The Term Yogi

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve moved this posts from my drafts to my scheduled back to my drafts. Like, actual months. And it’s not like I’ve written it or anything, I just keep looking at the title of it and sighing so loudly that I can’t fathom getting into the mindset where I have to talk about this again. But, the yoga community has been rife with idiocy lately–at least, in my neck of the woods–and it’s time for me to get back on one of my will die on this hill soapboxes.

I have to start this with the disclaimer that, for about a year, I also used the term yogi. Before I knew better, I sometimes referred to myself as a yogi because that’s what the Internet told me made sense, so that’s what I did. I first discovered yoga in December of 2011, and it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I took a step beyond just practicing on my own to learn more about the culture where yoga comes from. I’d started practicing Tibetan Buddhism right at the same time as I did yoga since they often go hand-in-hand, so I knew where yoga came from, but I didn’t really know the history of Tibet and its struggles beyond a very basic, conceptual idea.

In my senior year, I took a course on Buddhism, and it was one of the most amazing classes I’ve ever had the privilege to take. It had a requirement for an Intro to Religion course beforehand–you know, it’s just occurring to me right now that I would have freaking excelled with a religious major–but I emailed the teacher detailing the last year of my life and how both yoga & Buddhism had saved me in so many ways, and she let me into the class. It was only there, when I was finally digging into the roots of where these Eastern practices that meant so much to me came from and the kind of struggles they had endured over the years.

It’s mostly forgotten at this point, and even when it was actively being hushed in the media, not a lot of people knew about the plight of the Tibetan people. And yet, we talk all the time about how His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, is currently in exile while in India. It’s one of those things that you just say in addendum to his name and status, but never really think about, because yoga and Buddhism is Indian, right? In part, yes, but it all stems from Tibet.

Buddhism is a faith that welcomes other faiths. Its entire foundation is built upon pulling pieces from the culture around it until a new culture was formed. You can see swathes of ancient cultures throughout the practices of Buddhism because it’s a faith that gathers the world around it and weaves it into something new. I resonate so deeply with Buddhism because it doesn’t look at something like Catholicism and say that you’re doing it wrong. It simply accepts that you’re doing it differently, and that’s okay.

At its heart, Buddhism comes from Tibet. Yoga comes from Tibet. This culture that we see permeated throughout Asian countries comes from Tibet, but it’s probably not a country many have even heard of. Why? In the 50s, China decided that Tibet was not a true country, that it had always been part of China, and that they’d, I don’t know, mistakenly let it wander away and form its own culture apart from them to the point that it was labeled on maps and had its own government and created its own faith?? Yeah, I don’t get it, either. But when China invaded Tibet in the 50s, they began a slow pursuit of the Dalai Lama, claiming they just wanted to bring him “back into the fold” or some other propaganda nonsense. When, ultimately, they asked for his location so they could visit and discuss things peacefully, His Holiness knew that Tibet was no longer safe, and he fled through the Himalayas into India.

For decades, the Tibetan people have slowly been suffocated by the Chinese government. They’re not allowed to practice their specific type of Buddhism, they’re not allowed to speak their native language, and they’re not allowed to pay homage to their spiritual leader because China does not recognize the Dalai Lama as the current incarnation. (Don’t even get me started on the fact that they’re hand-picking the next Dalai Lama, that’s a whole other can of worms.)

All of this is necessary to understand why you, as a Western practitioner, are not a yogi.

Yoga in the West is very different from yoga in the East. Honestly, even just italicizing very doesn’t do it justice. They could probably be viewed as entirely separate practices because we have bastardized the hell out of yoga, and it very rarely reflects its origins. The entire purpose of yoga, originally, was to move the body in a way that would stretch out the limbs and warm up the muscles in order to sit in meditation for hours, or days, at a time. The purpose of that meditation was to seek the ultimate ascendance into nirvana, to realize a truer level of self. And that is the definition of a yogi.

We’re so indoctrinated in a Christian/Catholic worldview that we just automatically assume everything else works the same way as our Western beliefs, but unless you’re from the culture in which the Eastern practices you’ve stolen comes from, you are not actually Buddhist or a yogi. I practice Tibetan Buddhism and yoga, but I will never claim to be of those cultures. I am not a Buddhist because I have not endured the suffering of the Tibetan people and devoted my life to the faith that they built. I am not a yogi because I have not utilized the asanas in order to sit in meditation for hours so that I might yearn for the higher understanding of this faith. You are not a yogi because you do not come from the culture where the true roots of yoga lie, and you do not practice yoga in a traditional sense because you’re from the West. It’s literally impossible for any of us to actually be yogis. We live in a materialistic, capitalism-driven world, and we cannot step away from that. No matter how far you remove yourself from the modern world, you will still not experience life as the Tibetan people do, as they have for thousands of years. You will never truly understand the suffering they have endured and the faith that they have built out of that suffering. You may devote yourself to a life of study and practice, but you still come from a world of privilege that allows you to devote yourself freely and without worry for death simple for practicing what you believe in.

And honestly? It’s not the people who try to take these steps, who remove themselves from the trappings of society in the West, that are calling themselves yogis. It’s the teachers in our communities, who post on Instagram and do headstands on mountains (guilty). It’s the students who go to boutique studios and say namaste or satnam without having a single idea what they mean. It’s the teachers who speak in Sanskrit for an entire class just to sound experienced or the students who pop into handstands in the middle and breathe extra, extra loud just to show off. It’s exactly who you think it is.

Unless you come from the culture in which yoga and Buddhism was born, you are not a yogi. You are not a Buddhist. And that bridge between the two, more than anything, is especially why you are neither. They are inseparable, and to truly be a yogi, you must also be a Buddhist, and to practice either in their holiest sense, you must be from the East. To say otherwise is cultural appropriation, so if you’re going to get all worked up about people saying namaste, maybe you should take a look at the other words you’re using.

(I also want to put a quick note on the word namaste to confirm that yes, I do say it at the end of my classes. I’ve been practicing Tibetan Buddhism and yoga for ten years, and, to the best of my ability as a Western person, I understand what it means, and when I say, the divine light in me bows to and honors the divine light in you, I mean it in a spiritual and faith-driven sense. I do not say it otherwise, and I will not be following this strange new trend to switch to satnam because that’s not of my faith, and it’s not something I can claim to have any knowledge on, nor do I agree with its meaning. Also, lowkey very suspect that y’all are switching from one Eastern term to another when the whole reasoning behind saying satnam is because namaste is cultural appropriation. LOL.)

I knew this was going to get preachy, and I don’t really intend for this post to get high views, but it’s been on my mind for a while, and I wanted to actually write it all down so I can have something to point to whenever this topic starts to rise up again in the community. Because it does often, and I’m exhausted with having to rehash all of this from scratch every time.

And if you’re curious about the current Dalai Lama and everything that’s happened in Tibet for the last 70 years, stay tuned! I’ll be reviewing one of my favorite films, Kundun, soon, and I highly recommend it if you want to dive a little deeper into Tibetan culture.

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