My copy of Matthew Sweeney's Ashtanga Yoga As It Is arrived in the mail yesterday. It's been a very interesting read so far. The book is not a beginner's guide to Ashtanga, or a how-to-do-such-and-such-asanas book. Rather, it is geared towards people who have had some experience with the practice, and would like to know more about the finer aspects of the practice; things that are often alluded to by teachers and practitioners, but not often discussed. So, for the next couple of weeks, starting with this post, I will be periodically posting about certain topics and things that he discusses in the book, and sharing my thoughts and feelings about it. And I will keep doing it, unless you get tired of it and ask me to stop ("Nobel, move on to something else already!"). If you have any thoughts or feelings that you would like to share, but do not feel comfortable commenting, you can also email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com.
As I said, the book deals with many details of Ashtanga life that are not covered much in other books on Ashtanga (at least to my knowledge). One of the topics that Sweeney deals with very skilfully and in much detail is the topic of sex. He has very detailed things to say about both male and female sexual issues. In this post, I will say a couple of general things, and then talk about what he says about male sexual issues (I'm actually also a bit biased, since I'm male :-)). In an upcoming post, I will then talk about his views about female sexual issues (stay tuned).
Sweeney has a very interesting perspective about Brahmacharya. Ever since I started practicing yoga, I have sensed that Brahmacharya is a very contentious and polarizing issue. In my understanding, there are at least two competing views of what Brahmacharya means in the yoga community:
(1) In order to practice Brahmacharya properly, you must be celibate (no sex or masturbation).
(2) In order to practice Brahmacharya properly, you must use your sexual energy wisely. Only engage in sexual relations with somebody with whom you are in a committed relationship (there is, of course, quite a bit of leeway as to what "committed" really means; if I commit myself to person A today, but suddenly find myself mysteriously drawn to and wanting to commit to person B tomorrow, does this mean that I can have sex with A today, and B tomorrow? But this makes this view of Brahmacharya sound like a Woody Allen movie, so I'll not go further here.)
At any rate, this is what Sweeney has to say about Brahmacharya:
'The practice of brahmacharya is undeniably useful; particularly to understand your own sexual tensions and your relationship to others. Periodic celibacy can increase awareness of sexual prana and tends to increase the energy flow to the higher centres. To repeat, it is a practice of awareness and observation, rather than control and restriction. Brahmacharya is translated as "teacher of the soul".' (page 22)
The last two sentences are key here. The ultimate purpose of practicing brahmacharya lies in teaching the soul to cultivate awareness and observation, not in controlling and restricting it. As such, depending on the individual and his or her unique circumstances at any particular point in time, either (1) complete celibacy or (2) wise, judicious use of sexual energy could be appropriate. Sweeney sums it up in this way:
"Sexual issues vary for each individual. It is your relationship to your own particular sexual process that should become clearer whether you engage in intercourse, masturbation or celibacy. Each individual should work with their own unique sexual process. By understanding and integrating the full power of your own sexual drive and desires, you will no longer be manipulated by your own hidden, unconscious and conflicting needs; self-expression rather than self-suppression." (page 21-22)
Very interesting. But what do you do if you are a guy, and you do decide to have sex? Sweeney continues:
"For a man, there may be a need for increased sexual control, whether in complete abstinence or in delayed ejaculation. To an extent greater control is useful, but this should always be tempered by an ability to let go and surrender to the natural process. The masculine is empowered through surrender to and fulfillment of his own primal energy. Focus on the process rather than the goal. The sexual experience for a man usually culminates with apanic elimination: ejaculation. If this is over indulged then tiredness, depletion or exhaustion may result. The asana practice should help with both sexual control and an increase in energy that supports the sexual process. During intercourse pay attention to the perineal area, the mula bandha and your breath. [Nobel: Turns out that Sharath is right: It is possible to engage mula bandha 24/7... even during sex :-)] Accentuate the upward movement of your energy on the inhalation...
By becoming aware of the base two chakra [the muladhara chakra and the svadisthana chakra], and the ability to feel the energy moving along the central channel, you can then begin to practice what is called the microcosmic orbit, of channelling the physical sexual energy to the higher centres... Various effects such as increased sensitivity, waves of bliss and heightened states of consciousness may begin to manifest. Almost as a side effect, the capacity to orgasm without ejaculation will become possible. This does not imply that ejaculation (or masturbation) is in any way wrong. It is becoming conscious of this letting go process and its consequences that will make a difference. You will be less inclined to be reactive and engage in sex or masturbation due to stress or incapacity to relate and more inclined to be pro-active and expressive. The cultivation of sexual energy is a creative and powerful process." (page 22)
I will admit that a big part of what Sweeney says in the second paragraph is over my head and beyond my present capacities (although my teacher in Milwaukee once told me that practicing the second series backbends encourages prana to flow into the sushumna nadi, or central channel, which may be relevant to what Sweeney is saying here. But this is still over my head.). But at any rate, I thought I'll share whatever I've learnt to the best of my ability. Hopefully at least some of you out there will find all this insightful and beneficial to your life and practice.
May the Force be with you.