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What is a Yogi?

I find identity an interesting subject, particularly as it plays out in the post-modern era. Identity is a useful interface for navigating the material world but it is ultimately a hindrance for spiritual liberation. This is because identity is identification to impermanent aspects of self and experience that creates limitations in understanding ones being. So with that said, the question I wanted to explore is - what is a yogi and how do we identify one?

As someone who has practiced yoga for over 15 years, I think about how I would have answered this question before I started, and how this contrasts to how I would answer this now. Before, I might have said something about a yogi being peaceful, enlightened and wise. I would have said a yogi is someone who has renounced all worldly desires in order to attain higher knowledge of the immaterial, of God and of the true nature of reality beyond the five senses. To some extent I still hold to that definition but it has evolved somewhat. My previous understanding suggests being a yogi is a finished article, whereas now I believe it's something of a continual evolution as life is lived and the practice is continued.

As consciousness raises and awareness increases, so too must the outward expression and direction of ones actions. This much seems obvious, but as a long-term practitioner reflecting on my journey with yoga so far, I see the ebbs and flows, the construction and dismantling of my beliefs and the situate state of my awareness that is influenced by whatever I am holding in my life at any given time. All this simply to say, being a yogi is not a static state, it is a developmental path, but also, that path is not linear (i.e. from ignorance to enlightenment).


When I first started practicing yoga, I wanted to wear Mala beads, 'hippy' clothes and accumulate things that allowed other people to read me as - 'someone who practices yoga'. I had a conception of what I thought a yogi was and I tried to be that. As I continued to practice and my youthful temper abated, I became more calm and I also became vegan. Now, as I reflect I don't think any of these things were forced, I think they were ways that I felt I could get close to feeling of being a yogi in those early days. In hindsight, I guess they were ways I was trying to prove my devotion to the path of Knowledge. I remember Ram Das saying in one of his recorded talks (you find a great archive on Ram Dass, Here and Now podcast), that you have become someone before you can become no one. As in, how can you shed your identity and understand it is an illusion, without having an identity in the first place. This is an interesting paradox and reminds me of Samkyha (sister school of yoga) philosophy and the journey of purusha (pure awareness without content) and prakriti (nature, karma and laws of action). Purusa only comes to know what it is by realising what it is not and by continually dancing with Prakriti. Life is a meandering journey of twists and turns, our purest essence has been with us from the beginning - trying on different outfits to understand who it truly is is part of the journey of discovering who we are, it seems to me, is discovering - who we truly are not.

Ultimately, yoga is freedom from the outfits of identification. Over time I have come to understand that yoga is a living breathing practice of continual revealing, of stripping back the layers, and there came a point in my journey when I realised that even the ‘garbs’ of yoga are a mask. My attire, my speech, my actions - trying to place them in line with my conception of what a yogi is, however, I’m not ‘trying’ to be a yogi. Yoga is living through me because of my consistent and dedicated practice. Yoga is living through me because of my teachers showing me the method of the practice. The revealing is continually asking me to be at peace with what IS and being fearless of who I really am. It is not asking me to come into line with who or what I think I should be.

Now I realise, identity is the accumulation of experiences that have shaped how I navigate the world, show up in the world and often how the world reads me. This is ever moving, ever changing (or at least it can be). This ‘I’ that we identify with and that we often understand as 'who' we are, is an amalgamation of our 'imprints' from this life, and in yoga philosophy, previous lives too. These are called samskaras and we can understand them as unconscious and conscious drivers that activate our likes, dislikes and actions etc. The identification with these malleable aspects of self, is thought to cause us much suffering, when really, there's a deeper truth and reality that suggests we are in fact, not our identifications, but pure being, pure awareness and pure existence without content. It is this state or this realisation that yoga is trying to bring us closer to.

Therefore, spirituality is not an identity, it’s a practice that allows us to get closer to this Knowing or what I sometimes simply call, Essence. So if you ask me now what is a yogi, I'd say that it is someone who has touched their Essence. Someone who allows the Essence to illuminate their life. It is the one who is peeling away the layers of form, of maya that stop us from experiencing, knowing and recognising the Essence. Essence, like the Tao, can't really be described with words because it's beyond the world of form, language and immediate senses. Essence is not something we can grasp or hold. It’s something we can open ourselves up to as an offering of grace as it moves through our lives and animates our being.

In the trying, there’s no being. No pure witness. I’m learning this. To just be. Being okay as life plays out, as life lives through me, in its idiosyncratic ways. As I participate, trying on different garbs and identities, engaging and performing, acting and reacting - yet knowing that the ultimate state is one of Essence. This is a dance between two realms, two states but this is not a dichotomous state. This is where I understand transcendence and integration to play a part. We must rise above the state of duality, yet in order to do that we must reconcile the opposites within ourselves. I understand now that when you know this, feel this, see this, the mask slips a little more and one can enjoy the dance and the interplay.


So all of those things that I judge as yogic or not yogic, yet they still remain a part of me, part of my egoic make-up, part of life. What then must that mean?


For me it means, external markers of identity reveal little about who we actually are. At the end of the day, we all have to participate in the world and in the dance of life. All the ups and downs and all the imperfect humanness of life on Earth, yoga is simply asking us to see reality as it is, rather than impose on it how we wish it would be. It is asking us to peel away attachments and identifications that bind us to realities of untruth. This includes ourselves and this is why honest confrontation with all the aspects of ourselves is so important to spiritual and self development. It is the pure witness that can change things, simply by being with what actually is. Therefore, we don't try to be a yogi - we practice, we show up, we do 'the work', we reflect, we sit in stillness and silence often. In so doing we find the Essence more often, we get closer to it and it animates our life to greater extents, we become more free and in so doing, we walk the path of Yoga.

The intention now for me is not to 'arrive' as such, but to live my life in this way. I guess I'm left asking instead, not what is a yogi, but how can I walk the path of yoga more authentically? The answer to that is, to just practice and keep practicing, and then let it go - abhyasa and vairagya/

Thank you for reading xx



Such a wonderous read! The reduction of identity that "being a yogi" brings, allows for the grandness of that Essence to fully express through us. I Love how you managed to bring the cadence of breath into this piece and allow for that Essence to breathe Life into the false identity of a "yogi". Whilst also acknowledging that, as we are human as well we are always practicing, learning and walking what we choose.

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