Words often have their meaning watered down in translation. I can remember when I lived in France realizing that somethings I really could only fully express in French and others only in English. Every time I lived abroad and came home, I always came home speaking a mix of English and whatever language I’d been exposed to because some things only can be understood in the language in which they were born. Nowadays, my speech is a mixture of English, Hebrew, and Yiddish for similar reasons. I choose the word that most closely fits what I’m trying to express and sometimes my ideas aren’t all in English.
Which brings us to a few words that often get tossed around in yoga circles, specifically, “yogi, yogini (the feminine form of yogi), and guru.
These often get used rather casually. Anyone in a yoga class becomes a yogi or yogini. Anyone you admire or follow on instagram or take advice from becomes your “guru.” Even inanimate objects or illnesses become your “gurus.” Your chronic pain becomes a guru because you learn something from it. I think we tend to use these words because it feels like it lends some greater weight or significance using an exotic, foreign word. Unfortunately, there’s a problem here.
These words already have meanings in the language they were born in and those meanings very often do not fit how we’re using them.
In the spiritual path of yoga, a yogi or yogini is a pretty serious adherent. The closest translations I can think of might be a priest or nun or monk or other renunciate in another religion, like a nazarite. This is someone who has done extensive study and taken some vows to abstain from many things in life, like material possessions or dietary considerations. This is someone who doesn’t just do the physical practice of yoga poses…in fact for many of them, yoga poses aren’t even included in their practices or if they are, they are a small part of it. It is not traditionally used for someone who joins a drop in goat yoga class. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…it’s just not the same level of study and dedication or religious focus.)
Similarly, a guru in the traditional sense is a spiritual leader, someone who has studied a long time and provides spiritual guidance to others. It’s a revered position similar to a Rabbi or Priest in other faiths. It’s not someone who just gives good advice or the wisdom of a stubbed toe telling you to walk more carefully.
Throwing these terms around casually is actually rather disrespectful. It’s similar to if I heard someone called a Rabbi because they ate a bagel or a nun because they wore a black and white shirt. I also don’t use them because it makes a lot of assumptions about the person being called these things. I for one am an Orthodox Jew, so I’m certainly not a yogini and I don’t automatically assume that because someone is in a yoga class with me that they are on a yogic spiritual path as well. They might be or they might be an atheist. I also don’t go looking for gurus. I have Rabbis and Rebbetzins that I turn to for spiritual and religious guidance and I assume that most people next to me in yoga class have their own mentors and guides as well.
I don’t see myself as qualified to be a spiritual guide. I took a training to help you move in and out of yoga poses safely and help you feel less stressed and more at home in your body…that doesn’t mean that I am in any way qualified to tell you how you should live your life any more than your car mechanic or massage therapist is.
I leave these terms in the language and culture they originated in out of respect in the same way I appreciate it when people don’t appropriate terms that have deep meaning for me from my culture in “cute” or “funny” ways. I also do it out of respect for the culture I do live in. For me, it’s about respecting the path of others while walking my own with my head high.