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Who is a Yogi?

By Yogi Baba Prem Yogacharya, Veda Visharada

The term yogi and yoga are amongst the most common words from the Hindu tradition to penetrate the western vocabulary.  But, it is still somewhat rare that one gives thought to what these terms actually mean, their proper application, and what they are actually referring to; as yoga is commonly confused with ‘stretching’ or some other form of acrobatic activity. On some levels, the confusion is easy to understand, as there are a variety of different meanings given and associated with ‘Yogi’.

Yogi, like yoga, comes from the root ‘yuj’ literally meaning ‘to join’.  This is not literally an act of joining, as in joining a class, but rather is a joining of the finite consciousness with the infinite consciousness.  But yuj has a great deal more complexity than these meanings and does not translate well into English.  Other qualities associated with ‘yuj’ would be ‘to harmonize’ and ‘to harness’.  This would be to harmonize the rhythms between the Sun and Moon, the mind and body, ego and soul to name a few examples.  Likewise, it is to harness the emotions, so that they drive the body in a healthy direction towards Dharma and self-realization.   

Commonly the term Yogi, or Yogini for a female, is becoming used for anyone that practices yoga and often includes someone that has just started the practice of yoga, to student’s that have practiced for many years.   This is most likely not the best application of the term; it might be more correct to use the term ‘Yogin’ to describe a practitioner of yoga, as this is the common correct usage within parts of India.  But ‘Yogin’ is rarely used within western society. 

Examining the traditional teachings, we do not find a great deal of support for current and common application of yogi to just anyone that practices yoga.  The Shiva Samhita (2.1-5) states that a Yogi is someone that that is able to see that the beings existing in the three worlds (earth, atmosphere and heavens) are found within the body as well.  This is often referred to as Brahmanda, which is a reference back to Hiranyagarbha; a reference to the cosmic egg or source of the universe.  Hiranyagarbha is viewed as the source of yoga and the experience of yoga.   Additionally, Hiranyagarbha is found within the Vedic Yoga tradition, the oldest recorded yoga in the world, and is considered the ‘founder’ of yoga. 

Within some Siddha traditions, a Yogi is one that knows the 9 chakras, the goal, and the ethers along with a few other qualities.  Of course, knowing the 9 chakras is not merely a simplistic understanding of their locations, but rather having merged with and having developed a complete understanding of the purpose, form and function of the chakra.   Within the Yoga Bhayasa of Yogin, there are also four classifications of yogi’s, as in practitioners of yoga:

1. Neophyte (prathama-kalpika).  This is a beginner.

2. Madhubhumika.  One who has reached the honey level (madhu) of consciousness on earth (bhumi).

3.  Prajnajyoti.  One who has reached the light (Jyoti) of wisdom (prajna), sometimes viewed as enlightenment. 

4.  Atikrantabhavaniya.  One who transcended.

The modern usage of Yogi as a generic term does fit more within the view of the Yoga Bhayasa of Yogin, but regrettably there is little attention paid to the remaining three classifications, and there is little awareness that the term yogi is being used to refer to a neophyte. 

Within the renunciation traditions of some swami orders, Yogi is often used for the entry levels of those following a path to Sannyasin.  Some renuciates begin with the title ‘yogi’, as this is commonly used in some south Indian Shaivite traditions.  It may also appear at various levels within some Vedantic traditions, as well. 

The term Yogini is an even more complex term, as this term is associated with the Divine mother and female saints.  It would be correct to use the term ‘Yogini’ to describe an incarnation of the sacred feminine form, as well.  Grammatically, Yogini is the feminine form of the noun Yogi.  Making it correct to use Yogi in reference to males, and Yogini in reference to females.  The term can also refer to groupings of forms of Durga, an important Goddess.  Yogini also has important meanings within the various tantric traditions; most importantly, is that the term Yogini is strongly associated with Shaktism and worship of the Goddess and feminine expression and relationship with Divinity, especially forms of Durga and Kali.   

There are numerous additional titles from within the Hindu tradition associated with Yogi and Yoga; these include Yoga-raj or king/lord of yoga.  This is often an honorific title given to yoga masters.  There is Yoga-yukta which is a term for a practitioner that has brought their senses and mind under control.   Yoga-vid is a knower of yoga.  There is also Yogacharya which is commonly viewed as a teacher of yoga, but this should not be construed as just a mundane teacher, as the term yogacharya is often incorrectly used to refer to someone that has focused primarily on asana; rather a true yogacharya would be an expert in all 8 limbs of yoga, having experienced the higher levels of consciousness to some degree at a minimum.  Within some traditions, yogacharya is commonly used as preceptor.  Additionally, some systems define three different types of yogacharya:

1.       Codaka-meaning the prompter.

2.       Bodaka-meaning the awakener.

3.       Mokshada-the liberator. 

Yogi does appear within the Buddhist tradition, as Buddhism was born out of Hinduism.  It is here that we see the most common or liberal usage of the term, as Yogi can be commonly used to refer to a renunciate  or a householder that practices meditation.  It is the Buddhist usage that has most likely influenced modern day practitioners of yoga and their usage of the term ‘yogi’, but ironically, often these teachers do not teach within a Buddhist tradition or structure, rather they combined Buddhist views with the afore mentioned ‘Neophyte’ classification; revealing the popular, but incorrect, merging  together of Hinduism and Buddhism that has commonly influenced yoga in the modern age, and, at times, generated much confusion regarding the meaning of important terms. 

For the modern yogin, certainly to become a yogi or yogini begins with one’s ability to connect with the earth.  Connecting with the earth involves cultivating the ability to see the Divine principles manifest within the earthly form.  This can include recognizing the sacredness of rivers, the power points of mountain tops, the peace within the valley, and nourishment from trees, plants and grasses.  All of nature is but a physical manifestation of the lofty physical principles, jargon, and concepts that we eagerly throw around as modern yogin’s.  Likewise, one must cultivate the ability to see the universal principles of light, air and heavens in their myriad of manifestations within the earthly realm.  Seeking enlightenment is only for the recognition of the truth that resides within our hearts and is reflected in nature.  Those that seek enlightenment as only an escape from the earthly realm are under one of the greatest illusions. 

Cultivating the ability to perceive Divinity in a variety of forms is quite important.  For example, seeing a storm or lightening, and organically thinking of Indra (Vedic God of the Gods, also associated with storms) illustrates a deeper understanding of Divinity within the world that is beyond mere book study or attending a class; likewise, this organic process serves to remind us of our own higher mind, which Indra represents as well, which frees one from the limiting and contracting thoughts of the ego.  It is through this connection via nature that the finite realizes it connection with the infinite. 

As practitioners of yoga, it is important to understand the tradition that one’s particular teachings come from; likewise, it is important to use the terms of yoga within their proper context.  The current tendency of forcing words to mean what we want them to mean, or what we think they mean, only degrades yoga and the sacred teachings of yoga, as well as propagating ignorance.  We have only grazed the surface of the meaning of yogi and yogini, as these words and meanings are quite expansive and eventually transcend language, as they express something that is beyond limited language. 

 

Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved. 

 

Yogi Baba Prem

  • Yogi Baba Prem has two books published in India, and has written numerous other books published by Universal Yoga. 
  • His articles have appeared in several traditional magazines and a variety of e-magazines.