Are you doing yoga because you were inspired by some great teacher or yogi? This is the case for many yoga enthusiasts, and indeed it can be so inspirational to find out about the paths of influential yogis and yoginis who came before us, as well as those who are doing incredible work in the world at present.
So, we’re putting together a series on the influential yogis and yoginis, past and present. We’re going to tell you about some of the top names you’re likely to come across, their lineages and traditions, and find out how this relates to yoga today. To kick off we’re unpacking some key terms which you might come across in this series. These terms come from a tradition which is thousands of years old, and will add some depth to our understanding of these characters.
Yogi / Yogini
For our purposes, a yogi is someone who practices yoga, with yogini being the term for a female practitioner. Some texts classify yogis at different levels, for example you may be a beginner, intermediate, or advanced practitioner — with advanced usually referring to someone who has reached enlightenment.
In the West this term is often used to refer to someone who knows a lot about something. You could talk about a ‘marketing guru’ or a ‘nutrition guru’ for example. It can also conjures up ideas of 60’s cults with some hippie guru at its centre. As is often the case with Sanskrit words, there are a number of levels of meaning to the word:
- imparter of knowledge
- heavy with knowledge
- heavy with spiritual wisdom
- heavy with spiritual weight
- heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization
The guru is seen as the one who ‘dispels the darkness of ignorance’.
The syllable gu means shadows, the syllable ru, he who disperses them, because of the power to disperse darkness, the guru is thus named.
~ Advayataraka Upanishad
For our purposes, the simplest explanation is that guru means teacher. But it is helpful to understand that in the yoga tradition it is very auspicious to be called a guru, and the word is not used lightly as we sometimes do in the West.
A swami is someone who has renounced or set aside ‘normal life’ to devote all their time to the highest spiritual realisation. The swami is initiated into monastic vows or a particular lineage, where they drop their worldly pursuits to work towards their realisation, and to help others on that path. They are not anti-world in any way, as they live to serve others, but rather it is a case of having set their priorities in a certain way.
Sri or Shree is a word of Sanskrit origin, as a polite form of address equivalent to the English ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. For the purposes of our series on yogis, it is a title of respect or veneration, which usually means holy.
In yoga circles, people are often concerned with the lineage of their teachers or particular yoga style. The word lineage refers to a descent from a particular ancestry, or derivation from a particular course or teaching. It’s a yoga ‘family tree’, if you will.
An example of this would be that Krishnamacharya seen as the root of contemporary Hatha yoga. He taught TKV Desikachar, Indra Devi, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. These teachers went on to greatly influence the American lineages like Anusara, Jivamukti and Baron Baptiste. Of course Krishnamacharya was taught by teachers who were taught by teachers, and it all goes back to the original Hatha yoga from hundreds of years ago…. and you can probably see how just like with family trees, yoga lineages are often overlapping with others, confusing and disputed!
Yogis can get extremely possessive of their particular lineages, and there are often debates raging about which one is better, and questions around how one lineage can prescribe a particular practice while another preaches the opposite. In my experience, the lineage you end up practicing in is often a case of luck relating to the first class or teacher you enjoyed!
Some of the yogis we’ll be talking about in this series — especially the more historic ones — were given spiritual names at some point in their lives. This might typically happen when people take vows of some sort, or are initiated into a lineage. Examples of this would be Satchidananda or Sivananda, who we will cover in the series. It is a tool which is used to indicate a new spiritual identity, and can be seen as an opportunity to leave the past behind.
There’s more to this than meets the eye right? We hope this sets you up for our series on famous yogis coming up over the coming months. We’d like to know, who has been an influential yogi in your life? Anyone in particular you’d like to see us discuss? Who are you expecting to pop up on our list?