I have always internally cringed when someone calls me a “yogi.” For many years I thought this was me feeling self-critical, or being unnecessarily self-effacing, but I began to realize that it was something more. I began to realize it just felt off, and as I dug around to see why, I came to some realizations that were really freeing.
To me, a yogi is someone who dedicates themselves fully to the practice of yoga. That’s not me. I teach yoga poses and some of the philosophy of yoga and am passionate about sharing the healing benefits of both, but that’s a long way from saying I’m a yogi. I often say I teach and practice yoga techniques in addition to many other forms of mystical practice. And my personal mystical practice, while rooted in Theravada Buddhism, incorporates ideas from many traditions including classical yoga, mystical Christianity, Kundalini Yoga, different forms of esoteric energy work, Taoism, and self-inquiry in the Advaita Vedanta tradition (to name a few). I have found that all mystical traditions are pointing to the same thing, and synthesizing techniques from each into a personal practice works well for me. But it would be impossible to label it as anything other than a personal practice. And even though my practice is based in Buddhism, I don’t call myself a Buddhist anymore either. As a client of mine said so beautifully in discussion recently, “I have a practice and I like to share it.” The most I would ever say is that I’m on a path, I have a practice (physical and spiritual) and I like to teach what I have learned in the process to help others and let them learn from my successes and mistakes. That’s about it. I’m not a yogi or a Buddhist. I am simply who I am, a human being who has learned and continues to learn lessons that ease suffering and who wants to help others do the same.
There can be many reasons we adorn ourselves with spiritual titles. Sometimes it’s merited from our work, sometimes we’re trying to feel safe or like we belong, sometimes we don’t know or care, sometimes it doesn’t bother us one way or the other and it doesn’t matter. But when we inquire into this tendency there are many interesting opportunities for deeper healing and freedom. One of the most common and insidious tendencies in the label machine is we begin to strongly attach to the yogi identity we have created for ourselves. We more easily buy the stories we sell ourselves and become even more entrenched when that identity is challenged.
I mean just try this:
The next time you’re getting all proud of your spiritual identity, ask the universe to send you someone to challenge it. I guarantee they will show up pretty quickly. Then watch what happens when someone needles you, when someone criticizes you, when someone scoffs at you, ignores you, or calls you on bullshit. Just watch what happens inside of you no matter what you try to project externally. I promise you this will shake loose a lot of delusions. You’ll see pretty quickly how you scramble to shore up that identity and see how much work it takes to do so.
Within the yoga community the great “yogi identity attachment” is assuming that doing asana is the sole qualification for the yogi nameplate. For me at least, being able to do a yoga pose is a pretty low bar for calling myself a yogi. Sure I can do handstands, I love them and do them a lot. But learning to do handstands didn’t keep me from causing myself pain in my life. Doing handstands didn’t keep me from making poor choices in relationships. Doing handstands didn’t help me address aching loneliness, profound spiritual disillusionment, self-absorption, insecurity, powerlessness, or being severely self-deluded. I always say asana prepared me for the difficult journey of doing the inner work, but it wasn’t asana in of itself that helped me to heal on a deeper level. Of course I’m not knocking asana or the ability to do asana. I’m about to practice in a few minutes. Asana has been life saving for me, and it’s a deep passion and privilege to teach asana as my work. Plus asana can absolutely be the medium through which we can incorporate and learn the lessons of spiritual practice and self-awareness. I’m just saying doing an asana in of itself isn’t sufficient for bestowing upon ourselves a title that has deep spiritual significance and connotations.
I’ve noticed over the years that my greatest teachers, yoga teachers or otherwise, looked nothing like spiritual teachers. They didn’t label themselves as a knower, they were off the beaten path, and if you passed any of them on the street you wouldn’t give them a second glance. They looked like ordinary human beings. But when I sat in their presence there was something about them that made me pay attention. There was something in the quality of their presence, their words, and their teaching that opened spaces in me where I could heal and find greater joy. They didn’t call themselves anything; they didn’t have to, because who they were was evident. They became the teachings. Their inner work spoke for itself and it needed no title for affirmation or confirmation. It just was.
Now my friends, this is all true for me. I’m not making any suggestions about what you should or shouldn’t call yourself or that any of this applies to you if you choose to call yourself a yogi. But I will say it’s something worth looking at. We might ask ourselves why we do this. Maybe it’s just for convenience, maybe we’re trying to protect ourselves in some way, or maybe because we’re holding an identity we really want to solidify. I remember a few years ago becoming enraged when a teacher suggested that I was hiding from deeper pain behind the curtain of spiritual labels. You could have saved the city of Troy with all my defensiveness. But when I relaxed enough to see what was triggering me, I saw they were right. In that surrender so much was able to change for the better, and man I can’t tell you what a relief it was. When practice really takes hold it’s evident. The shift brought about by our inner work is undeniable. Then we can simply be who we are. We can relax. Nothing is more powerful, or more spiritual, than simply being who we are.