You’ll never believe it, but I had an actual real-life request from someone the other day to write about Brahmacharya (the law of yogic moderation). I felt, for one heady moment, as though I’d hit “the big time.” A blog request! For me!
The idea that anyone was interested in hearing my blogged opinion about anything was so gratifying that I was really excited to get right on it- until I realized that I’ve already covered Brahmacharya in this post.
But, I considered, it’s almost certainly not coincidental that I am being asked to revisit the topic. Brahmacharya is a lesson I have yet to learn, or at least to assimilate fully into my life and practice.
I am highly qualified to talk to you about over-indulgence. During the early 2000’s (especially during college and the confused years right after), I over-indulged in caffeine and cigarettes. This paired nicely with my video-game addiction so that I was no longer a very functional member of society. A typical day might look something like this:
11 AM. Wake up, start video game on way to make coffee.
11:05 AM. Sweet rush of relief. Cigarette and heavily sugared coffee in system, ready to engage in online drama of elves, dragons, etc., for next 12 + hours.
12:30 PM. Phone rings, but I can’t answer* because I’m either a) too busy with game or b) feeling guilty about what I’m doing. Open bag of Doritos and the second-to-last bottle of Coke.
3:00 PM. Remember that I forgot to take the garbage out, write a paper about Love In the Time of The Cholera, and that the Marlboro Lights are running low. Suppress emotions with some more Doritos and another cigarette.
6:00 PM. Bag of Doritos is gone and down to the last liter of Coke. Time to put on pants and go to the store. Decide to wait another hour for the online group I am in to disband as I don’t want to miss out on anything.
6:35 PM. Group has ended but there is now an online raid on a dragon starting and my presence is absolutely critical. Call Little Caesar’s. Ask if the driver will stop and buy cigarettes. Brush hair for the first time today. Consider brushing teeth, but time is limited. Keep mouth closed when pizza arrives.
2 AM. Raid is finally over. Eyes bleary and throat stinging. Chest feels heavy but I am very close to level 47 and having a lot of (delirious)? fun with an online friend killing giant spiders in an ice fortress.
2:15 AM. Last cigarette of the day. As I log off the game (“Night Lyssandra, **HUGS** Farramir”), I feel a wave of panicky sadness. Where did the day go? What am I doing with my life? When will I get it all under control?
While I eventually overcame the gaming and smoking vices, the underlying pattern has manifested in various ways throughout my life. Later years would see me do things like compulsive exercise and calorie-counting. Over-working is another compulsive activity that I am still fighting. And yeah, yoga can be the same way.
These latter activities are more dangerous to the compulsive over-indulger because society is set up to reward them. “Oh, you’re so good about exercising,” someone might say to me. Or, in a corporate job where the unspoken expectation is that you work 50 hours per week, you weren’t going to get anywhere if you weren’t working 51**. And yoga, with its halo of wholesome goodness- well, of course, a daily yoga practice can only be good, right?
Deborah Adele, in her book The Yamas & Niyamas, says, “In yogic thought, there is a moment in time when we reach the perfect limit of what we are engaged in. It is this moment of ‘just enough’ that we need to recognize.” She goes on to say, “Nonexcess is not about nonenjoyment. It actually is about enjoyment and pleasure in its fullest experience. The questions before us are: Are you eating the food, or is the food eating you? Are you doing the activity, or is the activity doing you?”
Blerg. I recognize the painful truth in the last question. There have certainly been times where my own yoga practice has gone from pleasure to excess. The physical signs are there, if I can heed them. When I’m over-practicing, I feel strain in my wrists, my neck, my knees.
There’s also a set of addictive mental and emotional behaviors. I can recognize the signs- a feeling of worry or stress if I’m not able to practice daily, or an unbalanced sense of displeasure if I feel that I’m not “performing” at my peak. A crankiness if someone comments that I certainly am practicing a lot lately. I might even be careful not to mention certain aches, pains, or injuries to certain people that know me too well. I might (and this is a little scary) not even tell people the truth about how much I am practicing.
I am really loving my Ashtanga practice, but there’s an element of danger there for someone of my disposition. I love the discipline of practicing 6 days a week, 2 hours per day. Of seeing the changes in my practice, measuring my progress against the previous week’s. The headiness of finding myself suddenly slipping into a new posture- and the (exhilarating? crushing?) knowledge that I could continue this practice for the next several years and still have places to grow. The endorphins are unreal.
Another way that I might over-indulge in my yoga practice is with specific asana. It’s easy to get really excited about a particular posture. Right now, I’m wooing Handstand, Supta Kurmasana, and Urdva Dhanurasana. If I were to be honest with myself, and with you- I need to back off at least one of these and let my body recuperate. Oh, it’s not easy, when I’m having so much fun- but when I ask myself: Am I doing the practice, or is the practice doing me? I know I’ve crossed a border. I’ve gone beyond “just enough” into “just three more!”
But the fault itself is not in the asana (physical) practice. The fault lies with the practitioner (in this case, maybe, me) who is disregarding the ethical limbs of yoga. Brahmacharya. Ahimsa (non-violence).
As often happens, I often find just the encouragement or wisdom that I need, just when I need it. I ran across these words from BKS Iyengar this week. His ‘balanced practice’- well, that’s Brahmacharya, to me. See what you think:
When your posture is imbalanced,
the practice is physical;
balanced asanas lead to spiritual practice.
As a goldsmith weighs gold,
you have to adjust your body so that it is
perfectly balanced in the median plane.
As pearls are held on a thread,
all the limbs should be held
on the thread of intelligence.
Yogis, what’s your experience with Brahmacharya in your own practice? Leave a comment, please!
*Dear Everyone I Knew During This Time: I’m really, really sorry.
**Off-topic, but I’m reminded of Office Space. “If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair like pretty-boy Brian over there, why don’t you make the minimum 37 pieces of flair.”