Student question: How can the practice of brahmacharya be seen as a practice of kindness toward oneself rather than self-denial or austerity?
Fellow yoga teachers will understand why this made my day as a teacher. It's incredibly inspiring to have students engage with the practice on this deep level. So keep questions of all sorts coming my way and I'll do my best to respond based on yogic texts. I will also refer you to relevant resources, which can be a good jumping off point for self-study and inquiry (probably even more useful than my commentary).
That said, my astute student is referring to one item on the ten-item yogi code for living, which we call the yamas and the niyamas (or the restraints and observances). This particular code asks us, as yogis, to respond to our desires in a way that is not excessive. We are asked not to overindulge. (Note that there is another interpretation of brahmacharya that refers to conserving sexual lifeforce, but I find that translation too limiting and impractical for daily life outside a monastery. So I will leave that translation alone and go with the broader one.)
My understanding is that the texts are not asking us to become ascetics and refrain from all pleasurable activities. Yoga is a science of happiness and this would make for a pretty bleak existence if we could never enjoy a sweet strawberry, a glass of wine, or a day in our pajamas. So then we must make a distinction between indulging in a healthy way and overindulging in a way that causes harm. How can we tell the difference? One way, according to my meditation instructor, Pema Chodron, is to observe when enough is never enough.
A personal example. I could live on sugar alone. If not practicing discretion and simply going with my urges, I'd probably eat nothing else. If I have sugar in my home, I eat it, and not in moderation. I just eat all. of. it. Some part of my brain, my inner sugar monster, will invent a thousand seemingly-plausible reasons for why I need one more cookie. Or why that cake at the end of the day will make my anxiety go away. So what's the problem, besides my girlish form? It doesn't work. It's a trick.
I'm imbuing the food with a power that it doesn't have. I'm asking it to make me feel OK. It can't. Nothing outside can. Certainly nothing in cellophane. It is a setup for disappointment over and over and over again. The more power I give it, the more I make it responsible for my happiness or "okay-ness," the more I am addicted. When I'm addicted, I can't see clearly.
From this perspective we all have addictions. They are not all substances. Perhaps it is negative thinking. Gossip. Overworking. Worrying. Micromanaging. Sex. Gambling. Shopping. Selfies. Social media. Pema refers to these as "bubbles." We want to find a Safety Bubble of some kind where we can return to get a certain feeling (most often safety). But the fundamental problem is that these transitory states and situations and substances can't give it to us. They just can't. Ever. Maybe there is short-term symptom relief, but that quickly goes and the underlying issue remains. Some part of us realizes this, right? Some part of us is addicted and truly believes that this time the cookie will really work. Or that new phone. Or a new wardrobe. Or that awesome guy. That great professional success. Except it's fleeting. We are in a constant state of transition and we try to cling on to parts of life like a static oil painting. It doesn't work.
From this perspective, it is not kind to overindulge or become addicted. It creates suffering. An easy example is the tummy ache I got when I ate a piece of cake after a long day. I felt bad about myself. I didn't feel better about the situation I was trying to "solve." And I strengthened the neural pattern feel bad --> get cake (will feel better!)-->don't feel better ---> feel worse than before (maybe need more cake?).
To break this cycle we must learn to be mindful. It is the only way that I know of making kind choices for ourselves and others. That is, we have to learn to observe the mind working in this way so that we can make different choices. New choices take a lot of effort. (I hope this isn't news to you.) But by breaking this cycle of overindulging, we become a little more free. This takes a LOT of practice. So come practice. Consistently.
As for me, I don't keep sugar in the house anymore. I eat it on special occasions a few times per week. And I enjoy it more. The other day I was cleaning out the cupboard and found a stray chocolate chip, probably a year old. Did I consider eating it? Shamefully yes. I know. How gross? That's the nature of strong addiction, though. The urge might not go away. The awareness that a consistent yoga practice cultivates helps us to recognize the harmful patterns and stop them. In the words of Krishamacharya, "Yoga is a process of replacing old patterns with new, more appropriate patterns."
So, you see? Yoga isn't supposed to make you harder on yourself! And you don't have to be a monk that never eats a cupcake. Just become very curious about the things in your life that make you feel like enough is never enough.
References for further reading:
The Yamas and the Niyamas by Deborah Adele
Getting Unstuck by Pema Chodron