Interview with Susanna Barkataki: “The Real Goal of Yoga is Sovereignty”

Susanna Barkataki is an Indian yoga practitioner in the Hatha yoga tradition, famous in the United States for her work of promoting diversity, accessibility, inclusivity and equity in the yoga realm. In 2020 she released Embrace Yoga’s Roots, which became an international bestseller. The book frames through key steps how to deepen our yoga practice, increase empathy and create more unity. She deals with yoga’s causes of separation, towards a path of reconnection, and ultimately liberation. She emphasizes on how cultural appropriation, trauma and racism drove yoga traditions underground and how we can work collectively to honour yoga’s roots. Citta Vritti had the pleasure to read Barkataki’s book and to have an interview with her recently. Here we talk about how to make yoga a more freeing practice, how creativity can be a response to oppression and how to build more inclusive systems in or out of the White centered patriarchal and capitalist society we live in.   

Citta Vritti | Why did you decide to write Embrace Yoga’s Roots

Susanna Barkataki | I decided to write Embrace Yoga’s Roots because there was so much that I had seen, understood and lived about the richness of what yoga was and could be but it wasn’t nearback to me in the yoga world in the West. So I really wrote it as a way of connecting to my family, my own culture, my own heritage, for stories, and experiences. And then it kind of shifted from a healing process for me into more like a workbook and guide for others who want to be able to dig deeper into some of these more extensive possibilities of what yoga can be. So it turned from a personal journey and reflexion and healing and kind of ancestral work into a workbook to support others as well. 

In your opinion what are the main sources of yoga division nowadays ? 

I would say the main sources of separation and division fundamentally, like the deepest source, is just delusion and our misunderstanding of the fact that we are all one. And this delusion takes many different forms, we have means for them like racism or sexism or heteronormativity – that find their way in the world in systems of oppression. So the main one for yoga in the West I would say is colonization. The way yoga came to the West was really through a colonial lense and because of that colonization we are in a situation where the whole purpose of yoga, which is meant to be freeing, has become really confined. There are so many people who are left out. When I ask my family members or other Indians: “Do you take yoga classes?” and when they say “No I don’t belong there”, then we know there is some kind of problem. So what I look at is: what’s the source of the problem. And it’s really important for people to understand I am not saying “every White person is wrong”, that’s totally not what this is about. It’s not critiquing individuals, it’s more looking at systems and how we are either upholding a system that causes separation or upholding a system that brings more inclusion. And we can literally look around and say “who around me is in the yoga space? Who is in the yoga classes? Who runs the teacher trainings? Who runs the workshops? Whose books are we reading? Who are the teachers ?” etc. And then: can we expand that? Can we diversify that? That leads us towards more inclusion, unity and yoga.  

« In the West we live in a culture that values things for what they can do for us, in terms of their value, and objectifying capitalism as well. But yoga is inherently an anti-capitalist system »

What was the impact of colonization on modern yoga practice? 

Colonization has been around India in particular for about 400 years. The Dutch, the Portuguese, then the British, all colonized India and utilized the natural resources, the wealth, the labor, for their own benefit at the expense of the Indians. And what started to happen in the last 150 years of colonial rule is Indian wisdom streams like yoga were cultivated under the British Raj and were made to be useful for the British rulers, by some Indians. So that all shaped how yoga has come to us. Yoga has been influenced by Western gymnastics, German gymnastics in particular. And then what came over to the West was this practice that was for a colonial kind of gaze and for a colonial experience. So just to be very concrete the aim of yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind and the movement is there for us to get deeper into meditation. But the way yoga was presented when it came to the West was a physical practice, to be strong, to be flexible. So it has been completely removed from its original intention. And that colonization then continued. I can speak of the United States because that’s what I have studied more but when Yogananda came to the West, to California, to the Hollywood area, most of the Western students popularized the physical focus. So that continues, colonization and watering down of what yoga is. So essentially we are just focusing on one of the eight limbs, asana, and not with the goal of stilling the mind or calming the mind. All the other limbs are left out: the ethics (yama, niyama), breathwork (pranayama), pratyahara (withdrawing the senses), concentration and meditation (dharana, dhyana) and liberation (samadhi). 

How do you explain this competitive and self-gaze culture of yoga in the West? Don’t you believe it is inherent to the capitalist and patriarchal society we live in?

Yes it does and that’s part of why yoga was watered down the way it was, it is exactly that. In the West we live in a culture that values things for what they can do for us, looking at things in terms of their value, and objectifying capitalism as well. So when you put yoga – which is inherently an anti-capitalist system in many ways because it is about renunciation, liberation and aparigraha (letting go of attachments) ; through a capitalist lense it really does change and it becomes much more “confined”. Yoga almost becomes like something that serves  the aim of being producers and consumers in society rather than truly free individuals. And the goal of yoga really is sovereignty. Ahimsa means we live free as individuals and that freedom is for each of us and also it is part of our obligation as yoga practitioners to ensure the others have the ability to experience this freedom as well. How can we create freedom for ourselves and for others is one of the main aims of yoga. 

In your book you emphasize on how perfectionism is a tool of White supremacy. Can you develop this theory? 

That came directly from an article from Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture which is a pretty famous article and what they talk about is all the ways that in non profits or in the work world we have these agreements on what uphold White supremacy culture, patriarchy, capitalism and all these things. Perfectionism, the sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written world, only one right way to do things, paternalism, either/or thinking, individualism … So a lot of the characteristics of what it is to live in the West. In the United States we always say “Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps”, or talk about self-made men. But the truth is that’s not how yoga culture ever was. Yoga culture was always rather than individualistic, collective and communale, rather than being perfectionistic or focusing on an aim or result, yoga culture focuses on the process or the present moment. Rather a sense of urgency, it slows things down. Rather than quantity it focuses on quality and experience. In so many ways I think of this as a decolonizing work, the way that White supremacy has gone inside, how even we should show up in the world. When I used to work as a teacher or as an employee or as a boss or as a friend, as a student. Now I teach yoga teacher training and my students show up and almost every class I say to them “you are doing enough”, whether you read the book or you didn’t, whether you watch the videos or you didn’t, you are doing enough. Because yoga is about connecting us back to our natural rhythms and understand the source insights of our disconnection. So we have to let go of these things, maybe critiquing ourselves for not doing enough, not being perfect, that kind of thing. 

« I often ask people in the workshops I lead: ‘Who are you following and interacting with online? And who follows you?’. If you don’t have diversity consider what you might need to do to get it ».

What would be your advice to the new generation of yoga instructors who mostly know yoga through the social media lense and who are, for some of them, deeply rooted into White privileges and spread this White-centered culture without necessarily being aware of it? 

It’s so tricky because I really love social media I have to say, as a tool of education. And I actually think there is so much out there that we can learn. So first I would say: build a deep relationship with yoga practice, and it’s ok if you are doing that on social media. Follow the teachers from whom the practice comes. So follow South-Asian teachers, learn from South-Asian teachers (I list many of those in a free resource in the book and on my website as well). When you do that you are broadening your understanding on what yoga is. I often ask people in the workshops I lead: “Who are you following and interacting with online? And who follows you?”. After we see separation in the book, the second step is reflection. What students look like in the classes that you take or teach? Who is in your yoga community and who might be missing? And then do some research to think about what you can do. It is important to represent and not tokenize. Tokenization is treating an individual as if they were representative of the whole group. So for example, not putting all the weight of “authentic yoga” on one person but learning from many different people. And there are some concrete ways you can do that and the first is to build relationships with diverse teachers and practitioners, suport, collaborate with and learn from, from different backgrounds. If you don’t have diversity consider what you might need to do to get it. If you can, hire various people to participate in your events and make accommodations and teach inclusively. But ultimately it comes down to instead of appropriating, practicing cultural appreciation, which is balancing power, and practicing ahimsa not harm or reducing harm. There are graduated ways to do it and more extreme ways. I would say I try to do both, I try to build in a system which already exists and I try to create new systems. It’s not realistic to me that we all go practice in the Himalayas like forest monastic practitioners. That’s not what we are, we are engaged in the world. So what I would suggest is to use those tools to connect to deeper kinds of practices and continue to learn. 

Do you experience this dichotomy of being involved in a marketplace system (for instance teaching 200, 300, 500 YTT) while willing to honor Yoga’s roots? And how do you resolve this? 

Absolutely, it is very complex in a way we are taking part in systems that create structures that support capitalism. I acknowledge the capitalist system isn’t an ideal state, I wish we could exchange. In India, yoga was shared more on a kind of bordering system and the spiritual teachers were valued. My spiritual teacher Shankara when I met him he came from a ten years practice in a silent retreat where every single day, villagers brought him food because they understood his work was not just for him but was going to benefit all of them. Here in the West we don’t value spiritual life and pursuit in the same way that historically in India and South-Asia. So we are in a system that is not ideal and yet we have to pay our bills. So how do we do that? For me it is setting up graduated systems of, for example, graded payments. Set a program with a $100 let’s say: there are supporters who can pay for themselves and support the scholarship and they pay $150, and there are people who need the scholarship and they can pay $50 or nothing. So then people can apply at the level they need, so the access is more distributed. For me it is all about being creative, how we both sustain ourselves and also solve those problems of inequity without having to suffer. For example, in my teacher training we have twenty two guest experts, so what I told everyone to do, uplift, bring diverse voices, I really do that. But I don’t want to pay them too little. I want to make sure the people who teach in my training make good money for their work, especially because all those teachers are Black or South-Asian. I have got some other examples of a program called “Belonging” where we set up exactly what I describe (payment options, scholarship options, broad criterias for who can apply, we raise money as well to cover the scholarships). I think about it a lot because it is about creativity, alternative to cultural appropriation is creativity. It is the same for oppression and other kinds of injustices: how can we find creative solutions? 

In your book you talk about separation but also about liberation. Would you have an example of yoga as liberation that you would like to share with us ? 

I give you two examples. One of them is personal. I was born into a world that said I shouldn’t be born, as a mixed Indian and British person. We had to leave England because of so much violence against me and my family as mixed. Little boys calling me names, made fun of my bindi or my saree. But a lot of their words went inside and for a long time I felt inferior, and many of my readers can relate to that. We internalize that we are less, inferior. And I feel personally now that because of the practice of yoga I have been able to unite my mind, my body, my spirit and I really feel value. I matter in the world. I am not less than them. I am not greater either. I am not better than anyone. I am just like everyone else: unique, amazing and important, the way everyone else is. So that for me is a continual practice of showing up to my sadhana, to my personal practice, daily, of meditation, movement, journaling, mindfulness. And I feel the benefit, I am liberated from that particular suffering. And I stay liberated from that suffering. So for me that is huge. 

Another example out in the world is an organization called Sanctuary in the City which is a non profit where they offer free yoga classes for folks of colour online. And when we will get back in person they will do it in person. And they pay teachers of colour to do these free classes. So to me that’s another beautiful example of bringing yoga to people who most need it and offering liberation, offering what’s helping them, experience uplift, joy and freedom while making it accessible to others. More and more there are organizations like this who find creative solutions to share this practice.. 

To finish, would you like to share any resources which have been powerful for you to embrace yoga’s roots? 

I really love two books. Sovereign from Acharya Shunya: I really love how it goes in all what I am talking about, from a kind of yogic way as well. And the other is Doctor Shyam Ranganathan, a South Asian philosopher, and I really like his translation of the Yoga Sutras because they bring in a more philosophical and also engaged active way of relating to yoga.  

***

More links to follow Susanna Barkataki’s work:

Instagram: @susannabarkataki
Website: susannabarkataki.com
Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute : ignitebewell.com

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