Brahmacarya - A feminist perspective
Brahmacarya (pronounced: Brahmacharya) - celibacy/continence (self control/restraint) - right use of energy (conservation).
I saved the 4th Yama for last... Brahmacharya... Self-Control. Many people interpret brahmacarya as "Celibacy" in the strictest sense. Others interpret it as "right relationship" - restraint. It literally means, "behavior which leads to Brahman" or "directing our energy away from external desires and towards Brahman or the Divine Energy of the Creator/Higher Power".
I love what B.K.S. Iyengar had to say about it in his "Light on Life": "Sexual self-control is something else. I always wanted a wife and family. I also wanted to be a yogi. In all Indian tradition there has been no contradiction here. When my wife was alive, my brahmacarya was expressed in my fidelity to her. After her death, desire withered, and my brahmacarya has been that of a celibate. I followed truth (satya) during the first volume of my life, and I followed it in the second. Because both were founded in truth and integrity, both bore fruit." (p. 255)
In some ways, I think it is harder to live IN the world and be IN relationship and practice brahmacarya than to be celibate. I have practiced brahmacarya both ways - through right relationship with my husband, (as well as in earlier relationships I engaged in), and I have also practiced celibacy for years at a time between relationships. Those times have been - and are - some of the most fruitful and creative years of my life. From personal experience, I can say that transcending & transforming sexual energy to spiritual energy can be a very powerful experience.
As a feminist, who believes strongly that many of our problems in the world have to do with our views on sexuality and our treatment of women, I offer my own perspective. Throughout most of the world, (including this country), women's sexuality is (still) defined by men and by male religion. Not that there aren't those of us who define it for ourselves - but in terms of what society deems appropriate. We are judged and seen by the lens of the male experience. Sex is by and large seen as a means of propagating our own species and we want married couples to have healthy marriages and raise babies. Anything outside of that "norm" is open to politicians & religious leaders to define and demean. The truth is that we are human beings with sexual needs and drives that are certainly purposeful in propagating our species. However, our species is presently not at risk of dying out - short of a nuclear war. In fact, all predictions are that populations will triple over the next several years. Modest estimates expect our population to increase to 9.6 billion by 2050, but many are now saying it could be much more than that. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140918-population-global-united-nations-2100-boom-africa/
If we are to reduce the impact of the human population on this planet, I personally believe it is crucial that we make efforts to have fewer children. That means some of us agree (by choice) to have none (including myself). That does NOT mean we cannot be sexual beings in healthy relationships. We are also beings who need to be touched and loved (though this does not HAVE to be sexual - it certainly is one way that we bond with each other).
If you look at the current political climate in this country - Women are judged if we are sexual. Judged if we are not. We are only supposed to be sexual to have babies. What if we choose to have loving sexual relationships with a partner, AND we do not want to add to the world's population? Women have made this decision for CENTURIES. Tribal women in "primitive" societies often made the decision to not have children, to terminate pregnancies, use natural forms of birth control and some even practiced infanticide during times of scarcity when the tribe could not afford to feed more mouths and a child would have struggled and suffered (I am not suggesting we practice infanticide but relating the fact that when the well-being of the tribe was considered more important than the individual this was not considered evil - Likewise - in today's society - a family with 2 children that cannot afford a third, might choose to have an abortion so that the 2 children they already have do not suffer in poverty along with a 3rd). We need to be respected to make these decisions for ourselves and our families and not be treated like we don't have brains and can't make intelligent decisions. We need to be allowed to be sexual and have the resources to not have children if we so desire. Furthermore, CHILDREN DESERVE TO BE CONSCIOUSLY CONCEIVED by two loving parents (same sex or opposite does NOT matter) who have planned for their arrival and have the resources to care for them.
At the other end of the spectrum, What if we choose to practice celibacy - outside of the confines of a habit and a monastery? I personally lean towards the monastic life, though I practice no patriarchal religious dogma, so I cannot call myself a "nun". I have dealt with sexual assault and unwanted sexual advances throughout my life. I have been asked why I don't have children, if I don't like children, and told that it's not too late for me to have children, and "I'm praying for you to find a good man". Without anyone asking me if I am even interested in men, relationships or what it might be that I want for myself. Then I turn on the news and hear how this political candidate or that one is going to punish me if I get pregnant and choose to have an abortion - or that they will punish the doctor who has performed the abortion instead of the woman - because I cannot possibly know my own mind and must have been coerced by this doctor. I personally respect a woman's decision to have children or not to have children - and I hope she makes the best decision for herself & her family. I trust that she is capable. I trust that she is intelligent and able to make these very personal decisions by herself or after consulting with her husband, doctor or with whoever it is that SHE chooses to consult. I cannot control what other people think or do. I can only live my life the way that feels right for me - which is to practice brahmacarya and not to add to the world's population crisis. For me, deepening my relationship to my own higher consciousness is my soul/sole purpose in this lifetime. Assuming that I do not know my own mind is insulting and demeaning.
My wish for the world is that we come to a time in history when this is no longer open for discussion. When my life is mine, and your life is yours. When women are respected as equals to men - and treated with respect whether we choose to be mothers, lovers or celibates walking the earth in a beauty way. As I wrote this blog post today, I read the following passage from Kripalu Yoga, "By learning to rest in choiceless awareness, you gain the willpower needed to fully exercise the power of choice. Out from under the unconscious sway of attraction and aversion, you can live consciously. In touch with your inner authority, dogmatic belief systems and moralistic thinking play less of a role in guiding your behavior. The need for conformity is replaced by a heightened sensitivity to values and preferences that are uniquely yours. No one can guide you down the pathless path of a life that is consciously chosen. Rather than a belief system or even a practice, yoga becomes the consciousness in which you live, a way to express your authentic self through action." Blessed Be.