Yogi Bear. Yogi Berra. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Growing up as Kathy Yogi, I was often called by those names, to my great annoyance. I hated the nickname “Yogi Bear” most of all. On the playground at Makawao School, kids would call out, “Hey, Yogi! Where’s Boo Boo?” or “How’s about some pic-a-nic baskets?!”
When I complained to my father about the taunts, he advised me to smile and reply, “Yep, I’m smaarrter than the average bear!”
“That’s not gonna help!” I cried. Sure enough, the first (and only) time I tried it, in my best Jellystone Park accent, my classmates screamed with laughter. Instead of shutting them up as my father had predicted, the retort just encouraged my tormentors to up their game. I guess my Yogi Bear impersonation was so good, they wanted to hear more.
I decided that my dad didn’t understand the burden of our surname, despite having been a Yogi for much longer than I. After all, when he was a schoolboy, Yogi Bear didn’t exist, and by the time Yogi Berra’s fame was established, Daddy was a young man and would probably have enjoyed the association with the baseball great.
Me, not so much. Despite being a bit of a tomboy, I was a terrible softball player. Invariably, after a humiliating turn at bat, I’d hear, “Aw, Yogi Berra struck out again!” Daddy never advised me to repeat any Yogi Berra quotes to silence the teasing, but if he’d thought about it, he could have said, as Berra once did, “Take it with a grin of salt.”
Berra might have been the only person who resented Yogi Bear as much as I did. After the cartoon bear debuted in 1958, Berra sued Hanna-Barbera Productions for defamation of character. The company denied any connection between the two, as unlikely as that seems, since the eventual baseball Hall of Famer was already a household name by then. Berra dropped his lawsuit, even though, it was said, he disliked being occasionally called Yogi Bear. Ironically, when Berra passed away in 2015, The Associated Press wire service initially announced “New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Bear has died. He was 90.”
Unlike the bear (and me), Berra wasn’t named Yogi at birth. He received the nickname in his teen years, after a friend of his saw a travelogue about India and noticed that Berra, while waiting his turn at bat, sat cross-legged, similar to the yoga practitioner in the film. “I’m going to call you Yogi from now on,” said his friend, and so did everyone else.
I was still in adolescence when the Beatles adopted Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as their spiritual guru in the late 1960s, and a few kids teasingly asked if we were related. Again, I grumbled to my father and, again, he advised me to rise above my resentment. Better to be associated with enlightenment than pic-a-nic basket thefts.
In my 8th-grade year, my mother started watching “Lilias, Yoga and You” on PBS. She even ordered black leotards for us from Sears, and for a while, we both were novice yogis. As yoga entered the mainstream, I became less defensive about our name and eventually came around to liking it. By the early 1970s, Yogi was actually a pretty cool name, at least to the newly arrived hippies and flower children.
Nowadays, seeing the brand name Yogi on boxes of tea and bars of soap tickles me. The sight of a Yogi Bear plush toy no longer sparks irritation in my gut; in fact, once in a while, when faced with a challenge, I remind myself that I may not be a genius, but I am indeed smarter than the average bear. Sometimes, I call to mind one of the Maharishi’s assertions, such as “Whatever we put our attention on will grow stronger in our life” and “The highest state is laughter.”
And then, there’s my favorite Yogi (Berra)-ism: If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.