The Principles of Brahmacharya and Aparigraha: Incorporating Yoga Philosophy into your Class
In our days, yoga classes tend to be focused on asana. However, yoga goes way beyond physical exercise. As Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutras, yoga is made up of an eightfold path; a path with eight steps leading us towards connecting with our true self and living a life of happiness and completeness. And asana is just one of these eight steps.
According to Patanjali, the yogi’s journey towards the ultimate state of self-realization and enlightenment starts with the first step in the eightfold path – the five yamas. As we discussed previously, the yamas are the moral guidelines and ethical standards one needs to, and they precede asana, which is actually the third step in the path.
The first three of the yamas are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness) and Asteya (non-stealing), and, as we saw in the first two parts of this article series, they all offer us yoga teachers a great source of inspiration. And so do the fourth and fifth yamas; Brahmacharya and Aparigraha.
Brahmacharya often translates to celibacy and this is the reason why this yama attracts lots of discussion. The common misconception that Brahmacharya is all about celibacy makes this principle look irrelevant in our days. In a more strict definition, Brahmacharya refers to conserving our sexual energy and channeling this energy into progressing along the yogic path. But in a broader definition, it means using our resources effectively and not wasting our energy on things that don’t matter or don’t serve our purpose.
There, Lord Krishna says, “Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action”, which essentially means that we shouldn’t be attached to the outcome of our actions, but only concern ourselves with what we are doing at the moment instead.
The fifth yama, Aparigraha, refers to non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-accumulation and non-attachment. It has to do with taking only what we need and nothing more and not holding on to things. Aparigraha is about overcoming our attachment to material things, people or ideas and letting go of stories, beliefs and behavioral patterns that have been with us for so long that we now think they define us.
The eightfold path of yoga, as it is presented in the Yoga Sutras, can undoubtedly offer us tons of inspiration. After all, the promise of a happier and more purposeful life itself can be the best motivation for us to follow the path – first by adopting it in our practice on the mat and then, by gradually incorporating it in our daily lives.
So let’s see how we as yoga teachers can introduce our students to the terms of rahmacharya and Aparigraha and offer them an inspiring and powerfully transformative yoga class.
Start With a Few Words
The best way to introduce your students to the concepts of Brahmacharya and Aparigraha is by starting your class with a short discussion. Remind them that yoga is a state of being, and not just a form of physical practice. Explain that, according to the yogic philosophy and tradition, asana and pranayama are only two of the steps in Patanjali’s eightfold path towards reaching the ultimate state of enlightenment and liberation. And that this path begins with practicing five self-regulations – the five yamas. As you have already talked about Ahimsa, Satya and Asteya, it’s time to continue with the principles of Brahmacharya and Aparigraha, the fourth and fifth yamas.
Talk to your students about Brahmacharya and the common misconception that it refers to abstaining from sexual relations. Explain that the word Brahmacharya in Sanskrit actually translates as the behavior that leads to Brahman, the divine. And that practicing Brahmacharya means making good use of our energy, considering where it is directed and not wasting it on meaningless things.
It is awareness that will help us understand if we are making good use of our energy or if we are wasting it by trying too much.
Let your students know that Aparigraha translates to non-greed and non-attachment and that it means overcoming our attachment to people, things or concepts and thus attaining a deeper perspective. Tell them that Aparigraha is one of the central teachings in Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important scriptures in the yogic tradition. There, Lord Krishna says, “Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action”, which essentially means that we shouldn’t be attached to the outcome of our actions, but only concern ourselves with what we are doing at the moment instead.
Discuss about the things that Patanjali promises one will earn once they become firmly grounded in Brahmacharya and Aparigraha. Tell them that when someone achieves Brahmacharya, they acquire great strength and vitality, while when Aparigraha is established, one gains comprehension of the purpose of their life including their past and future incarnations.
These promises themselves can be great motivation for someone to try and adopt the two principles in their daily lives, taking it step by step. So don’t hesitate to encourage your students to approach the practice that will follow with the intention to discover these two qualities on their mats.
Bring Brahmacharya and Aparigraha into Practice
Just like with incorporating Ahimsa, Satya and Asteya into our yoga practice, awareness is the key here too. It is awareness that will help us understand if we are making good use of our energy or if we are wasting it by trying too much. And only awareness can help us realize if we are attached to the idea of the perfect practice.
In a typical yoga class, you will most likely have students of all ages, body types, backgrounds, abilities and needs. This means that you will need to give alternatives so that all your students are able to make the most of their practice. So make sure you teach different variations of the postures.
Sometimes, however, these different asana variations will make some of your students feel the pressure to keep up. So they will often push themselves to get into a more advanced variation of a pose that their body is not yet ready for. As a result, you will watch them frown and struggle to catch their breath.
Encourage them to make optimal use of their energy resources and just practice for the love of practice.
And this is a sign of violation of both Brahmacharya and Aparigraha, as a student that acts like this during practice tends to both be attached to the idea of the perfect asana and let their energy go to waste by trying too hard. At the same time, when someone hesitates to try out a more advanced pose, it might be a sign that they are trying too little or that they are attached to what they already know, and afraid to step out of their comfort zone and take their practice to the next level.
This is when you need to step in. Ask your students to take a moment to consider whether getting into a pose is necessary and helpful or not. Apart from offering different variations, make sure you offer your students the option to skip a vinyasa and come down to rest in child’s pose anytime as well. Remind them that their practice is only about their own body and no one else’s – after all, every practice looks different and this is absolutely normal.
So ask your students to focus on their own practice and their own abilities and let go of any hopes or concerns about reaching a certain pose. Remind them to stay present and observe what is going on in their body and mind while noticing the flow of their breath. Encourage them to make optimal use of their energy resources and just practice for the love of practice. Invite them to find out for themselves how this approach can shift their perspective.
The rich tradition and philosophy of yoga is surrounded by a great number of inspiring principles, concepts, deities and mythical creatures that can change the way we see yoga. So dive in, be creative and transform both your own practice and your yoga classes into a life-changing experience! You can read the next part in this series here!