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Brahmacharya (/ˌbrɑːməˈɑːrjə/; Devanagari: ब्रह्मचर्य) literally means "going after Brahman (Supreme Reality, Self, God)".[1] In Indian religions, it is also a concept with various context-driven meanings.

In one context, Brahmacharya is the first of four Ashrama (age-based stages) of a human life, with Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (forest dweller) and Sannyasa (renunciation) being the other three Asramas. The Brahmacharya (bachelor student) stage of one's life, up to 25 years of age, was focused on education and included the practice of celibacy.[2] In Indian traditions, it connotes chastity during the student stage of life for the purposes of learning from a guru (teacher), and during later stages of life for the purposes of attaining spiritual liberation (moksha).[3][4]

In another context, Brahmacharya is a virtue, where it means celibacy when unmarried, and fidelity when married.[5][6] It represents a virtuous lifestyle that also includes simple living, meditation and other behaviors.[7][8]

Among the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist monastic traditions, Brahmacharya implies, among other things, mandatory renouncing of sex and marriage.[9] It is considered necessary for a monk's spiritual practice.[10] Western notions of the religious life as practiced in monastic settings mirror these characteristics.


The word brahmacharya stems from two Sanskrit roots:

  1. Brahma (ब्रह्म, shortened from Brahman), means "the one self-existent Spirit, the Absolute Reality, Universal Self, Personal God, the sacred knowledge".[11][12]
  2. charya (चर्य), which means "occupation with, engaging, proceeding, behaviour, conduct, to follow, going after".[13] This is often translated as activity, mode of behaviour, a "virtuous" way of life.

So the word Brahmacharya literally means a lifestyle adopted to seek and understand Brahman – the Ultimate Reality.[14] Gonda states, in historic literature of Hinduism, it means "devoting oneself to Brahman".[15] In modern literature, it is commonly translated to mean celibacy for those unmarried, and fidelity to one's partner when married.[5]

In ancient and medieval era Indian texts, the term brahmacharya is a concept with more complex meaning. Brahmacharya embodies in its meaning an overall lifestyle that helps the pursuit of sacred knowledge and spiritual liberation.[7] It is a means, not an end, and usually includes cleanliness, ahimsa, simple living, studies, meditation, voluntary restraints on certain diet, intoxicants and behaviors (including sexual behavior).[7][8]


The Vedas discuss Brahmacharya, both in the context of lifestyle and stage of one's life. Rig Veda, for example, in Book 10 Chapter 136, mentions knowledge seekers as those with Kesin (long haired) and soil-colored clothes (yellow, orange, saffron) engaged in the affairs of Mananat (mind, meditation).[16] Rigveda, however, refers to these people as Muni and Vati. The Atharva Veda, completed by about 1000 BC, has more explicit discussion of Brahmacharya, in Book XI Chapter 5.[17] This Chapter of Atharva Veda describes Brahmacharya as that which leads to one's second birth (mind, Self-awareness), with Hymn 11.5.3 painting a symbolic picture that when a teacher accepts a Brahmachari, the student becomes his embryo.[17]

The concept and practice of Brahmacarya is extensively found among the older strata of the Mukhya Upanishads in Hinduism. The 8th century BC text Chandogya Upanishad describes in Book 8, activities and lifestyle that is Brahmacharya:[18]

Now what people call yajña (sacrifice) is really Brahmacharya, for only by means of Brahmacharya does the knower attain that world (of Brahman). And what people call Ishta (worship) is really Brahmacharya, for only worshipping by means of Brahmacarya does one attain the Atman (the liberated Self). Now, what people call the Sattrayana (sacrificial session) is really Brahmacharya, for only by means of Brahmacharya does one obtain one's salvation from Sat (Being). And what people call the Mauna (vow of silence) is really Brahmacharya for only through Brahmacharya does one understand the Atman and then meditate. Now, what people call a Anasakayana (vow of fasting) is really Brahmacharya, for this Atman never perishes which one attains by means of Brahmacharya. And what people call the Aranyayana (life of a hermit) is really Brahmacharya, for the world of Brahman belongs to those who by means of Brahmacharya attain the seas Ara and Nya in the world of Brahman. For them there is freedom in all the worlds.

— Chandogya Upanishad, VIII.5.1 - VIII.5.4[18][19]

A hymn in another early Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad in Book 3, Chapter 1 similarly states,

सत्येन लभ्यस्तपसा ह्येष आत्मा सम्यग्ज्ञानेन ब्रह्मचर्येण नित्यम् । Through continuous pursuit of Satya (truthfulness), Tapas (perseverance, austerity), Samyajñāna (correct knowledge), and Brahmacharya, one attains Atman (Inner Self, Soul).

— Mundaka Upanishad, III.1.5[20]

The Vedas and early Upanishadic texts of Hinduism in their discussion of Brahmacharya, make no mention of the age of the student at the start of Brahmacharya,[21] nor any restraint on sexual activity. One of the earliest discussion and contrasting viewpoints on sexual intercourse during Brahmacharya is in section 11.5.4 of Satpatha Brahamana. The verses and present two different viewpoints on sexual activity, one against and one as a choice.[22] Similarly, in verse, the Satapatha Brahamana presents contrasting viewpoints on an eating restraint for the Brahmachari.[22]

Brahmacharya as Asrama stage of life

Historically brahmacarya referred to a stage of life (asrama) within the Vedic ashram system. Ancient Hindu culture divided the human lifespan into four stages: Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. Brahamacharya asrama occupied the first 20–25 years of life roughly corresponding to adolescence.[23][24] Upon the child's Upanayanam,[25] the young person would begin a life of study in the Gurukula (the household of the Guru) dedicated to learning all aspects of dharma that is the "principles of righteous living". Dharma comprised personal responsibilities towards himself, family, society, humanity and God which included the environment, earth and nature. This educational period started when the child was five to eight years old and lasted until the age of 14 to 20 years.[26] During this stage of life, the traditional vedic sciences and various sastras[27] were studied along with the religious texts contained within the Vedas and Upanishads.[28][29] This stage of life was characterized by the practice of celibacy.

Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad suggests that Brahmacharya (student) stage of life should extend from the age a child is ready to receive teachings from a guru, and continue for a period of twelve years.[30]

The graduation from Brahmacharya stage of life was marked by the Samavartanam ceremony.[31] The graduate was then ready to either start Grihastha (householder) stage of life, or wait, or pursue a life of Sannyasa and solitude like Rishis in forest.[2] Vyasa in Chapter 234 of Shanti Parva in the Mahabharata praises Brahmacharya as an important stage of life necessary for learning, then adds Grihastha stage as the root of society and important to an individual's success.[32]

Brahmacharya for girls

The Vedas and Upanishads do not restrict the student stage of life to males.[33] Atharva Veda, for example, states[33][34]

ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानं विन्दते पतिम् | A youthful Kanya (कन्या, girl) who graduates from Brahmacharya, obtains a suitable husband.

— Atharva Veda, 11.5.18[34]
No age restrictions

Gonda[15] states that there were no age restrictions for the start of Brahmacharya in ancient India. Not only young men, but older people resorted to student stage of life, and sought teachers who were authoritative in certain subjects.[15] The Chandogya Upanishad, in Section 5.11, describes "wealthy and learned householders" becoming Brahmacharis (students) with Rishi Kaikeya, to gain knowledge about Atman (Soul, inner Self) and Brahman (Ultimate Reality).[35][36]

Brahmacharya as a virtue

Brahmacharya is one of five Yamas in Yoga, for example as declared in verse 2.30 of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.[37] It is a form of self-restraint virtue and recommended observance depending on an individual's context. For a married practitioner it means marital fidelity (not cheating on one's spouse); for a single person it means celibacy.[5][6] Sandilya Upanishad includes Brahmacharya as one of ten Yamas in Chapter 1, then defines it as "refraining from sexual intercourse in all places and in all states in mind, speech or body".[38]

Patanjali in verse 2.38[39] states the virtue of Brahmacharya leads to the profit of Virya (वीर्य).[40] This Sanskrit word, Virya, has been variously translated as virility, and by Vyasa as strength and capacity. Vyasa explains that this virtue advances other good qualities.[40] Other ancient and medieval era texts of Hinduism describe the fruits of this virtue differently. For example, Pada Chandrika, Raja Marttanda, Sutrartha Bodhini, Mani Prabha and Yoga Sudhakara each state that Brahmacharya must be understood as the voluntary restraint of power.[40] Chandogya Upanishad in verses of chapter 8.5 extols Brahmacharya as a sacrament and sacrifice, that once perfected, leads to realization of Self, and thereafter becomes the habit of experiencing the soul in others and everything.[40][41] Tattva Vaisharadi and Yoga Sarasangraha state Brahmacharya leads to increase in jñana-shakti (power of knowledge) and kriya-shakti (power of action).[40]

The Epic Mahabharata, in Book Five Udyoga Parva (the Book of Effort), describes the objective of Brahmacharya as the knowledge of Brahman.[42] The virtue of Brahmacharya leads one to union with the Supreme Soul, asserts the Epic in Chapter 43. It embodies the practice of self-restraint, the ability to overcome desire in order to learn, discover truths (in Vedas and Upanishads), understand reality, pay attention in thought, word and deed to the guru (teacher). The practice of studying and learning skills, states the Epic, requires the "aid of time", personal effort and abilities, as well as discussion and practice, all of which the virtue of Brahmacharya helps.[42] A Brahmacharya, states the Mahabharata, should do useful work, and the earnings he so obtained be given away as the dakshina (fee, gift of thanks) to the guru. The Epic declares that Brahmacharya is one of twelve virtues, an essential part of Angas in Yoga, and is the path of perfecting perseverance and pursuit of Knowledge.[42]

Brahmacharya in Jainism

Jain Flag Photo
Green colour in the Jain flag stands for brahmacharya[43]

Brahmacharya is one of the five major vows prescribed for the layman (śrāvakā) and ascetics in Jainism. For those Jains who adopt the path of monks, celibacy in action, words and thoughts is expected. For Lay Jains who are married, the virtue of Brahmacharya requires remaining sexually faithful to one's chosen partner.[44] For Lay Jains who are unmarried, chaste living requires Jains to avoid sex before marriage.[45] It is one of the ten excellencies of a Digambara monk.[46] It is mentioned as one of the ten virtues (das dharma) in ancient Jain texts like Tattvartha Sutra, Sarvārthasiddhi and Puruşārthasiddhyupāya.[47]

Brahmacharya among religious movements

In Indian traditions, a Brahmachari is a male and Brahmacharini a female.[48][49]

Brahma Kumaris

Among Brahma Kumaris and Prajapita Brahma Kumaris, Brahmacarya is practised by married couples and householders too, as a way of formalizing sexual behavior into a conscious, co-creative practice rather than merely an unconscious habit.[50][51][52]

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

Among ISKCON, a devotional movement that follows the Bhakti school of Hinduism, a male devotee is called Brahmachari and female devotee Brahmacharini. The unmarried male Brahmacharis wear saffron robes, while married male householders wear white robes. Brahmacharinis wear Saris of any color. The term Brahmachari and Brahmacharini is reserved for those practicing celibacy. Married devotees, in contrast, are called grihastha (householders).[48][53]

Ashrams and Mathas

Various Ashrams (आश्रम, hermitage) and Matha (मठ, college of ascetics) of various schools of Hinduism call their male and female initiates as Brahmachari and Brahmacharinis.[54]

Brahmacharya among Sramanic traditions

Among the sramanic traditions (Buddhism, Jainism, Ājīvika and Carvaka schools of Hinduism), Brahmacharya is the term used for the practice of self-imposed celibacy that is generally considered a prerequisite for spiritual practice. The fourth of five great vows of Jain monks, for example, is a promise of celibacy, which means total abstinence from sensual pleasure of all five senses, including avoidance of sexual thoughts and desires.[44][55] Western notions of the religious life as practised in monastic settings correspond to these characteristics. The Yogin who is firmly grounded in Brahmacharya virtue is stated to gain great vitality.[56]

See also


  1. James Lochtefeld, "Brahmacharya" in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. 1: A–M, pp. 120, Rosen Publishing. ISBN 9780823931798
  2. 2.0 2.1 RK Sharma (1999), Indian Society, Institutions and Change, ISBN 978-8171566655, page 28
  3. Georg Feuerstein, The Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra, Shambhala Publications, ISBN 978-1590308790, 2011, pg 76, Quote - "Brahmacharya essentially stands for the ideal of chastity"
  4. W.J. Johnson (2009), "The chaste and celibate state of a student of the Veda", Oxford Dictionary of Hinduism, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-2713223273, pg 62
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Brahmacharyam Pativratyam cha - Celibacy and Fidelity Himalayan Academy, Gutenberg Archives (2006)
  6. 6.0 6.1 [a] Louise Taylor (2001), A Woman's Book of Yoga, Tuttle, ISBN 978-0804818292, page 3;
    [b]Jeffrey Long (2009), Jainism: An Introduction, IB Tauris, ISBN 978-1845116262, page 109; Quote: The fourth vow - brahmacarya - means for laypersons, marital fidelity and pre-marital celibacy; for ascetics, it means absolute celibacy; John Cort explains, "Brahmacharya involves having sex only with one's spouse, as well as the avoidance of ardent gazing or lewd gestures (...) - Quoted by Long, ibid, page 101
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 M Khandelwal (2001), Sexual Fluids, Emotions, Morality - Notes on the Gendering of Brahmacharya, in Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence (Editors: Elisa Sobo and Sandra Bell), University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 978-0299171643, pages 157-174
  8. 8.0 8.1 Joseph Alter (2012), Moral Materialism, Penguin, ISBN 978-0143417415, pages 65-67
  9. Carl Olson (2007), Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195306323, page 227-233
  10. DR Pattanaik (1998), The Holy Refusal, MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 2, 113-127
  11. brahma Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, Germany
  12. Not to be confused with Brahmā or Brahmin
  13. carya Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, Germany
  14. Arvind Sharma (2013), Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0300185966, page 134
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Jan Gonda (1965), Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, Mouton & Co, The Hague, pages 284-285, 1965 print: OCLC 817902, Reprinted in 1997: ISBN 978-8121500142 (page number may be different)
  16. GS Ghurye (1952), Ascetic Origins, Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 2, pages 162-184;
    For original: Rigveda Wikisource
  17. 17.0 17.1 For source in Sanskrit: Atharva Veda Wikisource, Hymns 11.5[7].1 - 11.5[7].26; (ब्रह्मचारीष्णंश् चरति रोदसी उभे तस्मिन् देवाः संमनसो भवन्ति | स दाधार पृथिवीं दिवं च स आचार्यं तपसा पिपर्ति ||1|| ब्रह्मचारिणं पितरो देवजनाः पृथग् देवा अनुसंयन्ति सर्वे | गन्धर्वा एनम् अन्व् आयन् त्रयस्त्रिंशत् त्रिशताः षट्सहस्राः सर्वान्त् स देवांस् तपसा पिपर्ति ||2|| आचार्य उपनयमानो ब्रह्मचारिणं कृणुते गर्भम् अन्तः | तं रात्रीस् तिस्र उदरे बिभर्ति तं जातं द्रष्टुम् अभिसंयन्ति देवाः ||3|| (...))
    For English translation: Stephen N Hay and William Theodore De Bary (1988), Sources of Indian Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120804678, pages 18-19
  18. 18.0 18.1 Translation: S Swahananda (2010), Chandogya Upanishad, Vedanta Press, ISBN 978-8171203307, Book VIII, Chapter 5, verse 1-4
    Original: अथ यद्यज्ञ इत्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तद्ब्रह्मचर्येण | ह्येव यो ज्ञाता तं विन्दतेऽथ यदिष्टमित्याचक्षते | ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तद्ब्रह्मचर्येण ह्येवेष्ट्वात्मानमनुविन्दते ॥ १ ॥ अथ यत्सत्त्रायणमित्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तद्ब्रह्मचर्येण | ह्येव सत आत्मनस्त्राणं विन्दतेऽथ यन्मौनमित्याचक्षते | ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तब्ब्रह्मचर्येण ह्येवात्मानमनुविद्य मनुते ' ॥ २ ॥ अथ यदनाशकायनमित्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तदेष | ह्यात्मा न नश्यति यं ब्रह्मचर्येणानुविन्दतेऽथ | यदरण्यायनमित्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तदरश्च ह वै | ण्यश्चार्णवौ ब्रह्मलोके तृतीयस्यामितो दिवि तदैरं | मदीयँ सरस्तदश्वत्थः सोमसवनस्तदपराजिता | पूर्ब्रह्मणः प्रभुविमितँ हिरण्मयम् ॥ ३ ॥ तद्य एवैतवरं च ण्यं चार्णवौ ब्रह्मलोके | ब्रह्मचर्येणानुविन्दन्ति तेषामेवैष ब्रह्मलोकस्तेषाँ | सर्वेषु लोकेषु कामचारो भवति ॥ ४ ॥
  19. G. Jha (1942), The Chāndogyopaniṣad: A Treatise on Vedānta Philosophy, Oritental Book Agency, University of California Archives, OCLC 7733219
  20. MP Pandit (1969), Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.5, Gleanings from the Upanishads, OCLC 81579, University of Virginia Archives, pages 11-12
  21. Some recent Upanishads do, see for example Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad mentioned below
  22. 22.0 22.1 Julius Eggeling, Satapatha Brahmana Madhyandina School version, Clarendon Press, Oxford, page 90
  23. Manusmriti suggests the Brahmacharya ashrama be about 25 years, one fourth of the normal life of human being he estimates to be 100 years. See: RK Sharma (1999), Indian Society, Institutions and Change, ISBN 978-8171566655, page 28
  24. Bodhinatha Veylanswami (2007), What Is Hinduism?, Editors of Hinduism Today, Himalayan Academy Publishers, ISBN 978-1934145005, page 372
  25. Vivekjivandas, Sadhu. Hinduism: An Introduction – Part 2. (Swaminarayan Aksharpith: Ahmedabad, 2010) p. 113. ISBN 978-81-7526-434-2
  26. Rocher, Ludo. "The Dharmaśāstas". The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism.(Ed.Gavin Flood) (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: Oxford, 2003) p. 103. ISBN 0-631-21535-2
  27. Stella Kramrisch (1958), Traditions of the Indian Craftsman, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 71, No. 281, Traditional India: Structure and Change (Jul. - Sep., 1958), pp. 224-230
  28. Samuel Parker (1987), Artistic practice and education in India: A historical overview, Journal of Aesthetic Education, pp 123-141
  29. Misra, R. N. (2011), Silpis in Ancient India: Beyond their Ascribed Locus in Ancient Society, Social Scientist, Vol. 39, No. 7/8, pp 43-54
  30. KN Aiyar (Translator), Narada Parivrajaka Upanishad, Thirty Minor Upanishads, University of Toronto Archives, page 135
  31. R Pandey (1969), Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments (2nd Ed.), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 81-208-0434-1
  32. KM Ganguli, Moksha dharma parva Shanti Parva, The Mahabharata, pages 248-261
  33. 33.0 33.1 S Jain (2003), The Right to Family Planning, in Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions (Editor: Daniel C. Maguire), Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195160017, page 134, Quote - "The Atharva Veda confirms... a brahmacharini has better prospects of marriage than a girl who is uneducated"; "The Vedic period.... girls, like boys, are also expected to go through the brahmacharya..."
  34. 34.0 34.1 For source in Sanskrit: Atharva Veda Wikisource, Hymns 11.5[7].1 - 11.5[7].26;
    For English translation: Stephen N Hay and William Theodore De Bary (1988), Sources of Indian Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120804678, pages 18-19
  35. Patrick Olivelle (1996) (Translator), Upanishads, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195124354, pages 143-144
  36. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the East at Google Books, Volume 43, Clarendon Press, Oxford University, pages 393-394
  37. Original:अहिंसासत्यास्तेय ब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहाः यमाः |
    Source:Āgāśe, K. S. (1904). Pātañjalayogasūtrāṇi. Puṇe: Ānandāśrama. p. 102.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. KN Aiyar (Translator), Sandilya Upanishad, Thirty Minor Upanishads, University of Toronto Archives, page 173
  39. Original: ब्रह्मचर्य प्रतिष्ठायां वीर्यलाभः |
    Source: Yogasutra 2.35-2.39 (in German)
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 40.3 40.4 SV Bharti (2001), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: With the Exposition of Vyasa, Motilal Banarsidas, ISBN 978-8120818255, Appendix I, pages 536-539
  41. Chandogya Upanishad Book 8, Chapter 5, Jha (Translator), pages 434-440
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 KM Ganguli (Translator), The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, p. 150, at Google Books, Udyoga Parva, Chapter 43, pages 150-153
  43. Jain 2012, p. iv.
  44. 44.0 44.1 Pravin Shah, Five Great Vows (Maha-vratas) of Jainism Jainism Literature Center, Harvard University Archives (2009)
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  47. Jain 2012, p. 145-147.
  48. 48.0 48.1 George Chryssides (2006), The A to Z of New Religious Movements, ISBN 978-0810855885, page 56
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  51. Babb, Lawrence A. (1987). Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-7069-2563-7. "Sexual intercourse is unnecessary for reproduction because the souls that enter the world during the first half of the Cycle are in possession of a special yogic power (yog bal) by which they conceive children"
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  53. George Chryssides (2011), Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements, Rowman Littlefield, ISBN 978-0810861947, page 304
  54. Karen Pechilis (2004), The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195145373, pages 74-101
  55. Robert Kolb (2007), Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society, SAGE Publications, ISBN 978-1412916523, page 1207-1208
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Further reading

  • Carl Olson, Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195306323
  • Elisabeth Haich, Sexual Energy and Yoga. Aurora Press, ISBN 978-0943358031 (1982)
  • Stuart Sovatsky: "Eros, Consciousness and Kundalini: Tantric Celibacy and the Mysteries of Eros". Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT. (1999)
  • Swami Narayanananda: The Way to Peace, Power and Long Life. N.U. Yoga Trust, Denmark, 2001 (1st ed. 1945)
  • Swami Narayanananda: Brahmacharya, Its Necessity and Practice for Boys and Girls. N.U. Yoga Trust, Denmark, 2001 (1st ed. 1960)

External links