Simply put, a yogi* is someone who practices yoga. So, if you’ve done a few downward facing dogs in your lifetime, does that make you a yogi? Um, probably not. While this standard definition of a yogi is commonly stated, it is too simple to properly define what a yogi is and isn’t. Most importantly, we need to further define what we mean by he words “practice” and “yoga.”
Practice means that a yogi repeatedly performs yoga to acquire or maintain a level of proficiency. From my experience, I’ve found that it’s necessary to practice yoga for a minimum of three times per week for about an hour. Doing less than that will still certainly be very beneficial but probably not enough to make as much progress and improvement. Practice also infers a long term commitment to the path of yoga. Usually, but not always, you are a yogi for life.
The yoga that is practiced in the West is usually only asana (physical postures) and a bit of pranayama (breathing techniques). However, this is just a sliver of what is practiced and considered yoga in India. Traditionally, a yogi would be approaching yoga in a broader context than just asana and pranayama, incorporating meditation, mudra, mantra, tapas, yogic philosophy, bhakti (devotional) yoga, karma yoga (selfless service), and ethical guidelines (yamas and niyamas).
The frequency, intention and depth that you practice yoga depends on where you land in the four ashramas system of practice. The ancient yogis understood that not everyone can be hermits or renunciates practicing yoga 24/7 and that there are benefits to practicing yoga at different levels and stages of life. The ashramas system has four levels of practitioners: brahmacharya (young student), grihasta (householder), vanaprasthya (hermit), and samnyasa (renunciate/monk). Most of us fall into the grihasta level – living a regular life in a house or apartment, with a steady job, relationships, family, etc.
Additionally, the Yoga-Bhashya, the oldest known commentary on the Yoga Sutras, gives a similar but different four classifications of yogis: prathama-kalpika (beginner), madhu-bhumika (in the "honeyed level"), prajna-jyotis (illuminated/advanced practitioner) and, atikranta-bhavaniya (transcended). Most practitioners in the West fall into the beginner or intermediate “honeyed” level.
If you combine these two systems of yogi classification then you can create an interesting matrix to plot your current level and plan where you’d like to move towards in your practice. Once you find where you are at on the matrix then it is easy to see in what two directions to move towards advancement and deepening your practice. While it is important to embrace and accept your current level of practice, it is also helpful to set a long term intention to move towards the next stage.
If you are near the boundaries between levels and stages then you may find yourself creating a hybrid path of combining a bit of the deeper practices with an introspective lifestyle for a intermediate/advanced householder/hermit practice. In these modern times, we are also fortunate to be able to experience the hermit stage and advanced levels by taking yoga holidays or yoga retreats without a long term commitment.
Are you a yogi? Where do you land in the yogi matrix? What yoga techniques are you planning to practice to move to the next level?
*The term yogi can be used as both feminine and masculine, and yogi is also synonymous with yogin. A yogini is a female practitioner of yoga.