Before coming to India for a yoga teacher training course, I hadn’t thought too much about what it means to be a “yogi”. I figured that if you like yoga and do yoga pretty regularly then feel free to call yourself a yogi (if you want). It doesn’t give you superpowers, nor the right to teach yoga or be superior; but if it helps you enjoy your practice and find other yogis to hang out with, then great!
As you might expect, it turns out that being a “yogi” in India is a lot more intense, and the title is a lot more meaningful. To begin with, the study and practice of yoga is both more commonplace and far more spiritually significant in India. It seems to me that the title of yogi is a meaningful sign of expertise and dedication to one’s yoga practice. I should point out that, traditionally, yoga is much more than a physical practice. It’s a spiritual practice that gives guidelines about how to live, the goal of which is to control the mind so that one can reach enlightenment. (This is according to the practice of Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga, which outlines eight elements of yoga, only one of which is the physical practice). So while there are many levels of yogi-hood, the great yogis are those who have reached what’s called samadhi, or enlightenment.
I struggle with the concept of samadhi. One of our teachers (who considers himself a middle-of-the-pack yogi) describes the path to samadhi as one of detachment. (I’m about to get into some granola here so bare with me). Supposedly, most people spend their entire lives living in their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, their fourth chakras. Chakras aren’t really my thing, but I’ll give a quick overview in case you aren’t familiar (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you already know this stuff).
There are seven main chakras or energy centres, (though there are a bunch of smaller ones throughout your body). These chakras start at your tailbone and follow your spine up to the crown of your head. The first chakra, muladhara, is also called the root chakra because it’s located at your tailbone and relates to safety, survival, stability, food and other basic needs. The second, svadhishthana, is at your sacrum and relates to intellectual interests, emotions, relationships, pleasure and creativity. Manipura, the third chakra, is at your navel and relates to things like ego, power, respect and fear. The fourth chakra, anahata, is also called the heart chakra because it’s located at your heart and relates to compassion, unconditional love, passion and devotion. Vishuddhi, the fifth chakra, is located at the throat and governs communication, expression and relates to teaching. The sixth chakra, ajna, is also called the third-eye chakra because of its location just above and between the eyebrows. It relates to intuition (and even the ability to see the future), visualization, and balancing the inner and outer worlds. Last, sahasrara is located at the crown of the head and relates to samadhi (enlightenment), inner wisdom, a sense of oneness with the “universal consciousness”, and detachment from the body.
My understanding is that one should generally aim to balance energy across all of the seven chakras, but that for just about everyone, their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, fourth chakras are most active. Supposedly, most people want to expand their heart chakra (without knowing it), because they want to be happy, and value compassion, love, service, and helping others–all elements of an open or active heart chakra.
Getting back to my point about yogis: apparently, a “true yogi” aims to move up into their fifth, sixth and seventh chakras, as they work toward enlightenment. A “true yogi” works to detach themselves from this world, which is why many people on this path become monks, giving up their belongings and families, perhaps eating the same simple food for the rest of their lives, and relying on the generosity of others to sustain them. This is because one can’t move into the upper chakras if one is distracted by the worldly desires and attachments of the lower chakras. “True yogis” even release their attachments to the heart chakra. They can show some compassion for others but, supposedly, they can’t busy themselves with helping others or changing the world if they’re ever going to reach enlightenment.
The intention of moving into the upper chakras isn’t to deprive oneself of the things and people you’re attached to or enjoy, but rather that through one’s practice of pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and living in alignment with the yamas and niyamas (codes of social and personal conduct), one releases any attachment to worldly things like food, ego, family, and service. Eventually, a “true yogi” just becomes disinterested in the world, coming to reject their life as it was, and becoming a recluse. If they’re lucky, they release their attachment to their individuality and spend their time in samadhi, or oneness with the universal consciousness; coming to truly know that every single creature and thing in the universe is an individual drop of the same ocean.
Now, I know I’m living it up in my first three or four chakras, but I’m having trouble with the idea that the goal of a yoga practice (according to Patanjali’s Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga), is to detach completely from the world. In fact, I can’t help but think that the process of becoming disinterested in all of the pleasures and people that one used to enjoy, and becoming indifferent to life sounds an awful lot like depression. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for someone who’s reached samadhi to decide when they will leave this world, and kill themselves.
When I asked about this, our teacher tried to distinguish depression from samadhi, saying that someone with depression is sad and feels stuck, whereas someone in samadhi is happy and free. I understand this for the most part, but I still don’t like the idea of becoming so disinterested in life that it would feel natural to leave this world rather than enjoy it. I suppose it makes sense that I feel this way–for now, I’m perfectly content to stick around in my first four chakras. Maybe one day, when I’m much older, it will feel perfectly natural to prepare myself for leaving this world by detaching in this way.
Perhaps then I’ll be a “true yogi”. But in my opinion, being a yogi is like being a good person who does their best to live with intention and be happy. That’s certainly hard enough as it is, and it’s good enough for me.