Susanna Barkataki - Embrace Yoga's Roots | The Mindful Strength Podcast

About Susanna Barkataki

An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki is the founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs Ignite Be Well 200/500 Yoga Training programs. She is an E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT). She is the author of the forthcoming book Honor Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice. With an Honors degree in Philosophy from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Education from Cambridge College, Barkataki is a diversity, accessibility, inclusivity, and equity (DAIE) yoga unity educator who created the ground-breaking Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga Summit with more than 10,000 participants. Learn lead to practice and teach to honor yoga’s roots: www.namastemasterclass.com

Website: www.susannabarkataki.com

To get more information about the Mindful Strength 30-day Practice Progression click here

To learn more about the Mindful Strength Membership click here

Woman in triangle pose on a yoga mat

Embrace Yoga’s Roots – Show Notes

To Visit Susanna’s – Website CLICK HERE

To Follow Her On – Facebook CLICK HERE

To Follow Her On – Twitter CLICK HERE

Embrace Yoga’s Roots – Book CLICK HERE

To start your 7-day FREE trial for the Mindful Strength Membership click here. 

Susanna Barkataki:

Embrace Yoga’s Roots

Susanna Instagram collage

About This Episode

Kathryn welcomes Susanna Barkataki on the podcast to unpack the term and act of cultural appropriation as it applies to yoga and other contexts. Kathryn and Susanna delve into how to honor yoga’s roots and traditions while also acknowledging the complex, intersectionality within histories of abuse by some prolific teachers. Susanna shares insights from her forthcoming book Embrace Yoga’s Roots and how the practice, beyond the asana, was historically trauma-sensitive, radical, and oriented towards inclusion.

Embrace Yoga's Roots Free Chapter Promotion

Podcast Transcription

Kathryn: [00:00:08]

Hi everyone. Welcome back. Today on the podcast I am speaking to the incredible Susanna Barkataki. If you haven’t heard of Susanna, you should go follow her on social media, Instagram, and Facebook. A couple of times a year she does a big free online event. She’s got free resources, a blog, a newsletter, and all that amazing stuff.

Susanna is one of the leading voices right now on the topics of cultural appropriation, honoring yoga’s roots, what yoga is, and how we can practice it. I am so so honored to have her on the podcast sharing this incredible information with all of us. Susanna has a book coming out. If you listen to the end, she will tell you about that and how you can access one of the chapters from her book.

[00:01:26]

We also have all of these links in the show notes which are all on mindfulstrength.ca. You can click on podcasts and you can find everything you need. Before we got into the interview, I want to announce that the 30-day practice progression has begun. You can sign up for it now. If you are in our membership, the practice progression is included in the membership so you don’t have to buy it separately.

If you’re not in our membership or you want to buy it separately so you’ll have it forever, you should head over to watch.mindfulstrength.ca and you can get signed up for it. Every day you get a new practice progression for 30 days. Some of the practices are more intense. We use weights and bands in some of them. On other days it’s more gentle; it’s more restorative. We do some breathing, we do some self-massage, some gentle movement.

[00:02:19]

It’s a really nice balance of working hard, then calming down, and then building it up again and then having a little bit of a rest. The whole idea behind this is to build a consistent practice. Every day we do something. It’s always under 30 minutes, so it’s easier to fit into our schedules. The whole idea is to build resiliency through variable movement. We do a little something different every day.

I teach a number of classes. Kyle teaches a bunch of the classes as well. This is a really nice balance. If you want to get signed up, go over to watch.mindfulstrength.ca. You can also find the link on our website in the show notes. You should definitely get signed up.

[00:03:06]

All right everyone. Here is my interview with Susanna Barkataki.

Kathryn: [00:03:11]

All right, Susanna. Welcome to the podcast.

Susanna Barkataki: Hello, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Kathryn: [00:03:18]

My pleasure. I’ve been following you online for a couple of years now and I’m really excited that we’re here together. For the people listening who maybe don’t know a lot about your work or who you are: do you want to take a couple of minutes and fill them in about the type of work that you do?

Susanna Barkataki: Sure. Absolutely. I have a unique position in the world. I kind of feel like my whole life brought me to this point. I call myself a yoga community activist and I think that work takes on a few different channels. I’m an educator and a teacher, but I’m also Indian and British. My whole life has been filled with messages even from before I was born of separation. You don’t belong; even through my early childhood and into adulthood of displacement.

[00:04:12]

So much of my work is around: how can I find healing and unity within myself and bring these different sides, different parts of me together? How can I also use the tools that have worked for me to help and unify our world which has so much division?
It’s an interesting body of work to be creating.

Sometimes it takes the form of blogs, sometimes writing, sometimes activism, and trying to get organizations to change what they’re doing to be more representative; sometimes speaking, sometimes teaching yoga. For me, a lot of what it is is teaching yoga beyond just asana or deepening in asana to bring in some of the other aspects of all of what the yogic system has to offer. That’s kind of a full and broad range of what I do.

Kathryn: [00:05:09]

How did you originally get into yoga?

Susanna Barkataki: You know, my family taught me yoga but it’s not like what we think of. You know, they weren’t teaching me yoga asana. We didn’t roll out yoga mats. It was more like pulling out a rug, teaching me how to do Dharma focus, or Dhyana meditation, or different kinds of Pooja; different kinds of rituals at an altar, or just in space and time.

[00:05:40]

For example, if I was trying to fall asleep and I couldn’t fall asleep, my dad, who’s from Assam in the northeast of India, he would always guide me through a beautiful meditation. Focus on a blue light in the middle of my head, and see it filtering down through every part of my body and bringing relaxation bringing calm. It would always help me fall asleep.

Later on, as I started to study yoga more formally, I understood where some of the pieces that my family had shared my whole life were part of a greater yogic system. It wasn’t like they said: “hey, we’re going to teach you the Yamas”. They just taught me how to live ethically based on the principles of yoga, because that was a part of their life.

[00:06:27]

My family in Assam, a lot of them are Ayurvedic practitioners, and some of them are yoga practitioners. It’s just more of a way of life. I feel like my whole life has been filled with yoga. But in terms of formal kind of asana practice, I took a few classes in high school. I’m not a millennial. I guess I’m like a Gen…I don’t even know. I’m that like X, the inbetweeners. No one was really doing yoga much when I started to do it. I didn’t even really start to do it because I wasn’t quite sure how.

I took a couple of classes in the backyard of someone in the San Fernando Valley in L.A. It didn’t quite feel right. When I got to college, I was super stressed out like many young people, college students, and now so many of us in general with what’s going on in the world. I had a lot of anxiety. I went to a YMCA yoga asana class. I remember, you how there are those gems of teachers that just like exist somewhere with no fanfare and you know they’re not making a big deal of what they do but they’re just incredible teachers. It was one of those teachers who guided us.

[00:07:39]

I don’t remember who they were because it was so long ago. In Balasana or Child’s Pose, I just felt safe enough to release and had tears streaming down my face. I wasn’t sad. I felt like a feeling of coming home. A feeling of belonging to myself and to the practice of yoga. After that, I knew there’s something here for me.

There’s something in the practice that’s not just an accident. It’s something that’s going to help me understand who I am, where I came from, and heal some of the harm that has been caused in my own life for feeling so not at home. At that time I wasn’t thinking about sharing it with others. I just knew I needed it; my own being healthy happy; just being at all.

Kathryn: [00:08:31]

That first yoga class experience, what did it include? Was it movement? Were you doing meditation? Was it philosophy?

Susanna Barkataki: It was mostly movement. I think that the teacher wove in a little bit of yoga philosophy. A little bit of, you know, they talked about Ahimsa and Satya. They used those words. They translated them. Those words resonated with me because I’ve been hearing them my whole life.

[00:09:04]

In a way getting little Dharma talks from my family my whole life about “oh Susanna practice Ahimsa”, or “here’s what you have to find your Satya”, or those types of things. It connected in that way but it was also a general YMCA class. There were people of all different experiences and backgrounds. People who probably had never heard those Sanskrit words before. The teacher explained them.

I think that what they did really skillfully is they brought the yoga philosophy into everyday life. They tied it to examples of ways that they had not been kind to themselves, which I could relate to so much as a stressed-out yoga student. I mean a college student; not eating very well, not getting enough sleep. I was like: “Oh, I never thought of that as Ahimsa as taking care of myself”.

It helped me begin those connections between sort of what a lot of us ignore what our families tell us when we’re young. But the way that this outside person this teacher made the connection, it started to all fall together.

Kathryn: [00:10:14]

When was it that you started to realize that the rest of the yoga community in the United States, and other parts of the world, weren’t teaching like the full picture of yoga? When did you start to realize there are some problems here?

Susanna Barkataki: You know, it’s so interesting. I think about this a lot because there’s something that in a world of understanding racial development and whether that’s for people of color or for white folks, there’s something called oppression. This is when one group has systemic power over other groups.

[00:10:58]

Then there’s internalize oppression, which is when that sense that one group is better than the other group and when that feeling of less than this goes inside the group that is considered inferior. I had a lot of internalized oppression and, in part, I think there are a lot of factors.

For those of us who are in privileged identities, like most of us have some identities that are privileged, and in some parts of our identity where we’re disprivileged. For example, as a woman, I experienced disprivilege growing up, and then also as a brown person, I experienced this disprivilege.

I had so much self-hatred and so much feeling that I’m less than, and I don’t belong; I’m not right. I think so many people can relate to that in various ways and it is different compounded for all the different areas of disprivilege that we have.

[00:11:58]

I went to engage with them in the wider yoga world in the West . I was in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Bay area; they were the two places I was I had been living. I felt like an imposter when I walked into a yoga studio. I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged. I think that too is a common feeling: if we don’t have a certain body type, or we’re not flexible, or we don’t look like the norm. Even now in quarantine, you can call into your mind like “oh, what does a typical yoga studio look like?”. We probably all call up a certain image.

Even if you have a studio that’s unique and a little bit different, you can just Google “yoga” or “yoga pose” or “yoga asana” and the images that you see are very normative. They, in general, are white cis-gendered, heterosexual presenting, thin able-bodied. Some of those things I had, like being a woman, but the majority of them I didn’t have. I just was like, I was really confused.

I was like: “What? I don’t understand. This thing that my family has done and that they’ve taught me, and that is really about these values of inclusion, of service or Seva; when I go to practice yoga in the world here, it’s not matching up. I had a lot of confusion. I didn’t really click into like understanding the systemic issues until much later.

[00:13:34]

What I had that was really lucky was: I graduated from Berkeley. I somehow managed to get through that college time. I graduated with a degree in philosophy, which I thought was the least B.S. of all majors. I would really like to laugh at that a little bit now just cause it to sound so pretentious. I really believed that at the time. I moved back to Los Angeles and didn’t know what to do with my life. What are you going to do with a philosophy degree?

I started to teach at my local high school where I had actually gone to school. This is in the San Fernando Valley. I really love teaching. I love showing up for my students. I taught English as a second language. The students were immigrants like I had been. I had emigrated from England to the US in the 80s. I was beginning to find my voice.

There was still so much of that power imbalance and inequity that I could see day to day-to-day. I had Seikh students or Hindu students or Muslim students from Uzbekistan. I had students from El Salvador who were brilliant people, and yet they were being treated like criminals or treated like they were weren’t intelligent. I kind of came into that like real awakening to: “wow, this is not just me. This is a system at play”.

[00:15:03]

That “mama-teacher-bear” came out because I loved my students and I wanted them to succeed. What I couldn’t see for myself, I could see for them. I thought “OK. The system isn’t working. Something needs to change”. I connected with a number of other social justice. We wouldn’t have called ourselves that at the time. I guess we were just like people trying to survive in a world that wasn’t built for us to thrive.

One of them was Patrice Cullors the now co-founder of Black Lives the Black Lives Matter movement. A number of other people, Marc Anthony Johnson who works with Dignity and Power Now; an organization for bringing healing justice to incarcerated folks and their families. We were in the middle of a movement of the fabric of society disintegrating for people like us.

We came together, we were all pretty young. They were teenagers. I was just early in my twenties. We supported one another. Part of that support was finding spiritual space together and was trying to tease out all the isms and the problems; how up for people’s court dates; show up when people are getting kicked out of their houses for being queer; offer people places to stay.

[00:16:21]

We really built like an ad hoc community. Part of that was reminding each other to go back into the resources that we inherently had. They were the ones who said “Susanna, you have this rich tradition. Ayurveda. Yoga. You know a lot”. I would share different things, like some of the meditations. “You know a lot but you’re not trained in it. You’re not like any of the other yoga teachers we see. Why don’t you study this more formally and go in that direction?”.

I will never forget because at first, I was like “No, no I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m not good enough to do that”. That was that internalized oppression. I don’t belong as a yoga teacher. I moved through that and looked for a school. I couldn’t find any schools that had the full expanse of what I knew yoga to be in L.A.

What I did find was an Ayurvedic school that had more in-depth programming and teachers that were coming in from India – where they do Ayurveda more like a medical degree. It’s like an eight-year intensive program. I did that. It was incredible. Then I traveled to India to do a little bit more training and yoga.
That’s a long way of saying it really was a journey. It was a journey of reclaiming; a journey of feeling worthy of this path; and then understanding that I wasn’t necessarily going to get exactly what I was looking for where I was.

Kathryn: [00:17:52]

Thank you for sharing all of that with us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that full story. Thank you so much for sharing that.
I want to ask you about a few different words. Maybe you could describe or define these words just so that we’re all on the same page as we move forwards here. The first word or this is two words: cultural appropriation.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:18:25]

Yeah. It’s such an important concept to define and I think often we kind of misunderstand what cultural appropriation is. The reason is is because it gets a little bit oversimplified. It’s like “oh cultural appropriation is just like globalization or it’s just sharing of different cultures” but it’s actually way more than that. It’s important to understand why.

We talked a little bit about power and power differentials and systemic power. Cultural appropriation always exists in a context of oppression or a differential of power. An example because I think with cultural appropriation it’s really helpful to hear examples. A Sikh person right. That’s a religious group. In India a religious minority and in the United States also a religious minority group. If a Sikh person wears the Dastar or a turban, that action or Dastar turban is a symbol of a spiritual commitment.

Valarie Kaur, who just wrote “See No Stranger” and is a beautiful powerful book, explains the Sikh world and the Sikh experience really, really well. In the US we say “seek” but it’s actually pronounced “sick”. That turban that is worn as a sign of “I am part of this religion and part of this group. I’m showing by what I’m wearing that I will be there and support. Come to the aid of anyone in need”.

[00:20:04]

There’s a lot of depth to that garment. It’s not just a decoration. It’s a declaration of values. There that’s all of that depth and from a religious minority and an ethnic minority in the United States. A racial minority; a person of color. Then when a fashion brand takes that cultural symbol and turns it into a hat or a fashion statement, that is a clear example of cultural appropriation.

I’ll break down a little more why. I first want to jump into the definition. The technical definition of cultural appropriation that OED or Oxford English Dictionary which I love. I used to as an English teacher lug around a three-volume set. Now we can just go into OED online which is great. OED says cultural cooperation is the “unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs practices or ideas of one person or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society”.

What I like about this definition is that it calls out that power differential by saying “typically more dominant”. It’s based on a system of power and there’s always 1. a power imbalance, and then 2. harm to the source culture. In the case of the turban of the Dastar, which became a fashion statement, there is a power imbalance because of the relationship between the two groups. Then the harm is that it waters down the meaning of that symbol, of the spiritual meaning of the symbol of the turban.

[00:21:48]

The other aspect of harm is Sikh people are killed in the United States every year for wearing their turbans. They have been since September 11th in greater numbers and it was going on before then as well. There’s a real material danger for Sikh people for wearing that part of their culture.

For someone else who has the power to take on an off this symbol, it is cultural appropriation because they can wear it without fear. It’s like wanting all the best parts of something without having to deal with the challenges. It really highlights that power imbalance. Now I do want a pause there to say: if this was like a bunch of white folks in solidarity saying “we’re going to wear turbans so no one ever shoots a Sikh person again”.

That is a different story, right? That’s using our privilege to create a social movement that calls attention to the imbalance and then seeks to change it. That’s a totally different thing. Usually, cultural appropriation happens without people meaning to do it, without intention. Still, the lack of awareness doesn’t excuse the harm that is caused.

The other aspect of this is that the fashion turban that was sold was sold for two thousand dollars. Right? Whereas the Sikh artisans who might make the cloth that makes the Dastar are probably only getting two or three dollars for the product that they’re creating. There’s also material harm, like the harm of capitalistic imbalance there as well.

Kathryn: [00:23:25]

Wow. There’s so much in this. One thing that I learned from listening to you and other teachers who speak about cultural appropriation was the mentioning of the power dynamic. I think sometimes people who haven’t heard about these things and haven’t done the research, they start to hear words like cultural appropriation and then they’re like: “well this is cultural appropriation or that is” or “you’re appropriating this”.

What’s been helpful for me at least is to come back to “whoa but there is also this power dynamic”. That is a really big part of the problem. I just want to thank you for mentioning that again because I think that helps people to understand the depth of this.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:24:20]

I want to say Kathryn: you’ve probably felt and the folks listening have probably felt how much yoga actually gets us into a deeper connection with our own power. You felt that. Right? It’s so powerful. This is why I like to say “yoga is and it’s an original practice of social justice”. Early yogis weren’t using the term social justice but they were using terms like ahimsa or non harming or terms like uplift or care, seva/service.

It’s inherent in the practice of yoga that cultivates power. The whole second part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is about the powers the cities that we get from a deep practice. Many of us experience those all the time if we’re serious and committed to our practice. By practice, I don’t just mean asana. We definitely experience cities from asanas like flexibility or strength. All of those things. We also experience cities or powers like more emotional regulation.

[00:25:28]

If we are practicing yoga ethics, there are things that come, powers, and attributes or qualities that come. I think about when I first started teaching high school. My students would say “Miss we can’t understand you”. Not only would they say we can’t understand you. They didn’t listen really to a thing I said. They didn’t do their homework. They just didn’t take me seriously.

At that time, when they first started teaching, I was not practicing Satya very strictly. I was still in that place of insecurity. I was sometimes making up stuff about who I was and just lying little white lies here there. Not to my students but like out in the social world of being a young person dating in L.A. It’s no wonder that my words fell flat or that my words carried little weight. My words were not always true.

Certainly, now I’m not perfect but for the last, I don’t know whatever that is like almost two decades, I’ve really made an attempt to try to practice Satya in terms of deep listening to others. Then also speaking as truthfully without gossiping, without harming, and speaking to uplift. Now people listen and people want to listen to my words.

That’s just a concrete example I’ve experienced. When I say powers, sometimes it’s just paying attention to what’s right in front of us. It’s not like mystical magical powers. Of course, there are many stories of those as well from Indian yogis if you read Autobiography of Yogi.

[00:27:04]

I’m not even talking about that. It’s really just like a depth, a weight, and boons that come through practicing yoga. Yoga cultivates power. This is why it’s such an impactful practice for moving from cultural appropriation to appreciation and empowerment. We can use the power that we’ve gained internally to actually help balance power outside of us and all around us. Part of a yoga practice, I feel, is really like that exchange of giving and receiving of shiva and shakti.

Where I have privilege, I try to uplift. I seek to find out what people need and offer it. Where I have a more target or disprivileged identity, I ask or I seek out situations where I can be uplifted by those who have more privilege. It’s this cycle of appreciation that begins to replace appropriation.

Kathryn: [00:28:07]

I want to take a moment in the middle of this episode to tell you about the Mindful Strength Membership. When you join the membership, you get access to weekly live and recorded classes, so there’s always something new.

Classes and workshops with guest teachers, a Q&A at the end of our live classes, and a diverse collection of styles; from resistance bands to classes with weights, workouts, yoga classes, and restorative movement. To learn more about the Mindful Strength Membership and to join us, go to mindfulstrength.ca and click membership. All right everyone, back to the show.

Kathryn: [00:28:55]

That’s so well said. I’m so glad you said that because the next thing I was going to ask you is about a lot of people, especially white folks, who are yoga teachers and who maybe own studios. I think that when we start to come to this learning we start to be like: “oh no!”.
You start to just look around your studio. When you look around your community and you’re like “there’s a lot of work to be done here”.

Some people dig in and some people are just like: “No, I can’t do that. This is my business it’s already up and running. Whatever”.
What you just mentioned about using your power to uplift is one way that we can start to do the work a little bit. For the person who’s starting to come to this work and they’re starting to think there is a lot here, what are some first steps that you think people could be taking?

Susanna Barkataki: [00:29:56]

Yeah. It’s a great question. I have a lot of empathy. This is the thing: some of the same structures and systems when we talk about power imbalance and harm to folks of color, in this case with yoga Indian folks and South Asian folks, that actually harm everyone. They harm white folks too. Perfectionism or the idea I must be perfect. I must do it the right way. I must never mess up.

That’s a hard place to be in if we feel like we have to be perfect. Life is messy and things are messy, and often it’s about harm reduction rather than perfection, especially around something like cultural appropriation. It’s almost impossible if we’re teaching or sharing practice from another culture to not have there be some ways that we may at some point cause harm.

I’ll just break it down. Even myself, who’s an Indian yoga teacher in the diaspora, I in some ways could be causing harm to yoga teachers in India or yoga practitioners in India if I’m not aware. By popularizing it I could make it harder for them to make a living or for them to share their teachings. I’m aware of that, so I do things like stay in connection with the community.

[00:31:17]

I communicate with teachers in India, as well as donate to different funds, like humanitarian aid funds in India but also education funds. Where there are schools that are utilizing kind of yogic values in their curriculum. Those are some simple things that I do, and I think I want to break that down a little more.

One of the aspects of it is taking a moment to just say like “I’m in a process of learning and that’s OK”. It’s actually good. This is part of deepening in yoga. Welcome to this new, if it’s new, or this continued path of learning. Understanding my role and my relationships as it relates to power and privilege.

Really doing that work, learning about social justice, learning about power and privilege, and then building relationships with folks. The other thing is studio owners, like things are changing so much right now. I have so much empathy for folks who are like: “what even is yoga culture?; what even is the yoga community?; what even is a yoga studio as we move forward in this new world that is so uncertain?”.

[00:32:34]

In that uncertainty, I think there are some possibilities for building new structures and building relationships in different ways. I can give you a concrete example from my own life. I am an Indian woman and I run yoga teacher training. I understand that I’m great and all, but that’s just one perspective.

On faculty to teach with me I’ve always had guest teachers or co-teachers who are black. Not just one black person. It’s not about tokenism in that way. It’s really building a culture of real diversity and inclusiveness. A couple of black teachers and when I say a couple of, three or four. A couple of Latinx teachers, three or four; some trans teachers; bringing in and creating a community where someone can show up to the training and be like: “well Susanna doesn’t look like me or really represent me, but oh some of the other people on her faculty I relate to them.I connect to them”.

Again for some of us, it may be hard to all of a sudden find those people. It’s not about, in my case, looking around and be like “where’s the person that checks that box”. I’m not suggesting that we tokenize in that way, but building relationships.

[00:34:01]

When I moved to Orlando, which I did five years ago, I knew I wanted to continue teaching yoga. I had been in L.A., a particular yoga teacher training because I am a ‘teacher teacher’, that kind of teacher. I love teaching the full range of what yoga is. I just looked at who is here, and like many middle-sized cities, there wasn’t a lot of diversity of yoga teachers.

I went up and built a relationship with a local teacher who runs one of the largest outdoor yoga classes, who happens to also be black. I think it was like six months to a year to form a relationship and then said: “Hey, would you be interested in being on faculty for this training? You’re wonderful at sequencing. You have a lot of strength in that more like power flow. Where I’m more of a restorative and meditative type of teacher”. She was really interested in that and we kind of continued and worked it out .

It isn’t always a quick fix sometimes. It can be about looking for the nonprofits or the NGOs or the organizations or the small teachers doing the work that’s complementary to the work that you do, and partnering with them. Coming with this ethos of Asteya. A lot of yoga culture, unfortunately, is very competitive and is very much like this is what I’m doing and my way is better. There are different ways and certainly, we’re going to not try to cause harm. How can we partner? How can we work together?

Building relationships, I think, is a good first step after doing svādhyāya or self-study to understand our power and positionality, and where we might use that power to lift others up.

Kathryn: [00:35:52]

I have really been wanting to ask you this next question. I’m so curious about what you think about this. The term post lineage yoga. What do you think about this?

Susanna Barkataki: [00:36:08]

You know, that’s a really good question. I think it’s so complex and I actually know Theo Wildcroft who created post lineage yoga, that framing and that idea. I think post-lineage yoga as a term is in some ways helpful. It’s like yoga from say like sixteen hundred to when the British first entered India to now. A lot of that yoga practice was passed down from in guru tradition from guru to student, and then student to their teacher to student, teacher to student.

Even from the earliest yoga practitioners thousands of years ago, yoga has often been a radical and countercultural practice. There were Yogis, Sannyasis, Rishis, different names for different kinds of sects; Shramana traditions, people practicing in forests by streams. They were questioning all of the ways society was saying led to peace, happiness, and success, and also questioning the codification and the lineages that were being formed even at those times.

Yoga itself, you could almost say, the first codification or the Brahminization, when it became a little bit more codified and organized, there were still people that you could have even then call post-lineage. For me, it’s not quite accurate because it misses that there were already yogis working outside of a lineage framework.

[00:37:56]

For me, those are the yogis I relate to because those are the ones that were like: “Hey this isn’t fair that women in this traditional brahminical practice can’t receive teachings. I’m going to teach to women. I’m a woman I’m going to teach to other women” or “hey this isn’t fair that people on caste hierarchy aren’t allowed to connect to the Vedic knowledge. I am going teach outcast folks”. That has always been happening.

My particular teacher Shankarji teaches yoga practices to those who are the least able to access them, so to Dalit folks. It’s a very intentional yogic practice of bringing yoga where it is needed most. In a way, I understand his lineage but it’s not quite inclusive enough. I think it misses some of the indigenous always already post-lineage or extra lineage practice that was happening.

However, I think it’s helpful in pointing to an issue that exists today around commercialized yoga. The difference between grassroots yoga and then yoga that’s really just all about commercialization and selling products and that kind of thing. It’s not a perfect term. I can understand also how more like traditional guru lineage-based folks would be very very upset and hurt and offended by that term.

[00:39:27]

It’s complex. I think when we talk about yoga and politics or yoga and these bigger social movements or so social themes or even cultural things, we actually have to consider that we’re in a colonial context. Where is the knowledge, where is the analysis coming from? Is it coming from within the tradition? I went to India to study with teachers who were living in that context, in that culture. I don’t think they would use the term limits post-lineage.

Even though my teacher may have adapted or done or moved in ways that his particular lineage would have agreed with or not agreed with, I don’t think he would use the term post-lineage. Does that make sense?

Kathryn: [00:40:17]

Yeah. I haven’t interviewed Theo, although I’d love to. I’ve listened to her speak quite a bit. I’m obviously not an expert on all of this stuff. The people who I have heard using the word “post lineage yoga” started using it like after the MeToo movement, when all of these stories of abuse started to really surface publicly. Although they had been surfacing privately for a long time in certain communities.

I think it was then that I even started to realize that this was even a term. I didn’t know that yoga over the thousands of years has always had this as you said post-lineage or maybe like diverting from the lineage.

[00:41:10]

Listening to you speak and then also being friends with someone like Matthew Remski, listening to so many different ideas about this, I hear so much about honoring the roots of the practice. Maybe some people take that to mean like honoring the lineage. Then when you realize that at the root of the lineage that you came from there is this power dynamic and this history of abuse, it just becomes real.
I could feel my heart beating and it’s like “I don’t even know how to say this”. It feels really challenging to feel like that is something that is to be honored, I guess.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:41:57]

Absolutely. One thing that I want to make really expressly clear is: when we’re honoring or embracing the roots of yoga, in no way are we saying that that means we have to lionize, or speak the name of, or put on a pedestal an abusive teacher; or lineage that has a system.
A lot of what I appreciate about Matthew Remski’s work is: he talks about these systems of abuse. It’s not just one person. It’s a whole culture that enables that kind of abuse to happen.

I want to make that really clear: honoring the roots of yoga does not force us or necessitate that we ignore abuse. In fact, the roots of yoga are justice focused. The roots of yoga are service focused; they’re transformation focused and about personal and social liberation.

Anywhere there is harm being done, in my mind, a guru who abuses is no longer guru. Whether or not they have this whole lineage, that’s not a valid teacher for me. For example, I wouldn’t cite the name of that teacher, I wouldn’t cite the name of that particular school or style.

Personally, when I’m talking about embracing the roots of yoga would be like the practice of yoga that came from the Shamana tradition; that came from yogis practicing in India or what is now called India; by Indus Valley; by the Sarasvati River. I’m referring back to the place that yoga came from, the place it was codified and developed, the people who did so but not a specific abusive person or lineage path.

[00:43:49]

I think that is an important distinction and I don’t think that we need to put people up or say their names or anything if they’ve caused so much harm. To broaden it out in complexify a little more Kathryn, it is so complex, it’s like family constellations or family cycles of abuse. Those who have been abused abuse.

Those Indian teachers, many of them are Indian, and we have a lot of western teachers, male especially, who abuse but those Indian teachers were growing up under British occupation and British oppression. They were emasculated because part of what it is to grow a colonized subject is to be told, going back to the beginning when we were talking about internalized oppression, is to be told that you’re less than; that you’re not human, that you’re not strong, that you don’t deserve you know all the things in life.

That cycle of oppression plays out with those who are harmed and hurt and oppressed oppressing others, which in no way excuses it. For me, it helps me understand a context that makes it so I don’t completely invalidate yoga’s roots in India right. That’s because there was this painful time of violence and oppression by the British and then a painful time of abuse and misuse of power and overreaching, and terrible, unforgivable acts. That doesn’t invalidate all of the codification of the practice that came before that. Does that make sense?

Kathryn: [00:45:36]

Yeah yeah. Thank you so much for just sharing all of that with us. I think it’ll be really helpful for all of the listeners to put these pieces together. We’ve never put it together in this way on the podcast. I’ve had conversations about appropriation and all of this stuff. I’ve had other conversations, specifically with Matthew and Karen Rain about the abuse side. We’ve never actually brought it together like that, so thank you.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:46:08]

It’s really important to do right because you can’t have justice for someone not having justice for all. That’s part of what yoga in my understanding is here to create; this world of true unity, true equity, true belonging to ourselves, and to one another. I often ask myself the question: “well who is left out? Who is left out of the room when we’re talking about a yoga studio? Who is left out of the yoga practice, of the narrative? What can I do to bring those folks more in if they want?

Some of that what can I do starts with, I think about who is left out. Just in my world, it’s young people. It’s students, it’s veterans. It’s folks with traumatic brain injury. It’s incarcerated, folks or court-involved folks. That’s literally when I look around Orlando. Who is not part of the yoga culture? It’s folks with bigger bodies. It’s folks of colour.

Sometimes I think back to when we were in person and I could go and share yoga with a group of organizers here. They didn’t want to do yoga Asana. They were kinda joking around with me but they were in a long meeting all day. I was there to quote-unquote “teach” yoga; I was like “all right we just need to talk about what’s going on in your body”.

[00:47:36]

How are you feeling? “Ow, my hips hurt, my legs hurt, my back is sore”. “OK. then like well what do you think would be helpful?”. “Oh maybe if we did a little stretching”. What we ended up doing was some chair yoga but they didn’t need to hear that that was yoga. They just needed to hear this is some stretching in the chair to help me be able to focus better for the rest of my day.

There is a skillful means aspect. I know it can kind of be a slippery slope or some people say “oh we have to take all of the yoga culture out to make it accessible to pregnant teens or involve youth”. Both communities I have worked with, and to me, that’s actually underestimating 1. yoga and 2. those communities.

Sure, I don’t walk in and say “hey we’re going to practice yoga ethics, ahimsa, and setya”. I don’t walk in like that but I walk in: “what’s going on? What’s happening in your life? What may be supportive? Would you be interested in ‘I know this thing?’ Want to try it?”. We try it and then I build in as we build a relationship. This system of liberation called yoga, there are some words that connect to what we’re doing.

[00:48:47]

“Do you know how you felt this like you felt a little more ease? You were able to walk away from that fight. There’s a practice called brahmacharya, which means managing your energy. Do want to hear a little more about it?”. Then talk in that way where it doesn’t downplay the full expanse of the breadth of what yoga is; it also doesn’t underestimate the young people or the veterans or whoever it is around what they can engage with or what they can actually really do.

I think there’s so much around how we make yoga accessible and available. It doesn’t need to be watered; it doesn’t need to be stripped of its roots. We just kind of, in my mind, keep learning, keep practicing, and keep building relationships. We can keep deepening in our own or my own practice, so I can share as skillfully as I possibly can in whatever situation I find myself.

Kathryn: [00:49:50]

Amazing. Tell us about your book Embrace Yoga’s Roots. What it’s about? When do you think it’s going to become available?

Susanna Barkataki: [00:50:01]

Yes, thank you. The book is about all of what we’re talking about. It’s really like a workbook exploration, a journey to do kind of what we’re talking about, to explore.

First of all: the issues of power and privilege of our roles in the world; to reflect on where those show up to begin to reconnect through taking action and then practicing the full expanse of yoga as liberation. It goes into all of the different concrete practices like literally a letter you might share that you can customize and send to a studio or a festival that’s not that representative.

It has questions for what you might ask yourself when thinking about how to start a class or how to end a class in a way that’s honoring the roots of yoga. It really is like a journey. It’s meant to be something to come back to and explore. It’s not like a right or wrong; it’s not a rulebook. It’s not like “do this” and “don’t do this”.

[00:51:02]

It’s more of an invitation or an inquiry, and a journey into deepening our practice in that way. Folks can get a free chapter. I think your audience might really be interested in it, speaking of the lineage and kind of modern yoga. This chapter is on trauma-informed yoga as part of the roots of yoga. The ways that yoga although it never uses the term quote-unquote “trauma-informed ” was always already particularly practicing in a way that helps to heal suffering.

It goes through like 10 or 15 practices from yoga roots from mantra mudras, specific practices that help and relate to us sharing yoga in a trauma-sensitive way. Folks can get that susannabarkataki.com/book.

Kathryn: [00:51:59]

Amazing. We will have links to all this in the show notes and we’re transcribing the podcast now. Some people are maybe reading along rather than listening. Yeah, all of those links are going to be on our show notes page. Susanna thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:52:17]

I have a question for you if you’re willing to.

Kathryn: Yeah.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:52:22]

You know, with all this stuff kind of like you said like there’s so much to know and learning. I’m curious: what changes either have you made or have you thought about making or you in the process of making yourself as you explore this type of learning?

Kathryn: [00:52:38]

Yeah. Oh my goodness. The way I’ve been teaching has really changed, I would say, over the last ten years. I also started when I was really young. Growing up in an Ashtanga studio, I definitely learned more about some things less than others. A couple like really simple things that I am still in the process of unpacking are how much I relate yoga practice to exercises.

It’s such a hard-fought habit to break. I constantly have to remind myself that yoga is so much more than these movements or these poses. It also feels challenging because I love exercise. I love the movements and I love the poses.

One little thing even in my language and my thoughts that I’ve been just kind of like reconciling is; “Yeah, like what is it that I’m teaching?”.

[00:53:42]

People ask me all the time: “are you teaching yoga?”. It’s always a thought process for me. It’s always like well what am I teaching? I’m not explicitly saying that I’m teaching these things. I’m not using the word ahimsa in my work and in my classes, although we’re definitely exploring those topics in different ways.

I think I’ve been having, in the last two years especially, more and more and more of these thoughts, and more and more and more trying to recognize what my own work is. If I’m not explicitly teaching these other parts of yoga, how can I be in communication with people who are and try to uplift people’s voices in other ways? I do really feel like it’s super important.

I think this podcast has been a great learning experience for me to try to bring up new ideas and new voices. It’s really shifted in the last two years. I feel personally like there’s a lot of work to do with all of this stuff and something that I think I’m really just starting to come into a little bit now. Much more than when I originally started practicing what we were calling yoga.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:55:07]

Yeah, that makes sense. I mean that’s exactly it. You’re building relationships. You’re uplifting other folks. You’re kind of questioning what you’re doing and what parts are the more physical and where you want to go with that. That sounds hopeful and like the journey and an exploration.

Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s nice for folks listening to hear where you’re at and what you’re doing and how you’re applying. I want to acknowledge sometimes it can feel so confronting for something that’s brought each of us individually so much joy or peace. Maybe even honestly for some of us, like for me probably, saved my life. I know that other people have that feeling too.

[00:55:53]

Then to hear like “Yeah but it’s not just yours”. You’ve got to think of other people and consider people that this came from and take other things into account. That can feel confronting I think at first, and maybe in the middle and maybe even at the end. The intention is not to just confront but to actually deepen and to deepen in relationships with what yoga is and what it can be. How we can all be vessels for yoga as it moves through us and for what yoga becomes for future generations.

That vision of what is it we each will pass forward from this wisdom tradition and these thousands of years old. How will we impact its transmission to the future, whether we have children or not; through our actions, how we talk about it, how we teach about it. I think about that a lot. There is no right or wrong way; it’s just an inquiry of being a vessel for yoga itself.

Kathryn: [00:56:48]

Mm-hmm. Well, thank you so much for sharing and for doing the work that you do. If folks are not following you on Instagram, they should go ahead and do that. It seems like every day you’re posting something else that’s very meaningful and very clear and just really important. Thank you again for everything that you do.

Susanna Barkataki: [00:57:11]

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.