“Oh, Are You a Yogi?”

Uttered by a well-intentioned classmate upon hearing of my involvement in yoga research, these words generated a cascade of internal dialogue. In this time and place, what does it mean to be a “yogi,” anyway? Why did I feel instantly piqued by this statement? And which says more—unquestioningly assuming this identity, or the aversion I experienced upon potentially being assigned this label?

The yogis and tantrikas of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese cultures might well be puzzled by the term’s adoption among western yoga practitioners. True, the highly ritualized practices of indigenous “tantrikas” and asceticism of traditional yogis hearken far from the world of western yoga, where the pop “yogi” identity is often closely wedded to class and spiritual materialism.

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For me, unpacking the term’s squeamishness entails acknowledging the well-known hipster tendency to experience as aversive anything labeled as “cool” by the mainstream. I’m no hipster, but like many, I always resisted being put in a box. The east coast “yogi” box hearkens cultural connotations presuming linkages to new-age spirituality, power yoga, handstands, lululemon, affluence … and so on.

Boxes aside, group membership is an important part of being human. Identity shopping launches in adolescence, filtered through lenses of worldview, class, race/ethnicity, and consumer preferences. Nearly everyone can relate to the sense of kindredness accessed upon finding a tribe. Tribal and subcultural identities serve an important social function, providing a sense of meaning and belonging. Shared culture and values are important; in the U.S. we’re fortunate to have a democracy that aims (with varying degrees of success) to honor the rich multiplicity these subcultures comprise.

Yet, it is also important to note some potential downsides to identifying with a subculture—and its associated labels. Anytime we sharply identify with a group of people, a corresponding disidentification with—and judgment of—other groups may arise. For example, strongly political democrats are more staunchly opposed to republicans than they may be to other groups. Yoga practitioners of whatever stripe may be so committed to their style, that they lose sight of the overall benefits that all forms of yoga may confer. Thus, the benefits of group membership have trade-offs (consider the recent Anusara debacle), potentially blindsiding us and fostering the illusion that we are separate from (or better than) others.

Adopting the “yogi” label may be thus drawing a line in the sand that unnecessarily divides. Tantric yoga philosophy teaches that all individuals are divine; they need only awaken to this truth. Am I, then, a yogi while you are not? Beyond this, does not yoga teach us to continue expanding and awakening to inner truth, simultaneously transcending duality, labels, and identifications with the material realm? To be fair, tantra rajanaka philosophy suggests none of this is problematic, positing that ego, identifications, and illusions should be celebrated as evidence of our divinity.

What are your thoughts on the “yogi” label?

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