We were delighted to interview Susanna Barkataki, Indian Yoga guide and author of the book Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice. Join us as she shares the experiences that have shaped her path as a yoga teacher, practitioner, and advocate for South Asian and Desi voices in the yoga space. May her words inspire you to become the leader you want to be!
Your relationship with yoga
For a lot of people, asana is the entry point into yoga. When did you first start practicing yoga asana? Was it also your first entry into yoga and the word and practice took its full meaning as you kept practicing? Or was yoga always a way of life for you?
I started practicing yoga when I was a child, through the teachings of my family. Much yoga philosophy was passed down through Aunties and Uncles who gave advice about how to live or solutions to problems.
I also had the privilege of learning many other aspects of the Ashtanga path of yoga from my family, like guided visualization and meditation from my father. Yoga asana was not as much a part of my life, though we did some asana in front of pujas, altars.
In college, when I went to American “yoga” classes, I was confused. What is this that you are doing? And where is everything I know?! Still, I continued to go, and found a lot of benefit and peace during a stressful time in my life. I was having anxiety attacks and doing yoga asana helped reintegrate my mind and body and continued to heal much of the trauma I’d experienced in my life.
It’s only later, when I began to study yoga’s sibling science, Ayurveda, and went to India to study yoga that it all came together. I understood there was so much power in what we do in asana classes—but truly, that is only the beginning of what yoga has to offer!
What are the most important things yoga has taught you about yourself? About the world?
I had no idea when I first started learning yoga—reclaiming and practicing the spiritual technologies of my ancestors—how much inner power I was about to tap.
I simply didn’t realize that I could transform from a shy, quiet, insecure person into a leader that doesn’t flinch at getting on camera or speaking on international stages.
It wasn’t always this way.
I used to be terrified to speak in front of a few people, let alone the hundreds and thousands I now teach.
Pencils bouncing off desks, voices echoing off walls, one afternoon, my 12th grade AP English class was completely out of control. I’d had it.
I took a deep breath and said “Alright, y’all. Shakespeare isn’t working for us right now. Get up, everyone.”
I almost couldn’t believe I was about to do this. I’d never shared yoga with anyone else before. “We are going to try something new.”
We entered into a 15 minute session of yoga, breathing, and ended with meditation.
“Let’s just see how it goes,” I said to the students.
At the end of the session, they looked at me. Dez, one of the most active and goofy students said, “Miss, I didn’t realize my mind could get so quiet. I’m going to do this every day.”
Instead of hiding away the practice that gave me the greatest inner power, I realized part of my job, no matter what I was sharing, was to teach yoga as a practice to inner and outer power and transformation.
My teaching and life was completely different after that.
What is the thing you always do in your daily life to feel connected to yourself and inner energy, no matter where you are and what’s happening around you?
I journal and spend time contemplating nature—dharana in daily practice. By being mindful in the moment, as a practice of yogic dharana, this always tunes me in to source.
Your Indian heritage
What would you say is the most profound way your Indian heritage has influenced the way you practice and share yoga?
I am from England and India. I was born in Middlesbrough, UK to an Indian father and British mother. My whole life has been shaped by discrimination and separation, as well as unity and diversity—rather large geopolitical influences. I was born at a time when Indians and white people didn’t marry, let alone date. Despite this, my parents felt an undeniable chemistry and decided to marry, but they couldn’t find anyone to perform the ceremony.
They were told they would have to adopt or they’d have “half-breeds.” Luckily, they decided to have me anyway, but as I was growing up, there was so much violence against mixed race families that they had to leave England for a place of more tolerance. They chose to move to the United States, which landed us in Los Angeles, where I grew up. Unfortunately, even in the diversity of Los Angeles, I experienced incessant discrimination and violence based on my skin color, culture, and race. I was told to “go home” many times, made fun of for my accent, called a “towel-head” and even a “terrorist,” at my place of work no less.
It was by turning into the very things I was being ridiculed, mocked, and attacked for—my Indian heritage—that I found a path of pride, self-love, and unity.
You often speak of a yoga culture. What does that mean to you?
There is a huge difference between the yoga industry in the West, and yoga culture.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how, as part of the yoga industry, we are sold yoga in the West. How it is watered down and how that robs us and future generations of the depth of this powerful practice. Right now, diversity, inclusion, and representation are seemingly “on trend.” But addressing representation and appropriation in yoga is not “a box to be checked” but rather an exploration to be undertaken, learning to be had, connections to be made!
To me, and as part of yoga culture, yoga is unity.
Just like people, yoga has a place. It has roots. It has culture. It is from somewhere.
You know where you are from. You can probably name the block, city, town, state, country, and continent. And those elements, aunts and uncles, foods, climate, environment have been a huge part of shaping you, for better or for worse.
Similarly, yoga is from somewhere. It has many diverse and rich wisdom traditions.
We can’t just surgically remove yoga from its context. From the people, places, religions, and society that influenced and influences it.
Even though yoga is unity, we have to look at all the places that it’s been used to separate in order to create the true unity it promises us. This is what yoga culture is to me.
What’s a common misconception people may have of you—being a person with Indian heritage practicing yoga—that you hope to demystify?
A common misperception I hear is that people think I say that white people shouldn’t teach yoga. I don’t say that! Sometimes, people hear the words “reclaiming” or “uplifting South Asian / Desi voices” and they think that means there’s no room for them. That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. Do we need to uplift the voices and platforms of those who have been erased in the site of their own indigenous wisdom? Absolutely!
But it’s not a zero-sum game. We can all be winners here. There’s no limit on the depth and breadth of yoga.
And as to whether a certain person should teach or not—that isn’t my question to answer! As an educator, I’m all about guiding people to learn, understand, and think critically. It’s up to each person and their dharma. Everyone’s individual relationship with their conscience and their divine purpose on this planet gets to check in and make decisions like that. Those kinds of choices aren’t—and shouldn’t be—up to me!
I will say, when someone asks me if they should teach, I tell them to go deep into the practice. This is why I run yoga teacher trainings! Ensure that you are practicing as much of this rich tradition as possible, and if you teach, teach from that vast wellspring! And always be a student, in love with the heart of yoga and all it unfolds and reveals. Above all, always continue learning.
Yoga community & leadership
What’s your definition of a leader?
To me right now, a leader is a collaborator. One who uplifts others, who does their part to uplift a bigger vision, to be vulnerable, to be honest and understand the personal is political, and act as such.
You are encouraging many people, yoga teachers and practitioners alike, to take more aligned action and step into their role of leader right now. How do you see your own role as a leader in the community?
The way we do yoga in the West often continues to create competition and separation with ourselves and others. Instead, original yoga exists as a way to connect us all—dissolving separation within and without. Through personal experience and as an educator and activist, I know that yoga is here for us to cultivate power and transcend our limitations, personally and socially.
I know that my passion is to help others bridge the gap between yoga as an exercise and yoga as a lifestyle…because true yoga is so much more than just the poses. In the places where I have privilege, it’s important that I, and others, stand up and uplift others so we can embrace the practice in all its power.
Today, I work to showcase yoga in action, spread the message of diversity and inclusion, and help people connect through yoga to live a happy, fulfilling life for themselves and others.
What skills and qualities do you think we need to practice more as yoga teachers in an increasingly complex world?
Critical thinking, vichara, and yoga ethics. Yoga truly is an organized, structured, codified ethical practice. It was developed over thousands of years, by word of mouth, and then written down around 3,000 years ago. Today, we miss out on the opportunity to engage in deep critical thinking (vichara), debate, and discussion as well as engagement with yoga ethics.
What is the latest, most beautiful act of leadership you’ve seen in the yoga community when it comes to unity, diversity, empathy, and inclusion?
I am absolutely moved by the group of South Asians who are looking to reclaim their place in yoga and wellness that Lakshmi Nair, Jesal Patel, and I have had the privilege of convening. We put out the call through an event called Belonging: Reclaiming Yoga for South Asians. The diversity, intersectionality, and power is profound. Even as we work to reclaim space, the willingness to engage with topics like caste privilege and anti-blackness is powerful. The South Asian / Desi voices that are emerging are a powerhouse. Look out y’all!
What gives you hope when you feel tired and exhausted; when you’re working toward a more inclusive and diverse yoga space but can’t see the progress?
I’m honestly, more often than not, so inspired, day in and day out, by the fruits of all of our work and a deep yoga practice. I see so much good, so much progress, so much growth. I do get angry, tired, sad, and frustrated of course. And then I go into my practice, recharge, and emerge ready to continue the fight, continue the uplift. This is the practice of ahimsa (non harm / uplift) yoga to me.
How do you manage to continue moving forward? What tools and practices do you come back to in moments of frustration, or go from hopelessness to hopefulness?
I do what I tell others to do all the time! I go into the practice, mantra, mudra, drishti, I keep turning in and toward my yoga practice.
Many yoga teachers and practitioners find it difficult to rest, especially when there is still so much to do for the world. How do you make sure you rest as often as you need to? Do you have restorative rituals or a routine you do every day?
As part of my personal sadhana, I do a lot of yoga nidra practice. I do at least five sessions of yoga nidra a week—and many weeks I practice yoga nidra each day. This is a foundational practice for me, and has been recommended by my main teachers. I also do a yoga asana and dhyana meditation practice most days as well.
Any other habits you’ve learned to cultivate, admire in others, and wish we would all adopt?
I wish we would all adopt turning in toward the Yoga Sutras and looking to the ancient wisdom and sacred texts a bit more for guidance on how to live!
For more inspiration, check out Susanna’s Instagram and learn more about her offerings here and get a copy of her book here.
Read an excerpt of her book, Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Practice here.
Edited by Ely Bakouche
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