep his house and raise his offspring.

So, having found no suitable incarnate lover to join me in that Love, at age 28 I “chose” the lifestyle which was apparently already happening.  When I became a Sister, perfect strangers scolded that I was shirking my God-given duty as a woman.  My mother, who grew up believing that sex is an unpleasant activity which a woman must endure to please her husband and to have babies, said my choice was selfish, because women don’t exist for our own happiness, we exist to serve a man and bear his children.

I reject the idea that biology is destiny.  I assert that our bodies belong to ourselves, and that every person, male or female, straight, gay, bi or transgender, has a right to be happy in the life that they choose.

And for 14 years, I was very happy!  I enjoyed my life.  I enjoyed being free of family responsibilities and having plenty of time and energy to devote to my ministry, hanging out with people, listening to their stories, praying with them, letting them cry on my shoulder, encouraging, advising, and comforting them until 4:00 a.m. if need be, having no curfew.  I was everybody’s sister, and Mom to the younger people.  I loved each of them dearly.  And I loved coming home to my quiet sanctuary where I lived alone with the Lord in His indescribable ecstasy, in intimate communion with every other yogi on earth.  It was Bliss.

But, practical concerns made me reevaluate the situation.  I had inherited this 9-acre farm and found that I could not take care of it myself.  I said to the Lord, “You know I only want You, but You’re not mowing the grass or fixing the fences, and You’re not making money fall from the trees.  What do You want to do about it?”

Soon thereafter Hawk, one of my friends at karaoke, was encouraged by a mutual friend to confess that he loved me.  We went surfing together and then sat on the beach talking about theology and comparative religions.  He asked if I wanted to date.  I replied, “I don’t date; I’m already in Love.”  Hawk said the magic words: “I want to be in that Love with you.”  We held hands and sat together for a long time in meditation, and he was right There.

We had dinner by the sea, and shared wine at sunset, while 3 small clouds arranged themselves over the sun to look like a Hopi Sunface (which we had discussed earlier), smiling and winking at us.  Hawk begged to come to my place to meet my horses.  There was strong mutual attraction between us and I said, “You probably shouldn’t come to my house.  I don’t want my life to get complicated.”  He replied, “Don’t worry, I only complicate my own life,” (which turned out to be completely untrue).  Against my better judgement, I allowed him to talk me into visiting, which was a good thing because my El Camino broke down on the way home, not in the best part of town.  At that time I didn’t have a cell phone and he called the tow truck for me.

When we finally arrived at my farm, the horses, who are normally quite suspicious of male strangers, immediately ran up and kissed Hawk and followed him around.  My very shy cat leaped into his arms.  It became quite late and I offered him the guest room.  When I asked if the waterbed was comfortable, he said, “I don’t know, why don’t you come help me find out?”  Which I did, and it was.  In the morning he fixed my El Camino.  He moved in a few months later to help me take care of the farm, and we have been together nearly 8 years now.

I do sometimes miss the peace and quiet and simplicity of my celibate life.  I no longer have all the free time and energy to spend on my larger “family” and ministry, and I hardly ever get to see my friends anymore.  Hawk’s family and financial “complications” demand most of my attention, and I also manage his business.  The rare nights that we both have off from work, we try to devote to our tantric practice.  But, despite what I have given up, I am very happy to be in this relationship, because as tantric yogis know, there is nothing, NOTHING better than the incredible ecstatic Love of God – except for bodily sharing It with someone.  And it was well worth the wait.  I’m really glad I didn’t settle for a “normal” life.

* I question the authority of any man, whether a celibate old priest in the Vatican, or my own beloved teacher whom I respect deeply, to dictate what is and is not a valid lifestyle choice for me as a woman.

** The Promise is by far the simplest, quickest and most powerful of these techniques.  Here is a series of videos of Mark Whitwell demonstrating it.  An extensive listing of many other classical yoga practices, including tantric sex, and detailed instructions on how to do them can be found at Advanced Yoga Practices.


  1. What a lovely story

  2. Hey Jamie,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog I'm returning the favour. I loved reading your story as this kind of narrative is so rare. I'm at the stage you were at when you decided to enter a celibate lifestyle to pursue your love of God. But I am drawn to human companionship as well, so I often feel torn. But you really put your finger on something I've been trying to articulate for a while. I'm simply not interested in being in love with a human being who isn't also in love with God. There is no way to make it work because then the expectation would always be that the human partner is the ideal, the focus on devotion. Like you, I want somebody who is committed to God as their true Beloved and is looking for a earthly companion and ally, to be a partner in devotion.

    I had to laugh when you wrote, "The men I liked best were celibate yogis; I loved that they loved God, but unfortunately they didn’t want to share Him with a woman." I have felt the same doubts about ever meeting a man or women to share my life with. At my age (32) it seems like most of the singles I meet are so focused on career and/or having kids that they don't have time for spirituality. I guess, the lesson I take away from reading your story is to just chill out and enjoy my celibacy and the time it allows me to focus on my sadhana. When the time is right, I might meet that special yogi or yogini.

    1. Well really, what else can you do? "settle" for someone who does not share that Love, who doesn't want what you want? I couldn't. I met my husband when I was 42 and he was 40; I hope you will find your partner sooner. But either way, God will never let you down and I promise that Love will only get more intense and wonderful over time. God bless you!