Anusara Yoga is rooted in Tantric philosophy, so I favor the continence interpretation over the celibacy or abstinence interpretation. Continence doesn't mean that you NEVER go to the bathroom, or NEVER have sex, you just choose the proper context. As adults, it's up to us to figure out what proper is. If you WANT to urinate in church, or sleep with everybody in your small circle of friends, you are welcome to do so. Of course, there's this little thing called karma, which, to put it extremely simply, is just the idea that actions create effects. If you throw a stone in the water, ripples move out. Peeing in church and dating indiscriminately create ripples that you might not ultimately enjoy.
There's an implication with brahmacharya that it's not just sexual energy that should be contained, but sexual fluids (tejas in Sanskrit). Certain yoga texts indicate that containment builds power; these fluids are a very potent essence of life, and by containing them, the yogi builds his/her potency. To me, brahmacharya represents more than just sexual continence; it also means energetic, emotional continence. Through yoga we learn, literally, to contain ourselves.
I love to sing, and many years ago I took a workshop with brilliant singing teacher Claude Stein. I have a fair amount of baggage around singing, and I spent a lot of the weekend crying. Each participant prepared a song to share, and I brought a song about a letter. There's a painful episode in my life concerning some letters, so when I started to sing, all my singing issues combined with some tough memories, and tears overwhelmed me. I couldn't sing. Claude looked at me and said, "Sometimes you gotta hold something back or you can't go forward." He had me pick a different song. "If you can't hold it, you're not ready to sing that one yet."
Holding builds power. Inability to hold disperses power. I remember the first time I heard John Friend ask us to remain silent after a partner pose and simply feel the aftermath. We all nodded, full of good intentions, and then bbbuuuuzzzZZZZZZZ! after the pose we were so excited we could not help but burst into chatter. When shakti rises, it's very hard not to laugh, sigh, talk, look around, fidget, yawn, jump up and move around, etc. Nothin' wrong with this--but as yogis, we want stay steady; we want to be able to savor and wield the shakti we build up through practice.
This steadiness is in the very first line of our Anusara Invocation. Om Namah Shivaya Gurave. Gurave means the teacher, but also THE HEAVY one. The dense one. Like butter: rich, dense, heavy, self-contained. Not that cream isn't delightful, and we cultivate fluidity too. But the very first quality we list when we describe the great Power that coalesces to form the Universe (other than the fact that "shiva" literally means auspicious) is heaviness. Shiva doesn't dilute the Universe into existence. He consolidates. Creates a border. Contains.
Unmindful withholding can build power in a dangerous way. You bottle up your feelings and they explode. You never process a painful episode so it rules your life. Our yoga is always about knowing the full spectrum of experience so that you have options, so that you can navigate reality skillfully. So we can't talk about withholding without talking about release, offering, surrender.
A couple of years after I met Claude, my big sister asked me to give a toast at her wedding. My sister is an accomplished, glamorous woman, and she got married in a beautiful, swanky NYC venue in front of 200 people. I have a real love/hate relationship with attention (I love attention! But not too much, and not the wrong kind), and I was petrified about this toast. I stayed up late practicing it the night before. My sister's now-husband jokingly asked her if she wanted to preview my toast. She declined, but I was thinking, "Shouldn't someone be checking this homework before I turn it in?"
Well, when I started giving the toast, everyone started laughing at the first line. It's always good to open with a joke, so this shouldn't have been a problem, except for the fact that I was not intending to be funny. I had to re-start the toast 3-4 times, and every time, everybody roared with laughter. So that was kind of unnerving, but I kept going. Toward the end of the toast, when I got to this part about coming to know my sister in a new way, I started crying. My voice wobbled horribly, and I couldn't stop the tears. I paused and considered my options. I could: 1. leave the stage. 2. turn around so that nobody could see me crying. 3. let the tears flow and just speak as clearly as I could. I went with #3, and when I looked around the room, I saw that nobody was laughing anymore. They were listening intently and some of them were tearing up too.
I've taught 10-14 yoga classes a week for ten years. 10 years x 52 weeks x 12 yoga classes: I've taught 6,240 yoga classes in my life. But the three-minute speech I gave at my sister's wedding was the most satisfying, effective, and powerful public speaking I've ever done. The combination of holding and letting go was a potent one that I try, try, try to recreate when I teach.
Philosopher Ken Wilber says that as we get more adept at Awakening, we cry MORE. We feel more. But our vessel also gets stronger, so that even as we are moved more deeply by Life's small showings of beauty, suffering, tenderness, we are be able to hold those experiences more strongly. We are moved more and unmoored less. How does this happen? We get better and better at continence. We keep our own counsel when necessary. We choose our words carefully. And when we can't hold back anymore, and our eyes well up, we steady our voices and sing through the tears.