[1:11] Rachel: Welcome to a brand new bonus episode of the Yoga Girl podcast, Conversations From the Heart. This is our first ever time releasing a bonus episode, which I’m really excited about; an opportunity to go a little bit deeper, plus it gives you another touchpoint of this podcast in the week. Today, we are continuing the conversation on inclusion, equity, diversity, with Susanna Barkataki. We’re going to go a little bit deeper into cultural appropriation, this is a conversation that started for me a couple of years ago, but we have come such a long way since then, both me inside of myself, and all of us collectively as a community. In this episode, I talk a little bit more about the realizations that I have had and changes I have made both in my own life and my own practice, and in my business. Continuing this really important conversation on how we can honor culture and tradition in yoga is so important. Susanna shares with us how to really come into your own power by embracing the history of yoga on a much deeper level. We also talk about how creativity actually is the solution for cultural appropriation, and how you can use your power to uplift others instead of causing harm. And guess what? Susanna’s book, Embracing Yoga’s Roots is out today! Be sure to catch it at embraceyogasrootsbook.com. Let’s begin.
[2:37] Rachel: Hi! Welcome to the show!
Susanna: So great to be here with you Rachel.
Rachel: It’s so good to see you. I feel like I see you a little bit all the time [laughs].
Susanna: It’s true now, yeah.
Rachel: It is true now, we connect a lot. So it’s been awhile; you were on the show, I had to look it up because it was awhile ago. It was almost exactly two years ago that you were…
Rachel: …on the show the first time, which means we’ve know each other now two years. Which feels like no time and lo time, a long time.
Susanna: Yeah. Yes.
Rachel: So the name of this show, as you know, it’s the Yoga Girl podcast, Conversations From the Heart, so I always like to start there, just, you know, speaking totally from the heart in this moment, today, right now, how, how are you doing?
[3:23] Susanna: [Sighs] In this moment, I’m really joyful, despite all the things happening in the country that I live in, and the world. You know, the sun is shining, there’s a butterfly fluttering by out my window, and I got to walk in the fresh, cool breeze, which for someone who lives in Orlando, Florida, [laughing] where it’s very hot most of the time, is, is such a joy, and so I’m feeling really connected and grateful. And also really grateful to be having this conversation, and be here with you, and for the evolution that’s happened from where we started this conversation, you and I, two years ago.
Rachel: I was contemplating that this morning, just before jumping on to talk to you, just how much has changed…
Rachel: …I mean in the world around us, but also within me, and my practice, and my teaching just since I got the challenging blessing to connect with you in the first place…
Rachel: …which I wanna talk about on this show as well. But I know you love to start these kinds of moments of connection with a little bit of grounding, or a bit of meditation, would you like to guide us?
[4:39] Susanna: I would love to, it’s my favorite thing. So, for folks who are listening, what I’m doing is reaching for a singing bowl, and this bowl is from the 17th century in Nepal, it was a gift, and it was handcrafted, and I received it from my partner who, we also travelled through the Himalayas and spent time with monks, nuns, and different sanyasis meditating where they use the bell, they use the bell to remind us to come back to our home, to ourselves. And so I’m going to invite the bell, three times, and guide us just in a brief drop in to coming back to our home, our home within.
[bell tolls three times]
[6:02] Susanna: And take a deep breath in [inhales] and out [exhales]. And for everyone gathered, for you, I invite you to turn your awareness into your heart, right here and now. And sometimes I like to place a hand on my heart, or both hands over my heart. And in this moment, call to mind something that you’re grateful for from yoga. Maybe it’s your yoga asana practice; maybe it’s the deep breaths that you took and didn’t get into an argument; maybe it was following some yoga ethics that helped you feel a little more peaceful, or a little more joyful; maybe it’s your intention to practice later today, or now as we’re together. Take a moment to really feel some gratitude for yoga.
[7:38] Susanna: And to acknowledge this practice that has come down to us from teacher to student, that has been practiced for thousands of years. And comes from the subcontinent of India, where practitioners were sitting under trees, by streams, at the foot of mountains, or in caves, and who, like you and I, were simply seeking freedom from suffering, more joy, more peace, liberation. And so take a moment to feel grateful and honor these early practitioners, without whom we wouldn’t have the practice today. And then we’ll come forward in time, thousands of years back to us right here and now. And take a moment to thank yourself for being here, right here, listening to this conversation, having this conversation, and also right here at this point in your life, and all the things that have brought you here. This is the yoga, this is the practice, being present with it all, and let’s take one breath together [audible breath].
[9:33] Susanna: And we’ll slowly shift, wherever you are, coming back into the space that you’re in, looking around at shapes and colors, and coming back present, perhaps leaving, you know, part of your attention inwards as we talk; inwards on your, your inner state, and a part of it outwards, always practicing. Thank you.
Rachel: Mmm. Thank you for that. I feel like I dropped seven layers deeper into myself just, [laughing] just, just now. It’s so beautiful, and it never ceases to amaze me just how, how this practice works, especially when I think like, like you and me, we spend all of our day in conversations around the practice, or teaching, or in practice, it’s a part of our day-to-day — sometimes I forget, you know? And it takes that two minutes, “okay, thank you, I’m back, I’m back.” Does it, does it surprise you still, parts of this practice?
[10:36] Susanna: It always does. I, yeah, absolutely, you know, there…some days, I feel like I haven’t practiced at all, and then I, I just take a moment, like three breaths before I eat my lunch, you know. Like you, I have a child, I have a seven, now eight year old, and so — he just turned eight, that’s why [laughing] I forgot how old he was for a second.
Susanna: But, you know, there’s so many things happening that when I take a moment, and I just pause, and I look at him and I really connect, or when I take a few breaths outside in a day, or, you know, I actually have a chance to get on my mat, or meditate, I am astounded at how impactful it is for me, and also how impactful the practice is whenever I get to share it.
[11:23 — Commercial Break]
[12:37] Rachel: So for anyone listening, you know, we recorded a podcast two years ago; in my world, I have been having these conversations for two years. Something that started off as a very challenging moment in my life that I thought was something that was happening to me, I thought the world was suddenly being unfair, or I was being judged for a lot, all these things that I wasn’t doing, and it was two years ago, and I was called out for culturally appropriating yoga, and Hinduism, and, and Indian and South Asian culture. And I had never had that come my way before, and I was, I was really thinking about that this morning, just that moment; I was traveling from somewhere, I was at an airport, and I remember there was his social media storm that came my way. And the feeling at the time was like, “this is the worst thing that could possibly come my way, none of this is true,” I was in this very defensive place, “I would never culturally appropriate, you know, a practice that I, I center my whole life around, that I love so much, that I dedicated my life to,” you know? “Who are these people throwing these lies around, attacking me in this way?” Like that was my big, and I can say that now smiling, because [laughs] a lot has shifted since that time, and I’ve learned a lot since that time, and when you were guiding us through the meditation just now, what came to mind for me, or to heart, that I feel really grateful for, is my self-study, which is a part of, a part of yoga that I, that was really re-inspired and reignited for me through that, which was for me, a personally challenging time that, that has gifted me so much, and opened so many doors and, and my heart in so many different ways. So for anyone who maybe wasn’t present then, because two years is a long time, you know, this podcast has also grown a ton since then, how did you get into this field of work? Like how did this become the topic…
Rachel: …you spend a lot of your day immersed in?
[14:39] Susanna: I think about this a lot. You know, in a way, this field and this topic, I didn’t choose it, it chose me, because my father is from India, and my mother is British, and I was born at a time when that didn’t happen, you know? Just really wasn’t…you know, now, I think, and hopefully for the future and for my own children, it’s like this is the way the world is going, not caring so much, that’s the vision, right? But the reality of what I was born into was a lot of separation. Like parents who said, parents of my parents who said, “you’ll have to adopt, you’re going to have half-breeds, we’re not coming to the wedding,” you know, those types of, of things were just normal. And there was a lot of separation, you know, I say that word because I think it’s helpful in the context of yoga to think about, “what are the places or spots of separation in our lives?” And for me, the biggest place of separation at first was kind of external, was like people saying, “you don’t belong,” or, “we don’t want you” in various ways; there were fire bombings that happened in the neighborhood that I grew up in in England and so, of mixed race families, and of Indian and Pakistani families. And so, my life was really shaped by separation, and by racism, and all of that came from, you know, it came from somewhere, but, but I didn’t know that as a child, what I just knew was “wow, there’s people who don’t like me just because of what I look like, or who I am, or my name, my last name, you know, and my culture.”
[16:22] Susanna: And so we moved to the United States to escape all that, thinking, “oh, we’re moving to the Great…” — what, what was the metaphor back them? I think it was like the “melting pot” — and we thought, “we’re moving to this diverse place, Los Angeles, where we’ll be welcomed, and where, you know, everything will, will, we’ll be accepted.” But we found that even in L.A., we were still discriminated against; my brother and I were called names, we had to fight, physically fight. So I grew up like, fighting, externally, like, “you’re going to call me a terrorist or make me be the bad guy, okay, I’m going to fight back,” but the thing was it all went inside. And so there was the second separation was internally. I believed I wasn’t as good, I wasn’t worthy, and I think so many people, probably people listening, can relate to this, right? Because these are universal themes. Even though this is my particular story, not belonging, feeling not accepted, and then feeling divided in oneself, we can have those things for many different reasons. And mine was, was cultural, and racial because of racial discrimination. And so, you know, all this was like, destined, I think, to happen before I even was conscious it was kind of happening to me.
[17:40] Susanna: But where I saw agency was I had grown up, you know, going to temple, wearing, like if we had a Puja, I’d have like a bindi, like a dot, you know, a demarcation of a spiritual ritual on my forehead, and then be out in public and be made fun of for it, but it was part of my culture, being taught meditation, practicing not so much yoga asana, but yoga ethics, were just a part of the folk knowledge and kind of the passed down knowledge of my family that I grew up with, Indian side, the Indian family, and so when I realized how disconnected I was from myself, it took me a little while, but, and it happened, I think, over a decade of svadhyaya, self-study, but I really realized, like “the very thing I am being made fun of for and put down for, I’m going to go into that, and learn about that, and understand that as an act of self-sustenance, as an act of reclaiming.” And so I didn’t know that yoga was going to do all of this, you know, be so impactful, but I knew that I had to do something, and so I began to study yoga and Ayurveda more formally, and through that process, you know, learned to…mend the separation internally, and also at the same time work on mending those separations externally, so doing like anti-racism work, social justice, you know, social service work as a teacher. So it was all intertwined for me, the work of the yoga within and the yoga without.
[19:22] Rachel: It’s a big story…
Rachel: And I, and I, for so many people I know listening right now have a story of their own where “yoga helped me heal…”
Rachel: …you know, “yoga helped me come back to myself, or mend that separation.” But I think a lot of people listening to this podcast don’t have that same cultural background and…
Rachel: …history that you do, where yoga was something that you turned to not because there was a studio down the street, or you saw it Instagram or something like that, or heard a podcast, or however it came your way, but it’s part of your roots.
[19:53] Susanna: Right, and I think that maybe, I just want to say, like when you were talking about feeling the challenge you got two years ago, and feeling so hurt, and like, “I would never do that, and that’s not me,” I was smiling a little in part because yes, you’re, you’re in a very different place, and I think in general, the conversation is, but that experience is what I grew, like was my whole life, right? That experience of being kind of critiqued, attacked, put down, being told I was doing something wrong, just for being. And, and I think there are many other Desis, South Asians — Desi means South Asians who live in the diaspora, so people from India who live in other places, like I do, in the United States — there are many other folks who tradition comes from, you know, and who maybe grew up with it, or didn’t, but they might feel kind of frustrated because they’ve been moved out of a place where they can speak on something that’s like, part of their way of life, and so there, I think there can be a lot of, what’s the word? Like an anger, for one, grief, for another, and then also for people who are being kind of called into this new awakening, or new understanding that there’s more to yoga than they maybe realized, and also more culturally to yoga, that it’s like, “oh, it’s new for me, but this is like, and old story for someone else.” And, perhaps, a tender story. And I think that moved to global empathy and understanding is actually part of what yoga is here for, you know? It’s here to bring us to that, which is so needed right now.
[21:33] Rachel: So needed.
Rachel: So what was that process like for you? I mean choosing to, to begin teaching? I don’t know, really, I don’t think you’ve ever told me that story…
Rachel: …that transition.
Rachel: Was there a moment when you realized that, “okay, there is so much around that just isn’t, specifically in the yoga world, that isn’t just, or maybe that isn’t reflecting the values of what we are actually practicing, here in this part of the world,” and…
Rachel: …how did that come about? Because you have a very niched, I mean, you know, I look at you not just, I don’t want to say “just a yoga teacher,” but I feel you are in your calling, in a, in a, at least it looks that way from the outside, in a big way…
Rachel: …with a fierce voice and that I think so many people are finding now, for the first time. So how did you end up here?
[22:18] Susanna: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I mean, for folks listening to, I’m like the, first of all, super normal, like short, shy, like I’m just like a, kind of a little normal Brown girl, right? [Laughs] Like that’s how I see myself, so it’s so funny when people are like, “you’re in your power and your purpose,” and then that too, and I think, I think they’re both true, and I say that because I’m not super exceptional, I think, in any major way, other than I’ve turned into the very things that I needed to heal, and then, like write about them and teach about them. And so what happened for me, actually, was I went to India, so my context is, is uni…somewhat different alot….Everyone I think in the diaspora, Desis, South Asians, we all have different relations to India, we’re not a monolith, right? So I don’t speak for all South Asians by any means, I don’t speak for all Desis by any means, people have different perspectives, but my life experience was I grew up with Bengali and Assemese aunts and uncles in the United States who also emigrated here; my father, who’s Assemese, and this is a region of Indian, and has it’s own language and different cultural elements, and they did not raise me, well my dad didn’t reallt raise me to [sighs] what’s a good way of putting it? He just wanted us to survive. And to survive means, quote, “be as American as possible,” which really means “as White as possible.”
[23:54] Susanna: And yet my wider family really embraced our culture, and so I was also, there’s this saying “A B C D, any born confused Desi,” right? I was definitely somewhat confused, like “who am I, where do I belong,” all those questions were coming internally as well. And so I saved up money to go to India, and I bought a one-way ticket because I knew I wanted to be there long enough to go through the crap, you know? Like to have a hard time, to have the breakdowns, to have the, you know, “this is so challenging,” and that I would stay. I was really intending to not go as a tourist, but to go as, as family, and as someone committed. And in that journey, I met my teacher which is another story, which we can talk about, but my teacher, Shankar Ji, and I was volunteering at a school, he was teaching yoga philosophy, mostly, and I learned from him for about a year, and then I came back, worked a little more, saved up and came back, and studied with him again. And he said to me that second time, you know, “Susanna, you need, your job is when you go back this time, you need to take what we’re doing here,” and what he was doing was teaching yoga philosophy to the most disempowered, like dalit folks, villagers who didn’t have a lot or resources in Vittar, where I was learning with him, “you need to do what I’m doing in your world, in the United States. And so, you need to take yoga, like the full expanse of what yoga is, not that silly stuff they do in the studios,” he said, you know, “or I see on TV, you need to take this and share it to those who most need it.”
[25:44] Susanna: And so he had suggested that and planted that seed at that time, I was a teacher of high school students, but I wan’t teaching yoga. And I thought, “no, no, I never intended to be a yoga teacher, more of I’ve always loved being a student of yoga,” but I came back, and I slowly started to teach my students yoga asana, but also yoga philosophy, I’d weave it in. And then friends started to ask, “hey, what are you doing? Can you teach us this?” And people, I think, and folks listening might have this too, there’s a taste of something more when we practice yoga asana, even if we come in that door through a very physical practice, there’s a taste of, “oh, there’s more to this than just, like, physical attainment, there’s something else.” There’s some peace, some fire, some, even some, like spiritual connection sometimes, for people. So people began to ask, “will you teach me? Will you teach me?” And so that was what, in, in a way, got me to start teaching yoga teacher trainings, because I wanted to teach a more authentic way of practicing yoga, and get into yoga philosophy, and share the other seven limbs, not, not just asana. It was, I think, kind of, again, destined to happen, not something I went into it intending to do, but more it just emerged. And I’ve been so grateful; I’ve loved doing it, it’s my passion, and my joy, it’s so much fun to teach, whether it’s three people, or thirty, or however many.
[27:14] Rachel: Or a lot lately.
Rachel: I know, I know. What was your experience then, you know, having that transition from coming back from India with this, I guess, initiation to teach the, the, the true heart of the practice? What was your experience in the beginning, and I guess also now, doing that in the U.S., in the West? Were you teaching mainly White people, or were you teaching within your, within the Indian community there, or was it a mix of whoever came your way?
Susanna: You know, honestly at first, it was like, no one really, it was hard, because no one cared that I [laughs] had sat with a, a teacher who had meditated for ten year, you know, in a hut. No one really cared that I’d done like, half a year of my own personal silent sadhana, you know, it’s just…they just, people didn’t have a context for what an expanded understanding of, of yoga was.
Rachel: Meaning what? Did you, did you show up in places and they asked you for your 200 hour or like how…?
Susanna: They asked me for my 200 hour, they asked me like if I…
Susanna: …didn’t take any of the big, you know, name yoga teachers in…
Rachel: You didn’t learn from Core Power Yoga?
Rachel: How are you going to teach?
[28:30] Susanna: That’s right. So it was frustrating, it was confusing and frustrating, and like many other, I think folks who don’t fit a kind of normative ideal, I actually didn’t feel like I fit in, in yoga studios, or yoga spaces. And, and so I did what I normally do, which is like, “okay, well let’s find an alternative, let’s find a warehouse, or an art gallery, and hold space here.” And so it was small, but initially, I’m just trying to remember, and I think this is like who I am, because I am mixed, right? So I can understand all different, I try to also understand all different experiences. And so it seems that often I get a mixture of folks, so I’d say it was about half White, half folks of color, one of my earliest yoga teacher trainings was just for folks of color, and was for mostly South Asian folks, other Desi folks, because it is, sometimes I think really nice to have that safe space to speak to one another, and to be able to explore the pain of being erased in our own cultural heritage. And so I tried different things; I really love teaching all groups of people, and it slowly grew. And yet I still wasn’t experiencing any kind of like, mainstream acknowledgement, that didn’t happen until a lot later, because this was around 2007, eight, nine, ten, so yeah, it was a lot later.
[30:04] Susanna: Around 2015, I wrote an article called “How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice,” in a fit of frustration, i was so frustrated. I’d just come back from a Puja that was full, you know, yoga Puja and was really, really beautiful, and then I saw some new yoga festival or conference, and it was all White people. And I was like [groans] “really?” Like I had been so excited, it was like, “International Yoga Festival!” And then I looked at it and I thought, “for sure they’ll have people from many different places, including India, where yoga is from,” and there, there weren’t. And so, in that moment, I just penned off this like, cry from my heart of like, “this is, we’re, we’re diluting the tradition, like we’re missing all of what’s available.” And at that time, you know, no one was…like I had 50 people on my blog list that were mostly my friends, and I’d get a write back from my mom, “nice blog Susanna…”
Susanna: …or my grandmother, you know, “this doesn’t sound like you, Susanna.” It was great training, I’d been blogging for a year, consistently, and then I sent this off, mid-week, not on the officially blog schedule, and I had like the next day, had 150 shares. People who’d never known me were sharing my words, because it resonated. And so that kind of catapulted me into the space of not just teaching yoga philosophy, but bringing my experience of talking about race and race equity, and all those issues of belonging and not belonging kind of together, so, yeah.
Rachel: That’s how, how I found you…
[31:41] Rachel: …also, thanks to that, thanks to that article. I can’t remember if it was shared, I was doing a lot of Googling at the time as well, because this was, which I find a little bit strange now, this wasn’t conversations that were being had in the yoga teacher trainings that I had taken in my life…
Rachel: …for instance. It wasn’t something that was ever bridged from any of my teachers down to, to a group, or to a class. So for anyone listening who wasn’t there then — I mean, this is, this is awhile ago — I was very publicly, like a public wave of a lot of anger, and frustration, all very valid, accused of cultural appropriation. With all right, [laughs] which I can say now, and be like, “okay,” and that is not the worst thing in the world to be accused of. It felt like it at the time, like, “this is the…you know, someone calling me a racist, or saying I have engaged in, in racist behavior, or I have culturally appropriating this practice,” it felt like, “this is a personal attack and it’s the end of the world.” And I’m realizing, you know, of course after that, that the, the worse, much worse, incomparable end to be on is to be on the end of receiving harm, and having your culture appropriated for so many years, and being on the receiving end of all of this harm from this White-centered, White supremacist structure that we live in. Like that is a big deal, that is the end of the world, like that is…
[33:06] Rachel: …messed up, and not okay, and then me sitting on the other end of Instagram having like a, a challenging week, not so bad. But it felt very, very bad, I think mainly because I was so…I had to Google these terms, you know, really had to sit down and, “I don’t what this means, but it’s coming off very intense, and harsh, and angry,” so I was like, “hands up, this is bad, I didn’t do anything wrong,” you know? And this is also questions that came in now, I had to write it down as it was, because I asked social media for some questions for this conversation, and someone wrote, “as a White girl from Lidingö, Sweden,” Lidingö, Sweden is a very, like an affluent, it’s like a nice part of, outside of Stockholm, “as a White girl from Lidingö, Sweden, why should you, [laughing] of all people be lecturing us about cultural appropriation?” And I wrote it down, because my answer to that is, “that’s a great question, like that’s…
[33:58] Rachel: “…a really, really great question.” And for me to answer as well, as a White, able-bodied person with millions of followers across, across different platforms teaching yoga, the fact that I wasn’t having this conversation before, that, I think, is a, is, is, is one of the bigger issues. And I’m really glad, now, that I got to have this eye-opening, you know, this eye-opening experience that I realize now is not about me, you know, as a person, or me not, you know, being a bad person, or me, you know, doing something that I should go hide under a rock for rather than it being an initiation to learn and to grow, which can only help me in my personal practice, me as a teacher, and then hopefully, you know, this whole entire community, and the, the world as a whole. We saw it this year with Black Lives Matter, with how uncomfortable it was for everyone. And it’s, you can’t compare it to the discomfort of, of being Black in America today, you know? It’s just shifting, shifting the focus too much on, on us as, as White people, in this sense. So I remember reading that article from you, going, “whoa, wait a minute. Are these, what these people telling me, is it true?” And I had to start really questioning, you know, “how am I sharing this practice? How did I learn this practice? Who did I learn this practice from,” and of course, after evaluating, I had, at the time, had zero people from South Asian or Indian descent as, as my teachers. You know, there was someone way up there who learned from someone, who learned from someone, but it was so, so many people in the in-between that it’s all really been lost. So how, I guess the question is, you know, do we go about changing this?
Rachel: When I know the majority of the people listening right now probably did learn yoga from a White person, if they’re listening and they’re from the U.S. or, or certain parts of, of Europe, and they’re questioning now, you know, “how did I learn this? Is this the right way? Should I just stop altogether? Should we put all the yoga down, walk away, you know, this is bad territory?” How do we go about this big, big, big issue? Because it is so vast.
[36:03] Susanna: Yes. And first, you know, I love what you said in one way that issue, that accusation of cultural appropriation wasn’t personal, but then it also is people’s personal responsibility. And so I think for people listening, you know, sometimes I think we get stuck because we’re like, “I’ve had so much inner transformation, that I feel like this practice is mine, right, and it’s mine to do what I want with.” But just because you’ve experienced transformation from it and benefit from yoga doesn’t mean yoga is yours to do whatever you want with it. And I think that understanding, first, is so important, it’s kind of studentship, and humility. So just because we’ve experienced personal transformation with yoga doesn’t mean that it’s ours to do whatever we want with it, because there’s a way that we can be in humility, these humble students, and really, like, learn to be stewards of a tradition rather than like owners, and controllers of it.
[37:15] Susanna: And so if we break this down a little bit, we’re pointing at systems of power. And that’s why, you know, let’s just be really personal and transparent, right? [Laughs] That’s why, in our relationship, there’s a dynamic where as an Indian person, for me, I’ve experienced marginalization, not being centered, not, you know, getting to speak, teach, practice in any kind of, like, uplifted way for the first decade and a half that I was teaching, whereas you, Rachel, like being societally put in a position of power, right? More centered, able-bodied, White, flexible, all those thing, were centered. And so that doesn’t mean anything about you particularly as a person, or me particularly as a person, but when we look at it systemically, there’s a huge issue there. And so what I try to do is look at, “well, in this relationship, where is there a power imbalance? And if I am in a position of dis-privilege, how can I invite those other people who may have more privilege or power than I to help lift me and other people like me up? And if I’m in a position of power, of privilege, more centered, how can I lift up others?” And this is part of yoga, right? This is part of working with shakti, with working with the inner power that yoga cultivates. And at first, we might feel like, like you first felt, like a little bit put off, or like, “why do I need to do that? That doesn’t make sense, like I’m just out here for my own benefit.” But actually, the first yama, the first ethical precept of yoga, is ahimsa, is working for non-harm ourselves with others, and then in our social context.
[39:08] Susanna: So all of those reasons are, you know, within the context of yoga itself, within the structure of yoga itself, is really the answer to your question, like “what can I do, what should I do?” Well, I would say go and go deep into the practice, go deep, especially, into yoga ethics, into the yamas and niyamas, and learn those, study those, practice those, and then begin to act from this place of balancing power, you know, cultural appropriation really only can occur when there’s a differential in power — like I’m holding my hands for people who can’t see me, one hand up and one hand below the, the, the top hand —that, cultural appropriation doesn’t happen when two equals are sitting at a table sharing food, you know, from different cultures, that’s not appropriation, that’s sharing [laughs] that’s co-creation, collaboration. But when one group is above, and one group is below, that is, those are the conditions in which cultural appropriation, or racism, or you know, structural harm can happen. And so when we do an analysis of those social issues — which for some people, it might be new, right? And we get that, and that’s okay, but just because it’s new doesn’t mean you get to jump out and say, “oh, I’m not going to do that,” right? It’s new, and hey, this can be the exploration, this is part of svadhyaya, that self-exploration now. And then work on balancing that power. And then, once you’ve kind of worked on balancing that power, the second criteria for cultural appropriation is harm, himsa in Sanskrit. And so then, what do we do to solve it? Well, ahimsa, and I can go into a couple specific ways how to practice ahimsa in this context, but, but that would be the general first step, really, is, is the yamas.
[41:04] Rachel: And I, I think a big, big part of this is people not, either, either not acknowledging the harm, or maybe even — which is where I was a few years ago — not actually knowing or understanding that…
Rachel: …there was harm involved.
Rachel: So, and I think this where we as, as teachers play a huge, huge role. If one of the teachers that I had practiced with prior in my whole, my whole history of yoga would have had this conversation with a class, that would have been enough, you know, to spark that conversation. Or I guess even me seeking out an Indian teacher that maybe would have that perspective and, and be able to share that perspective with me would have made all the difference. But because — and I don’t know if this is like, if it’s part of, of Whiteness, having those little blinders on, like it’s more comfortable for me to exist in this space where I don’t have to think so much about the more marginalized people, or I don’t have to focus on my privilege so much because I also had traumas, and, you know, it’s that kind of story that I think White folks tell themselves and that I told myself for a long time, that I had a hard life too, you know?
Rachel: So, so aren’t we all one, isn’t it all…why should we focus on race and things like that, and yoga’s meant to be shared. And what I realized then, after, after recognizing that there is harm involved, and, and of course that having to come from a very intense place. I think if it wasn’t for that wave that I, of, of what I perceived as anger, as “this is unfair to me,” you know, like all of this, I probably wouldn’t have listened. If it was a well-meaning little comment saying, “hey, by the way…”
[42:45] Rachel: So some examples of some things that I was doing and taking part in actively that I have since stopped, that I know now were inappropriate is we had, in our studio, for instance, is we had things for sale, in our boutique, that related to Hindu culture, that related to religion, that related to very specific, ancient, sacred practices that we didn’t really know what to do with, or we didn’t really know what they actually, genuinely were for. Or maybe I knew what they for, but for the people that were selling them in the boutique didn’t. Things like, what did we sell? I have to take a beat [laughing] to remember. We sold dreamcatchers at the time, so not relating to, to Indian culture, but Native American culture we would sell, because that was something that all the little, you know, hippie-dippies, everyone wants to buy a dreamcatcher, right? We sold incense holders with different religious symbols on them, without really knowing exactly what they were. We had a clothing brand that had different variations of namaste, a very famous one that they’re still around today; little things where we just weren’t aware that “hey, this is problematic.” And what, what I think I shrugged my shoulders at at the time, “ but people want to buy this stuff, and isn’t this all yoga,” actually trickles down to a lot of harm in the end…
Rachel: …and comes from that place of harm. And not knowing, or I guess not having that conversation, or closing your eyes to the conversations means you are going to be more likely to continue that harm, or pass that harm on as a, as a White person. And I’m sharing this in a sense of anyone who’s listening who is a, a yoga teacher and White, you know, “how, why should I listen to this,” or, you know, “do I even play a role,” and, and the answer to that, I really think, is yes.
[44:23] Susanna: Yeah, and what’s so powerful is, you know, in my life experience, I worked, part of how I’ve come to do what I do is I grew up with Patrice Collurs, who’s one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, and a number of other activists, Mark-Anthony Johnson, who founded Dignity and Power Now, Clare Fox who does food justice work in Los Angeles, but we were intentionally a multi-cultural group. So some of us were Black, some of us were queer, some of us were trans, some of us were Indian, some of us were Asian, some of us were White, right? We were intentionally multi-cultural, working on, “well how do we navigate these systems and issues of power, and how can, when we have power, how can we uplift those who don’t, and when we need uplifting, how can we turn to our friends and allies and be like…” like I could write to you, or, or call you and be like, “hey Rachel, this thing is going down, it’s a White yoga whatever,” you know, say yoga teacher training, “and they’re not understanding what I’m saying, would you be willing to step in and have a chat with them?” And in this context, we did that for one another. And it’s so effective, because sometimes, those who, like you said, you know, they’re just kind of people in positions of power don’t want to see their privilege. Privilege by it’s very nature makes us miss things about a situation, and I, you know, can speak to that even around say caste privilege, because as a, as a higher caste Indian person, there are things that I am continuing to learn and open my eyes to around dis-privileges that dalit folks or folks who don’t have caste-privilege experience, right? So there’s things that we miss, and things that we need to work on, but for you or for someone listening who’s like, “oh, wow, I have privilege,” please don’t stop in guilt, right? Because it actually isn’t productive, guilt is not a productive emotion, and I’m not inviting anyone to say stuck in guilt, or tell you you’re wrong, or bad, or have done anything wrong, that’s not helpful. What’s helpful is, “okay, how can I own this and what positive constructive actions can I take to now move forward and utilize my privilege to bring more benefit to others?”
[46:46] Susanna: And no one, you know earlier you said, “should we just walk away from yoga if we’re in a position of privilege,” I really believe no one can tell anyone else what to do. Like, I think we have a new model now, not the guru-shishya model where we’re looking for a, a, one teacher, and that teacher tells us, that’s one way, that’s one path, I don’t think that’s as…there’s been a lot of problems with that model in many different ways, right, which we can get into. But, but the, the real project of yoga is a project of self-autonomy. It’s a project of sovereignty, of going in and, and saying, “I am ishvara, I am self-contained. I am choosing to do this because I have self-mastery.” And so, really, I can’t tell you “never do yoga again,” or, “only have Indians teach yoga,” no, that’s not a useful answer. What’s a useful answer is, “well how can I use my sovereignty, my power, to benefit and uplift myself and others? How can I begin to work as an ally, or even an anti-racist, or an accomplice, you know, in sharing the power of this practice?” And no one can answer that, really, for anyone, except for yourself. And I see my role as an educator, like to ask questions, to get people to think critically, but I hope that no one takes something I say like, “because Susanna said this, don’t do this, or do this, or I’m never going to teach yoga,” like that’s not what I’m saying. Actually, yoga is here for all of us, it didn’t come to any one person, it came through, and I believe that it is here to bring uplift and unity to all. And we each have different ways of expressing that, and translating that.
[48:38] Rachel: Yeah. And I think also maybe that is why it’s easy to get stuck in those yes or no kind of questions, like when I was taking questions for this episode, for instance, majority of questions are, “should I say namaste at the end of class, or should I not? Is it, why is it not okay to wear a bindi? Can I have statues of deities at my studio?” It’s like, “yes, no, can someone just write me a little protocol. I want to be a good White person, and follow the rules, and do it right,” and that’s also how I, how I personally started with those things, because they’re kind of manageable.
Rachel: I can look around my space, my practice space, my studio, the tools, the things that I use for practice, and really get present with “is there awareness around how I am using this tool?”
[49:26] Rachel: That was, I think, first big piece for me, looking around at our boutique that we had at the studio, “the things we are selling here, is there awareness around why those things are here, what are they for, what’s the cultural history of the use of this tool?” And there was so many areas where no, there was no awareness…
Rachel: …it was just something that came along, or something that I thought, “this is what I’ve seen in other studios, it should be here.” Or, “my teacher used to use this thing for this practice, or at an altar,” but then when I sat with, “why do we have the statues of the deities placed here and here,” there was no awareness, you know?
Rachel: It was something that just kind of happened unconsciously, in a way. And in those areas, it was really easy to go, “oh, okay, there’s not enough awareness here, can I either create it, can I learn, can I arrive at a place of integrity here that really feels inside of myself, ‘yes, this makes sense to me. This to me honors the practice,” or ‘no.”” And in the areas where it was a no, or felt like a stretch, it was really easy to, to stop, or to shift…
[50:28] Rachel: …or to…and example of that, because I got asked this question a lot, we used to have statues of the deities, we used to have, we had Kali was like our main [laughs] altar, our altar piece in the studio. And then when I learned that, you know, showing your feet to the deity is not culturally in that, and in the history of, of, of the real, the real religion that we are borrowing this actual, you know, goddess from, is not respectful. But we all go into shavasana, and our heads are in the back, and our feet are facing forward, and then I had to sit with, “okay, can I have a session with every teacher that comes in and really talk about this?” And we turned the studio around, and we, we make sure every visiting teacher knows that when you do…and this became like a whole logistical thing to just go, “hey, maybe Kali doesn’t have to be right here,” you know? “Maybe there’s some simple shift I can make in terms of the studio layout,” and that actually became in that instance the easy solution to that complex thing, was that, “I don’t have to engage in all the things that actually don’t belong to me, I don’t have to take everything because I had teachers who had everything this way.” And that, I think, sort of is the beginning of how can I look inside and go, “okay, my teachers did this,” or, “I saw this online,” or, you know, whatever it is that we’re, that we’re using or appreciating versus appropriating, can I look inside and really get the answer there, versus going to Susanna’s website, looking for the checklist, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no.
Susanna: And it’s funny beacause…
Rachel: Have you had that?
Susanna: Yeah, I get this a lot. And I do have a checklist, right? [Laughing] Because…
Rachel: [Laughing] Yeah.
[52:05] Susanna: …because, I think it, it’s like, it’s like yoga, in a way, it’s a life-long practice, cultural connection, learning how to connect with cultures from the inside-out. For some people, you know, you might take it as an anti-racist journey, or a journey of unlearning, you know, racism, and those things, like it takes time, and it’s evolving, and you know, also for people listening who are like so frustrated, and so confused, like “just tell me what to do, I just want to do the right thing,” like I realized in a way, it’s important to meet people where they’re at, and then invite them in to a deeper inquiry, or more inquiry, step by step by step by step. And so I think that that, for me, and for folks listening, is really around ahimsa as harm reduction. Ahimsa, non-harm, as much as we possibly can. You know, you did that inventory for your studio as, “how can I reduce harm?” And as you’re reducing harm, the very first step might be well looking around and not taking or using things that are not yours, that you don’t have a relationship with, that you don’t even really understand, but, you know, what can come of that - and this is why it’s complex — is it’s nuanced, because then other people might say, “well you totally sterilized,” right? Cultural appropriation can happen it has these, for folks listening, I have a pen in my hand, and I’m touching both — let me unclick the pen [laughs] — I’m touching the sides of it.
[53:43] Susanna: So cultural appropriation has these two poles: on one side, there’s sterilization, which is removing all the cultural elements from a practice to make it more, quote, unquote, palatable to a White, or a dominant audience. And then the other side is glamorization, which is what you were describing initially, like what led you to the critique of being a cultural appropriate, you know, appropriating, is like just attaching, “oh, this beautiful goddess,” and, “I’m going to put,” you know, like wear a bindi, and all the, all the show of the culture without any of the actual kind of meat, or maybe like, vegan meat [laughs] the depth, the heart of it, but also it’s like my friend Asha Frost says, you can’t have, like part of what the problem with glamorization is folks who take on like say the bindi, who have all the benefit and the beauty of the bindi, but they don’t have what I had, which is like being called dot head, you know, and like I had fruit and other things and rocks even, thrown at me after leaving a Puja when I was a child, because of wearing a bindi and then other kids seeing that and thinking I was different, and other, right? So it’s like if you’re gonna take the beauty, well join us in the struggle that comes from actually being a part of a culture that is discriminated against because of just being different, you know? Different than the, different from the norm. And so I bring up sterilization and glamorization because as you go deeper and learn more, you might learn that you don’t want totally remove all the cultural elements, and one concrete thing I can say to everyone is when you’re reducing harm, it’s, it’s still really helpful to acknowledge where the practices come from, and I think of that as a spiritual lineage acknowledgment, like to say, “I’m going to share some yoga with you, this is a practice that comes from India, and has been practiced for thousands of years.” And so I’ll give you a really concrete example of this, which is anulom vilom, which is alternative nostril breathing, that type of breathing is incredibly effective at reducing stress, reducing anxiety, and then recently, I think it was Scientific American renamed it “cardiac coherence breathing.”
[Rachel laughs softly]
[56:08] Susanna: And that’s great, you know, and they sell all these benefits, like reduces blood pressure, you know, is good for diabetes and heart disease patients, wonderful. Really glad that it does that. But it’s in Upanishads, you know it’s written about in the Vedas like thousands of years ago. And so all they had to do to not be appropriating is say, “this is a breathing practice that comes from the Vedas in India, and we’re going to share it as, or you know, we’re describing it as cardiac coherence breathing, and here’s how you do it.” And they didn’t do that. And so in that case, it becomes appropriation because it’s erasing, you know, this whole system, it’s a codified, organized system of, of practices that may actually, for some people, when they encounter it, they may go further and receive other benefits. So you kind of have to watch those poles of sterilizing and glamorizing and come to, you know, I think of, in yoga asana, sometimes I’m like, propping in tadasana, rounding and lifting my shoulders up, sometimes I’m caving, but I have to go back and forth a bit to find my own personal, solid center. Not anyone else’s, but my own center of values. And it may take folks a little time to go through like, “oh, I overcompensated here,” and, “oh, I’m taking this out here,” and that’s okay to go through that process, you don’t have to be perfect at it. But the, the request is to commit to trying.
[57:39] Rachel: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah. And I, I, yeah, I, I, this is such a — and I know this personally, because I, I, I sit with this every day — it is not an easy thing.
Rachel: And I wish, I wish there was that checklist, “check, check, check, check, check, and now everyone is, justice for all,” you know, because we all want to get to that place, of course, of oneness, and you know, we’re all here together, and I think where we, or where the yoga world misses a lot is we’re not there yet.
Rachel: So, you know, hopefully we will, and we can arrive at the place eventually, but until we are there, acknowledging or at least opening our eyes to “there’s harm involved in this process, and I impact other people by how I either pass this practice on, or how I engage with this practice that isn't inherently mine.”
[58:29] Susanna: And grieving, you know? Taking a moment, for folks listening, if you’re like, “wow, I didn’t get the full expanse of the practice, and I know there’s more,” taking a moment, it's okay to grieve that, for yourself, and for the practice, and for the people who may have been harmed by, by that omission. It’s like take a moment, take whatever amount of time you need, and grieve it. And then seek out the depth of the teachings. Seek out, you know, the full eight-fold path and all there is that yoga has to offer. And I think that moment or time to grieve and then deepen is sometimes what stops us, because we’re like, “oh, I’m just going to keep doing what I'm doing,” but no, it’s, it’s sad. And that's part of it. And then, we get to deepen, and through deepening, we benefit ourselves as well, as well as others, and, and communities, and the future of what yoga can be for everyone.
[59:30] Rachel: Mmm. Do you have any inkling as to — I was just contemplating this today — for so many White folks just like me out there who the moment I began down my healing journey, which involved yoga in such a huge way, it was I think the first time in my life that I felt spiritually linked, really, to anything, you know? And to have a practice that was, “oh, my God, I get to roll out my mat, there’s a sacredness to that, that I have a tool that I can use,” and then came, you know, the mala beads, and then I have my Tibetan bells over here, and I have, you know, and I start to accumulate these tools from different kinds of practices, from different parts of the world, but none of them actually ever stemmed from my own culture, if I look back at my own, my own lineage and where I come from. Do you have any inkling as to why, why we're missing that? Like what happened to those, to those things, you know?
Susanna: Mmm, yes. So [laughs]…
Rachel: Maybe this is the reverse, me asking you [laughs] because I’m sitting here as the, as the White person wondering…but it really feels that way, that, that, because of course they are there, did we all just, in all the harm that took place along the way, did they all just get lost and now we have to borrow from everybody else, or...what do you think?
[60:52] Susanna: I think that’s a big piece of it, right? And that's the harm of White supremacy that is the hidden harm sometimes, is that White people think, you know, or people in a position of power think they're benefitting, but they're actually losing out as well. And part of that is it's sort of like this deal with the devil or whatever, like, “you give up your culture, your roots, your,” you know, and this happened like, I can even think the Roman empire, right? Like this, what has happened before, like when Indigenous or Earth-based practitioners, Pagans, you know, whatever the different names of those different communities were in Europe and elsewhere, they converted, or they were forced to convert, and to kind of normalize and become a part of a dominant religion, or culture, or practice. And so it's not new, and some of the harm that's being perpetrated now with White supremacy is probably coming from that loss of culture, because, you know, again, yoga is inherently about sovereignty, but when someone is taking and stealing from another culture, there, it’s hard to get to true sovereignty. And so what the invitation is is actually creativity, and I think you, you touched on it, is like, “well what in my own culture, in my own practice, what in my own ancestry can I lean back to, what can I learn about, what can I connect to, and for many cultures, it’s actually all the same, in a way.
[62:31] Susanna: It’s, it’s in Indian culture, it’s prithvi, birth, it’s surya, the sun, it’s vāyu, the wind, you know, there’s jal, water; there are all these natural elements that early yoga practitioners were connecting to, working on harmonizing within and without. And when we look back, you know, I think of like, because I’ve researched a little bit about British, in, in England and France, pagan practitioners, they were doing the same thing with the lay-lines, and with, you know, looking at Stonehenge and what Stonehenge was, was about is, and we don’t always have a lot of information because the thing is about colonization is that it erases these stories that often were orally told, not necessarily written down. But these are beautiful inquiries to go into, and to me, it’s very exciting to think of a world where we’re grounded in who we are and who we came from, we’re reaching back to our own ancestral roots, and we’re connecting in a respectful way, in an honoring and loving way to one another’s different cultures. So I’m not saying don’t do something that doesn’t come from your culture, but tune into where you’re from and what’s available there, and ask questions, right? Ask elders, do some research, explore, and then bring your creativity alive, because cultural appropriation really is a result of a lack of creativity, and a lack of, of that turning into ancestral connections. And so it’s, cultural appreciation is an opportunity for going deep, connecting with self, with our ancestors and our, our root practices, and then sharing and connecting with one another.
[64:14] Rachel: Hmm, hmm.
Rachel: And then it’s, then it’s exciting instead of, “I’m going to lose all of these things…”
Rachel: …you know, less than I have to remove all of this or quit all of this is I get an opportunity to anchor deeper into the history of this, and actually for it to settle on a different level, deep inside, while also leaning back into, into my own. Because there is something really sacred about that that I think we miss out on when we just, we just take what’s available right there, you know?
Rachel: There’s two sides to, to it where it’s benefits in the end for everyone.
Susanna: And can I give a specific example of this?
Rachel: Yes, please.
[64:53] Susanna: Because I think it might help people. It’s like around yoga, specifically, which comes from India and South Asians, you can ask yourself who are you learning from, like who are you following and interacting with online? Who follows you? If you teach, who’s there? What does your marketing look like, or your actual audience look like? And then, who might be missing, and how is cultural appropriation a part of that? And then, you know, in terms of actions that you can take to reconnect and uplift is support, collaborate with, learn from many different students and teachers; bring in, invite in South Asian teachers and practitioners, and you can do that by building relationships with people, by reaching out, supporting, you know, connecting, talking to people. Taking time to do like a heart and gut check, like “how does it feel?” There’s a difference in a space when it feels like truly inclusive, rather than tokenizing, and continue to consider who might be left out, and then make kind of accommodations for bringing people in, so offer different ways of learning, and teaching, and practice, or seek out different ways of leaning, and teaching, and practice, and look for teachers who might bring in different aspects of yoga: mantra, mudra, yoga philosophy, and explore that. So it can be, it can be a lot of fun, and that, that’s just one concrete way. Or a few concrete ways.
[66:32] Rachel: I wish, I wish we had another hour, I know we are running out of time in a little bit, but this is not the last time you’re on the show for sure. You have a book coming out — I don’t want, I don’t want podcast to, to be over before we touch on that — Embrace Yoga’s Roots. How does it feel?
Susanna: It’s so exciting. It’s like, yeah, that article exploded into and turned into a book, and I’m thrilled. Yeah.
Rachel: It’s like almost having a new baby out into the world. I know it’s out, it’s out mid-November, so everyone listening, absolutely go grab your copy, Embrace Yoga’s Roots, we’ll link to it in the description of the show. For everyone, you know, Susanna, I like to end my shows, just — and you did touch on that just now — but for everyone listening, if there’s something that we can do to be of service to you today, what would that be?
[67:27] Susanna: Mmm, that’s so beautiful. I feel like, very moved by that question, and, you know, deepening in your exploration and your practice of yoga would be the most, the most supportive thing for me, my life’s work is around expanding our understanding of what yoga is, and so like, with the book, I felt like it was a workbook, really, for people to explore and come back to, and dog ear, you know? And, and the practice is that way, like just keep coming back to the mat, keep coming back to this exploration of, “how can I appreciate and not appropriate yoga?” And that, that would be wonderful.
Rachel: Mmm. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining me on the show again, and for all the important work you do in this world. Thank you.
Susanna: Thank you, Rachel. And thank you everyone.
[68:28 — End of Episode]