What is a Yogi? A Guide to a Yogi’s Essence, Beyond the Mat

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Joanne Highland

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A yogi is not just someone who practices yoga, but a person who leads a life dedicated to the principles of yoga philosophy.

When I think back to my own yoga origins, long before my training as a yoga teacher, I remember being curious about the practice purely for the physical benefits. When I heard a teacher refer to fellow practitioners as “yogis,” it didn’t really strike a chord with me as I wondered: what is a yogi, anyway?

However, my approach to yoga and my relationship with the practice gradually shifted toward a more profound purpose. I can’t precisely pinpoint when — but at some point, I realized that the word yogi did describe me after all.

If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, perhaps you can relate to this experience, asking yourself, “Am I someone who practices yoga, or am I a yogi?” What is the classification that defines those two states? Is there a clear difference?

Although the term has evolved from the ancient Nath Yogis to the modern social media yogini, it still holds great significance in how people describe their personal relationship to their yoga practice.

So, yogis and yoga practitioners alike — are you ready? Let’s explore together what makes a true yogi!

Definition of a Yogi

Before getting in too deep, let’s start with a general definition:

A yogi is someone who practices yoga not just as a physical exercise but as a holistic lifestyle. A yogi embodies the principles of yoga in all aspects of life, transcending beyond the mat and committing to a path of mindfulness, discipline (tapas), and conscious living.

According to prominent contemporary yogi and spiritual teacher Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a true yogi looks beyond the physical “consequences” of yoga and focuses instead on the purpose of the practice.

The term “yogi” originated in ancient India to describe a person dedicated to self-study, divine wisdom, and spiritual enlightenment. This journey is deeply personal and unique to each person, but it shares a common goal: achieving a state of harmony between mind, body, and spirit.

Historical Origins of the Term

The term “Yogi” is particularly associated with the Nath Yogis, a centuries-old Indian spiritual tradition responsible for preserving and passing on yogic knowledge. The Nath Yogis emphasized the master-student dynamic and led ascetic lives. The culmination of this committed life was the Nath Siddha, a fully realized, enlightened person and master of yogic practices.

According to the tradition of Nath Yoga, a yogi embodies much more than the physical aspects of yoga; they delve into profound depths of spirituality, guided by the wisdom of yoga philosophy and Hinduism.

In contrast to informal yoga practitioners, Nath yogis embrace an enlightened relationship with the spiritual world through observances such as the yamas and niyamas. Thus, the primary distinction between a true yogi or yogini and a regular practitioner lies in their pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, a concept deeply rooted in the traditions of Nath Yogis and Nath Siddha.

Within this historical context, defining what it means to be a yogi extends beyond mere participation in yoga but encompasses an enlightened state and desire for unity with the divine. Today, yogis might seem like a fringe group of society, but in the time of the Nath Yogis, they held an important place in Indian culture.

Unveiling the Cultural Significance of Yogis

The Yogi Influence on Ancient Indian Culture

When asking, “What is a yogi?” it is necessary to look for the answer beyond the four corners of the yoga mat. As you know, in ancient India, yogis were spiritual masters (Nath Siddha). As such, they influenced their culture in significant ways. For example, they:

  • Passed down wisdom from ancient texts.
  • Taught people about self-study and inner peace.
  • Provided healing practices through Ayurveda.
  • Supported their communities through selfless acts of service (Karma Yoga).
  • Promoted yogic principles like non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion.
  • Helped spread the practices of Hatha Yoga, meditation, and pranayama.

Many of these positive influences stand the test of time. Of course, not all yoga practitioners today are practiced Ayurvedic healers, but most of the self-labeled yogis I know share some of the above traits with the yogis of ancient India.

Can you think of a yoga teacher or classmate who also demonstrates these qualities of a yogi?

Global Recognition of Yogic Philosophy

Today, the world knows about yogis; their philosophy isn’t locked up in India anymore. With the advent of the internet and social media, people worldwide can now share their yoga practice, insights, and philosophical musings with a global community of yogis (like this blog you’re reading right now!).

Concepts like mindfulness and yoga practice are now mainstream, thanks to the teachings of spiritual masters and yoga teachers. Incorporating asana into daily routines and making time to practice yoga has become increasingly popular.

No matter your thoughts on social media, there is no denying the effect of online yoga influencers who have inspired countless people to take up a yoga practice.

Impact on Contemporary Wellness Trends

Yogis have shaped modern wellness trends, too. You can see their influence everywhere today, from seeing yoga studios popping up on every corner to reading about the billionaires, celebrities, and trendsetters who practice yoga.

But it’s not just about being trendy. Studies show that regular practice of yoga can improve health and reduce stress. Perhaps that’s why yoga and meditation have seeped into many different aspects of our modern-day lives.

Workplace yoga programs and mindfulness apps like Headspace make the path to becoming a yogi more accessible than ever before. You don’t have to live a monk’s life of renunciation to follow a yogi’s path!

The Lifestyle and Universal Qualities of a Yogi

True yogis and yoginis regularly practice meditation and live by certain principles like compassion, gratitude, and mindfulness.

Still wondering, what is a yogi? Here are some characteristics commonly associated with being a yogi or yogini.

Living the Yogi Way

A yogi’s life is all about self-discipline (tapas), mindfulness, non-attachment, and consistent practice. These aren’t just words to them; they’re lifestyle choices that shape their world through consistent practice.

  • Self-discipline (tapas): Yogis are consistent in their habits and observances. In general, they take a disciplined approach to most aspects of life, including their yoga training, diet, and other activities.
  • Mindfulness: They practice living in the present. They don’t try to control every minute of their lives but rather experience each moment as it comes.
  • Non-attachment: They don’t cling to things or people. Freedom is their jam — someone with a “go with the flow” attitude about life might just be a yogi!

Ethical Principles Rule

Yogis follow ethical principles called Yamas & Niyamas. These aren’t some old-school rules but guidelines for a pure life, a practice for purity.

  • Yamas: Five principles guide how yogis practice and interact with the world. These principles, which include non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-greed, require consistent practice.
  • Niyamas: Five more principles help yogis maintain internal purity through personal observances. These essential practices include cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to god.

By adopting these principles, you can practice yoga even when you can’t make it to your mat. Even the esteemed teacher Sadhguru recognizes that we can’t be glued to our mats 24/7; he encourages yoga practitioners to be a yogi even for a few moments every day.

Check-in with yourself daily: have you practiced kindness toward yourself and others? Have you been generous? Have you been honest? If you can answer “yes” to such questions, you have lived as a yogi would.

Fitness Meets Spirituality

Physical fitness isn’t just about looking good or staying healthy for a yogi. It’s deeper than that; it connects them with their inner selves and promotes mental clarity, with the ultimate goal of achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Yogis throughout history til today believe in holistic health:

  1. Physical Health: Not just through regular yoga practice but also through healthy lifestyle choices (eating a balanced diet and refraining from drinking alcohol and smoking, for example).
  2. Mental Health: Meditation is an effective stress management tool that helps calm the mind when thoughts try to take control, helping yogis stay cool and calm no matter what life throws their way.
  3. Spiritual Health: Yogis believe that caring for your physical and mental health helps you connect with yourself, your higher purpose, and God.

Path to Becoming a Yogi: A Detailed Guide

Yogis aren’t born overnight — it takes time and dedication. Originally, becoming a yogi was a years-long effort with four different stages.

The traditional steps to becoming a true yogi parallel the four ashramas or phases of life:

  1. Student stage: Learning the fundamental principles and techniques of yoga, often under the guidance of a teacher.
  2. Householder stage: Integrating yoga into daily life, often balancing practice with work and family commitments.
  3. Retirement stage: Withdrawal from societal obligations to focus more intensely on spiritual practices.
  4. Renunciate stage: Complete detachment from material possessions and worldly desires to fully immerse in pursuing spiritual enlightenment.

Most modern yogis are in the first two stages of this yogic journey. Even as a yoga teacher, I identify with the Householder stage: yoga is a huge part of my daily life, and while self-study and spirituality are essential parts of my practice, I am an active participant in modern society.

The point is even if you are in the very first stage of this journey, if you are committed to the practice and desire to progress through the various levels of yoga, you are on your way to being a true yogi!

Commitment to your yoga practice and self-discipline in maintaining healthy habits are essential characteristics of a true yogi

Modern Tips for Following the Path of the Yogi

Maybe you have a couple of yoga classes under your belt and are ready to commit to the yogi lifestyle. Or perhaps you’re already a dedicated student with a desire to pass into the second stage. Here are some tips that will help propel you down the yogic path.

  1. Find an experienced yoga teacher: Choose a person who has many years of experience and knowledge of yoga philosophy whose teaching style resonates with you.
  2. Adopt yoga-friendly lifestyle choices: This can be as simple as being mindful of your food choices: incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your meals, cut down on processed foods, and drink plenty of water!
  3. Progress from only asana to other yoga practices: Expand your yoga sessions to include meditation and pranayama (breath control exercises). These techniques are essential to any well-rounded and spiritually-focused yoga practice.

Asanas: Mastering Yoga Poses

Downward Facing Dog is a foundational pose you'll encounter in many styles of yoga classes -- a great pose for beginners!

Essential Yoga Poses for Beginner-Level Yogis

Interested in becoming a yogi but not sure where to start? The first step is getting to a yoga class, rolling out your mat, and practicing! Here are three foundational yoga poses that you might want to know before you go (follow the links to read our in-depth pose guides!):

  1. Mountain Pose: The base for all standing poses in yoga. It helps improve posture, balance, and self-awareness.
  2. Downward-Facing Dog: This pose stretches and strengthens the whole body and comes up regularly in many different yoga classes.
  3. Child’s Pose: This is a restful pose that can be returned to at any point if you need a break during a challenging class.

Even if you’ve never practiced yoga, there is no reason to hesitate to attend a class. Everyone was a beginner once! And speaking from a yoga teacher’s perspective, I love having beginners attend my classes!

Advanced Asana for Experienced Yogis

Eight-Angle Pose is an advanced arm balancing yoga posture. Showing motivation to advance your practice is a quality of a yogi.

Another essential characteristic of a yogi is showing motivation to advance in their practice. As a yogi, challenging yourself to master advanced asanas can help you break through limitations, cultivate discipline, and achieve greater inner peace.

If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, try these advanced asanas:

  1. Headstand: Perhaps the quintessential yogi pose, the headstand requires strength, balance, and focus.
  2. Dancer Pose: This asana is a beautiful demonstration of flexibility and balance.
  3. Eight-Angle Pose: This posture requires significant strength and flexibility in the arms, legs, and core and is a beautiful introduction to arm-balancing postures.

Remember, advancing your practice is about personal growth, not perfect poses. So, take your time, listen to your body, and enjoy the process.

Important Considerations for Practicing Yogis

Balancing Practice with Rest

A true yogi or yogini knows the importance of balance. It’s about nailing that asana and understanding when to take a break. Regular practice is excellent, but rest periods are equally essential to prevent burnout or injury. Overdoing can lead to physical harm and mental fatigue.

Having Realistic Expectations

Not every yoga practitioner will reach the renunciate stage of practice or attain spiritual enlightenment. Others may never be able to hold a handstand or achieve some super-advanced asana. And that’s OK! A true yogi will let go of their attachment to results and instead focus on the journey.

What the Word “Yogi” Means to You

Becoming a yogi is more than just mastering yoga poses and meditation techniques. It’s about embracing a lifestyle that promotes universal qualities such as compassion, self-discipline, and mindfulness. The path might seem challenging, but remember that every step you take brings you closer to achieving inner peace and balance.

In this guide, we’ve explored the cultural significance of yogis, the steps to becoming a yogi, and tips to help you progress on your yogic journey. With all this information, how would you answer the question: what is a yogi? Has your view of your “yogi-ness” changed at all? Does the word yogi describe you? Leave us a comment below!

FAQ 1: What does it mean to be a Yogi?

The difference between a yoga practitioner and a true yogi is in the level of commitment to the yogic lifestyle. In addition to maintaining a dedicated asana practice, yogis exhibit qualities such as compassion, self-discipline, and mindfulness in their everyday lives.

To put it another way, a yogi is someone who practices yoga both on and off the mat!

FAQ 2: How can I start my journey as a Yogi?

The first step to becoming a yogi is learning basic yoga poses and meditation techniques. Joining a class and practicing under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher is a great place to start.

FAQ 3: Do I need any specific equipment to practice Yoga?

A high-quality, non-slip yoga mat is recommended for practicing yoga, along with any other props that might help you feel supported and more comfortable in your meditation and pranayama practices.

However, if you attend yoga classes at a studio, they will likely have equipment for you to use!

FAQ 4: Can anyone become a Yogi?

Yes, anyone interested in deepening their yoga practice can become a yogi. Remember, it takes more than attending regular yoga classes — you must dedicate yourself to the yogic lifestyle!

FAQ 5: What are some essential considerations for practicing yogis?

Practicing Yogis should consider maintaining a regular practice, eating healthy food, living mindfully, respecting all life forms, being honest with oneself and others, and striving for self-improvement.

FAQ 6: How much time does it take to become a yogi?

There is no set time or number of classes completed to become a yogi; it is an individual process unique to each yoga practitioner. As Sadhguru says, “It can be a moment, it can be a millennium, or it can be never” — it depends entirely on your dedication to the practice!

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About Joanne Highland

Joanne Highland is a 500-hour certified yoga and barre fitness teacher. Originally from the central coast of California, she attended the University of Southern California, graduating in 2007 with a degree in music and a minor in health promotion. Follow me: Instagram | LinkedIn | Personal Website

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