'What’s a Yogi?' ask the international participants who are attending the Women’s Yoga retreat in India. Most of them new to Yoga, all of them very drawn to it, are curious. I define a Yogi as a practitioner of Yoga, and by name we are Yoginis, women practicing Yoga. The group started off stiff and sore in the body, naming limitations, deferring habitually to their Smart phones on breaks, groaning a bit, while mysteriously and rapidly unfolding and unwinding as discomforts began to fall away. Midway through the retreat we watched the film The Last Yogis of Tibet which defines well what a (real) Yogi is. The day following, one of the women showed up to practice with an enthusiasm in her breath and at tea-time announced that she might be a Yogi, ‘I get it all of a sudden! I’m aware of myself within the environment, I’m feeling relaxed, my intentions toward the practice are clearer, I feel rooted to the earth, I’m connecting to all my ‘bits and pieces’. I’m breathing and it tastes like freedom.’
Following the retreat, I was invited to practice Yoga with the nuns at Dongyo Gatsal Ling Nunnery, the home of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, an ordained nun-Yogini of the Drukpa Kagyu Lineage www.tenzinpalmo.com (read her biography Cave in the Snow, by Vicki McKenzie) She grew to understand her responsibility to nuns on this path and build a nunnery for them. She began the formidable task in 1998 and it’s long since finished, home to up to 100 nuns. She explains, In the days of the great yogi Milarepa, there were many male and female yogic practitioners called 'Togden' and 'Togdenma' (literally meaning 'realized ones') who chose to follow the ascetic path to enlightenment. The Drukpa Kagyu lineage was renowned for its highly accomplished yogis and yoginis. Out of compassion for the world, many practitioners adopted this austere path in order to accelerate the attainment of spiritual realization. DGL Nunnery has several nuns who already aspire to train as Togdenmas and are prepared to undertake the long, rigorous and austere practices which require many years in retreat, in order to attain enlightenment in one lifetime. I spent a week with the nuns, aware of their dedication to reaching enlightenment by their commitment to their practices. Many were also there for the excellent education and community life offered them and they’d return home, marry, and have families. I practiced Yoga with the young playful nuns I fondly called nunlets and the mature, older nun-Yoginis. We enjoyed short sessions which included a lot of curiosity and giggling, the hiking up of robes, shyness, whispering and a concentrated hush when they felt how breath makes movement. I attended Tenzin Palmo's teachings, these days they’re infused with escalating concern about the world at large. As she always says in many ways, ‘There is only love, light and compassion, that’s all there is. The rest is Samsara, impermanence. Keep learning!’
And then there is Navtej (http://www.abhyastrust.org/aboutnavtejjohar.htm) He’s a contemporary Yogi, classically trained by T.K.V. Desikachar and a master Bharatanatyam Dancer, choreographer, avant garde global citizen and Delhi-ite living Patanjali’s sutras and Yogic philosophy. I admire Navtej and see him as a modern Yogi rooted in the philosophy of the ancient Yoga texts and teachings, while he claims that he now wants to radically turn Yoga on its head. He’s been teaching since 1985 and suddenly feels an urgency to re-orient Yoga practitioners from heavenly Yogic realms and back into the lower body of the earth, where trouble is brewing and escalating. He claims that for now, we and the earth are bound together in decline during this age of Kaliyuga, the perceived age of destruction, quarrel and strife, as laid out in the Veda’s, those classical texts. He has plans for distinct changes in his teaching to bring his students down to earth.