Brahmacharya: Self-Control Or A Search For Truth?

Brahmacharya: Self-Control or Truth
Photo by Chantel Baggley

Compounding the outcry around Lululemon’s hypodermic-laced Brahmacharya shopping totes is a blog post by Lulu employee Sandy Wei, who observes that without Brahmacharya, she’d overeat, play with puppies, take selfies, indulge in excess social media, and be in unhealthy relationships. Wei defines Brahamacharya as moderation, a casual definition shared by many modern schools of yoga. She concludes, “If you catch me at the grocery store staring at a bag of chips it’s because that’s the new me battling with myself, making choices and practicing Brahmacharya.”

Some have expressed outrage that the “original” definition of this yama, celibacy, or “channeling one’s sexual energy towards union with the divine … traditionally, the ultimate goal of yoga,” has been bastardized and appropriated to sell “candy-colored sports bras.” Fair enough! Yet is that what Brahmacharya is? And has this concept been appropriated any more or less than other parts of yoga—for example, asana—in the west?

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In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar defines Brahmacharya as “movement toward the essential [truth].” The word’s etymology is comprised of the root car, or “to move,” and the word brahma, referring to “truth … in terms of the one essential truth.” The modern conflation of this term with moderation, or self-control, is thus overly simplistic. Desikachar notes that while this term has mostly been used in the sense of abstinence, it does not refer to total control or abstention from sexual (or other activities). Rather, Brahmacharya advocates “responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth.” What, exactly, is meant by “truth”?

Desikachar refrains from equating truth with the divine, instead emphasizing the accessibility of yoga for those of all religious/spiritual traditions. This segues well with modern yoga culture’s propensity for glossing over yoga’s spiritual origins. Yet in B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, asana’s sole intention is described as rendering the body “a fit vehicle for the spirit … [the yogi’s] life and all its activities are part of the divine action in nature.” The “divine” can be a dirty word in modern yoga, which works hard to scrub itself of linkages to Hinduism and brand itself as practice for the every man.

Whether defined as movement towards god, the divine, or truth, Brahmacharya’s trajectory can be circuitous and non-linear. Sometimes great suffering or over-indulgence may instigate the first taste or knowledge of truth. Further, we may successfully “control” ourselves and practice moderation only to binge on the forbidden. Yet this too, and perhaps this especially, can move us towards truth if we sustain compassionate and non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness. For without these extremes, how could we feel into and experience their opposites? The lineage of tantra rajanaka posits that the path toward truth bears no allegiance to light or dark; we are invited to dance with both.

For me, Wei’s “inner battle” appears more characteristic of our cultural obsession with self-control than Brahmacharya. As a tantric practitioner, this yama is not solely about restraint, but allowing the full spectrum of life to facilitate movement towards truth. Thus, after an over-indulgence or foray into darkness, I observe consequential shifts in my body, heart, and energy, which invariably rekindle my thirst for prana (divine life force).

How do you define Brahmacharya or apply this yama in your life?

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