Who is a Yogi?

by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar

In my years of teaching and travel, I have been fortunate enough to visit almost every continent and interact with people of very different cultures. Back in the day, when I first decided to be a yoga teacher I never fathomed that this would result in so much travel and interaction with all kinds of people. What struck me most was the genuine and serious interest people around the world had towards yoga.  As a result, we see millions of yoga practitioners around the world and thousands of teachers to teach them.

The more I traveled, the more a fundamental question arised in my mind. Are all yoga teachers yogi-s, and do all yogi-s become yoga teachers. The question kept haunting me each time I interacted with people during and outside of the yoga seminars. In many cases I found that many yoga teachers seemed far from being yogis, and there were so many yogis, who dont teach “yoga”. I wanted to evaluate my perception and decided to verify with my teacher, TKV Desikachar, also my father.

I met him in his study room, and asked “who is a yogi?” Taking a moment to reflect he said with a smile, “A yogi is one who is open, who is un-agitated, and who has confidence and clarity”. I probed him further “Tell me more, I would like to understand this concept really well”. He simply said “reflect on this and come back after a few days, if you still are not clear”. I retired from his room and began to reflect about this simple answer for the next couple of days. An unforgettable experience that I went through during my college days surfaced in my mind.

It was the last year of my college, and we were preparing to get back home after five years of live in the desert town. One of the downsides (or should I say upside) of studying in one of India’s most prestigious universities was that it was located in an isolated desert around five hours drive from the capital of the country, New Delhi. As we were preparing for the last journey from university to home, we all had mixed feelings about leaving. The journey was through the desert and it was on a cold wintery night.

Unfortunately for us the driver turned out to be drunk and in the middle of the night rammed the bus into a road side tree. Two of us got seriously injured, one with a huge cut on the top of the head and the other one on the knee. There was panic all around as people scattered out of the bus not knowing where to go. We soon assembled by the empty road side with the two injured boys in the middle and the remaining fifty around him waiting to see if some help would come by. It was 1:15 am in the morning, chilly cold and the roads were hauntingly deserted.

At a distance we saw two flashlights approaching us, and soon discovered it was a car. We stopped the car and peeped inside to find a driver, a middle aged couple, and their daughter who must be in her early twenties. This daughter was decked up in the most beautiful dress and a lot of jewels. We did not have time to appreciate all these, and quickly expressed our situation and requested if we could use their car to take our friends to the hospital. The couple hesitated to answer, but by this time the girl got out and said, “you must go and save your friends”. Two of us quickly got into the car along with the two injured boys and headed of to the nearest town.

While we waited for them to return we chatted the three of them, and soon came to know that this girl was due to get married the next day and that was the reason for her parents’ hesitation. In India, especially in the north, if a girl misses her wedding, it is considered inauspicious and the chances that she will get married again easily are slim. Suddenly we were faced with a feeling of great guilt. The girl then said “I have a better chance of getting married again, than they would have had to save their lives. Don’t worry, I am not worried”. Here was a woman in her early twenties speaking with such confidence, even though what she was doing was unorthodox and very much unusual. No one would want to miss their own wedding. These memories slowly brought me back to my reflections on who is a yogi.

I narrated this story to my father and asked him, “was this woman a yogi?” The same graceful smile returned to his face and he said “now you have understood. Here is a woman who was open to help you all despite the fact that she was getting married. She was calm even though she knew it was not an auspicious thing to do, and her chances of getting married again were difficult. She was clear that she needed to offer help to someone who could have lost their life, and this clarity gave her the courage to take this step. She is indeed a yogi.” That day I understood what being a yogi meant.

I thought about these qualities and reflected, how many of us yoga teachers have such qualities. In my own travels and experiences I have found that quite a few of us need to reflect on these qualities to call ourselves yogis. Being a yogi does not mean that we become asocial, or insensitive, it means to become aware of our social responsibilities and to be open to help each other. We need to reflect on our own lives and the impact yoga has on it to make us open, calm and confident.

This article was written in the year 2002, for publication in a Yoga magazine. It felt good to re-read it today, on the International Yoga Day (21 June 2015), and it has inspired me to share it with the public again today. 

Feel free to leave your thoughts or feedback as comments. And most certainly feel free to share the article ton your friends, students, colleagues and well-wishers.