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When I learned that Shut Up & Yoga was getting an advance copy of Susanna Barkataki’s new book Embrace Yoga’s Roots, I jumped at the opportunity to read it. Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the yoga industry, and I’ve often questioned whether or not I’m guilty of disrespecting the origins of this practice I love so much.
I have a deep love and respect for the practice of yoga, but I also recognize my privilege as a white woman and acknowledge that I’ve been called out for it in my writing before. Cognizant of my own implicit bias and the gaps in my knowledge, I happily dove in—with a scant trace of wariness knowing full well this wouldn’t be a beach read.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that this book covers much more than cultural appropriation. Barkataki approaches the conversation around the topic through multiple lenses in a nod to her intersectional identity. I appreciated the reminder that “you don’t need to be perfect,” when engaging in this type of inquiry and work.
“Remember, perfectionism is a tool of White Supremacy and we are undoing white supremacy thinking.”
For Barkataki, embracing yoga’s roots is about finding ways to invite people of all identities into the yoga space. It means giving under-represented communities a voice, and actively finding ways to center BIPOC, LQBTQ+, and disabled voices as leaders in yoga alongside white, straight, able-bodied women and men. For this reason, this book belongs on the shelf in the yoga activism canon alongside other useful resources for tackling systemic oppression like Michelle Johnson’s Skill in Action.
A goldmine of actionable tools to learn about yoga’s roots
Throughout the book, Barkataki offers plenty of instances of cultural appropriation as well as lots of concrete guidance for how to honor the richness of the practice. For example, she makes a point of helping the reader understand how to correctly name and attribute people from the Asian continent. She provides a comprehensive list of the countries associated with the titles South Asian, East Asian, and Southeast Asian. I have to admit this was one of my more sheepish reading moments. I felt like I should have known this but my implicit bias prevented me from ever making sure I was being accurate. As yoga teachers and practitioners, it’s important we know how to attribute our teachers and lineages with their correct culture and customs.
One of my favorite, actionable suggestions I implemented right away for an upcoming teacher training program was Barkataki’s tiered pricing model for promoting equity. In this model, a discounted rate gives students who might not otherwise be able to participate an opportunity to be in the room. Another rate above the normal cost is offered for students with the means to invest in promoting diversity and equity in the yoga classroom they want to be a part of.
Another action step I plan to experiment with includes adding a spiritual lineage acknowledgment at the beginning of my yoga classes. Barkataki provides examples and simple language to help you craft your own spiritual lineage acknowledgment. She even gives guidance for how you can go about excluding abusive teachers in such an acknowledgment as a way to still honor the tradition without emphasizing abuses of power. I appreciated that something so simple can go a long way in honoring the history of yoga while at the same time reflecting modern concerns.
Relationship building as a way to honor yoga’s roots
What stood out to me in this book was Barkataki’s emphasis on relationships. Embracing yoga’s roots means embracing a key aspect of yoga that is often sidelined in the West: relationship building. Barkataki spends time talking about the power of sangha and provides historical examples of how yoga has proliferated as a practice in, of, and for relationship. As a student of yoga, you are in relationship with yourself but also with your community. You are in relationship with the practice and with your culture. Relationship is everything in our lives and it is an integral part of the practice of yoga, if not a key tension point all students must learn to navigate in their quest for spiritual enlightenment. By highlighting the importance of building relationships in yoga spaces, Barkataki offers a key practice for dismantling White Supremacist culture and ensuring accessibility and inclusivity in yoga classrooms.
In addition to the concrete examples Bakataki provides throughout the book, she also offers reflection questions to help you integrate the information you’re reading about in your own practice, teaching, and life. These prompts are the star of the book and provide plenty of opportunities for deep svadhyaya. For example, “What are some guidelines that would help you feel brave, safe, or encouraged enough to have these conversations?” In asking these questions, Barkataki really puts the responsibility back on you as the reader, where the work feels nurturing and encouraging rather than forced or demanding.
Am I appropriating yoga?
Readers interested in finding the answer to the question: Am I culturally appropriating yoga? will probably not easily find that answer in this book. Its purpose isn’t so much to tell you what is and is not cultural appropriation as it is a guide to help you figure that out for yourself. It is an invitation to actively choose to step into the role of a leader in a new era of teaching yoga.
This isn’t an easy read but it’s not supposed to be. It made me uncomfortable, sometimes even defensive, and that’s the point. In those moments I knew there was something to examine. It’s up to us to do the work, sit with our discomfort, and find our own answers from within about how we can best show up to teach from a place of reverence and appreciation. This practice in and of itself is yoga and is embracing yoga’s roots. As Barkataki says in the beginning of the book:
“Reflection is often the gateway to embodiment.”
With that said, I finished reading this book feeling encouraged to keep inquiring and to keep trying my best to create more inclusive, accessible yoga spaces that appreciate the culture yoga comes from. “The practice of this liberating journey is one of creation. It is not a nationalistic promise of empire, or a regression of “getting back” to a pure form of yoga which probably doesn’t and never has existed, but rather a reclaiming, decolonizing, and re-envisioning of its history and the current moment.”
This review is part of our SU&Y Book Club hosted by Ashley Zuberi.
Edited by Jordan Reed
Illustration by Katya Uspenskaya
You can buy Embrace Yoga’s Roots by Susanna Barkataki on Amazon & review it on Goodreads.