[01:23] Rachel: HI and welcome to another episode of From The Heart: Conversations With Yoga Girl. I am not only excited, but so very honored to introduce this week’s guest on the show. Here to talk to us about the very important but also sensitive topic of cultural appropriation, Susanna Barkataki! Susanna is a teacher, inclusivity promoter and yoga culture advocate, with an honor’s degree from Berkley and a Master’s in Education, she’s also a master yoga teacher, deeply immersed in the in the work of decolonizing and honoring our yoga practice to inspire deep healing, both socially and personally. Warm welcome to the show, Susanna!
Susanna: Hi! Thank you so much for having me. I’m really honored to be here.
Rachel: How was that introduction? Did I cover everything? You have a really impressive resume! [laugh]
Susanna: [laugh] Yeah, I think you got the most important parts. I always realize I forget to say that I’m a mom, right? As a mom yourself, you know, this is probably one of our hugest life accomplishments is that I’m raising a little Buddha baby boy. [laugh]
Rachel: Oh my god, that should be at the top of the list! That’s the biggest thing by far! Beautiful. So, the name of this show is From The Heart, so before we dive into the topic of the week, how are you? Speaking from the heart, right now.
Susanna: Speaking From The Heart right now, I am so good. I had some time today to practice, to get on my mat and to meditate, and just I’m really really nourished and filled up and feeling very present and blessed.
Rachel: Oh, how beautiful, how beautiful.
Rachel: Me, speaking From The Heart, I have to be super honest, I’m a little nervous to have this conversation. I, actually, I don't think I would be if it wasn’t that this topic specifically has been such … I don’t want to say hot potato, but it’s been a very very current topic in my, I think, in conversation, amongst my friends and in our studio here where I live in Aruba, but also in the online world. We all know how conversations that take place only in the online world sometimes tend to get very heated. I have been immersed, or kind of hosting this very heated discussion on my social media pages. Right before we came on, you know, I’ve been doing research on this topic for a really long time, I’ve been taking questions for a long time. I was kind of laying out, you know, the plan for this conversation and I realized my heart was beating fast because I’m really scared I’m going to say the wrong thing. I want to just start off saying that, that I’m nervous to have this conversation because I’m scared to say the wrong thing or that I’m going to say something that doesn’t sit right or that offends someone. But I also realize that the fact that I sit with some of that fear is why we’re not having these conversations enough.
[04:00] Rachel: I think it’s a good thing that I’m experiencing that and that we’re here together, and I’m really grateful that you’re joining me for this, to educate not just me but the entire community. So, thank you.
Susanna: Yeah. And I just want to speak to that for a second, because one of my friends, Teo Drake who is also a yogi, says, “If you step into a little bit of discomfort, sometimes that allows me to step into a little bit more ease.” And I’m paraphrasing him. But essentially, sometimes it does take someone else kind of opening up to a little fear, a little, “Ugh, I might do this wrong,” for those of us who have been living in, “Oh my goodness, this is just so not okay,” it allows us a little bit more spaciousness and a little bit more room to move. And I also want to say, you know, I’m not here to say you or anyone else is wrong or to shame anyone about practicing yoga or teaching yoga. Really I’m here to have a conversation, and I know you are too, and to connect heart to heart as we explore this together, and to share from my experience and my perspective, culture, history, all of that. But to be also engaging in a yogic way. And that is, for me, about discussion and connection and open-heartedness and not debate or shutting people down or shaming them.
[06:00] Rachel: Yes, yes. Thank you for sharing that. That, for me is … I love the podcast as a medium because it allows us to be really present and listen. I find it impossible to listen to a podcast and do anything else at the same time. It really requires us to be really here when we’re listening, and also when we’re engaged in conversation. So, I tried to sort of shift this conversation toward the medium of online articles and things we can read and really immerse ourselves in, and then a conversation like this, just because it’s easier to digest without the drama that comes along with the social media of “he said she said” and everything that comes along with that. So it’s an important conversation, and I think it’s good that we have it, in many different ways, and the podcast is a great way to begin.
So just to give our listeners a little bit more context, so you want to share a little bit about your history and why you are the right person to speak to on this topic right now?
Rachel: Hopefully! [laugh]
Susanna: Absolutely. So first, to say, of course, I don’t speak for all Indians, I just speak for myself. So, I think that’s really important to name. I am a unique experience of being essentially born of colonization, right? My mother is British, my father is Indian. I was born in India. I mean, sorry, in England. Then while we were growing up, you know, my brother and I in our early years in England there was all of this violence in England against mixed race families. Indian and Pakistani families. So we sort of came into being, I came into being in the heart of what happens after a country has colonized another country, and then those people are living back in that heartland in England, and essentially we were pushed out. There were firebombings of mixed race families, it was a really terrifying time.
[08:00] It was something where, you know, as parents what I want most in the world is to keep my child safe and to make sure he lives. So my parents felt the same way, and they thought, “We have to get out of here. We can’t bring our kids up in a place that’s so intolerant of who they are.” You know? Where people said, “Oh, they’re half breeds,” that they would have to adopt because we would be mixed, and that was an aberration. So they left and they moves to the United States, and that’s where I grew up.
Rachel: How old were you at the time?
Susanna: I was five. So I was quite young, which is why I don’t have an English accent. I got rid of that because people made fun of me for it. And then I became, it was like this whole new thing. And I share this background because I think it’s really actually a metaphor for the story of what’s happened to yoga. When I was living in a suburb of Los Angeles, we happened to move there because my parents thought it would be diverse and accepting and very welcoming. We grew up on a block where there were all … mostly white boys. We would play typical games, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, G.I. Joes. What I noticed is my brother and I were always the bad gays. We were always the ones getting shot, getting killed, losing. And I was laying there one day with my face pushed into the concrete, with the sun burning above and smelling the asphalt as it was melting under me. One of the boys, I don't know which one, said, “Go home, terrorist.” And it was no longer a game. It was like he was saying it to me. I got up and I fought back, physically. I learned how to fight because I had to.
[10:00] But even when I was fighting on the outside, on the inside, those messages were going in, and I felt like I didn’t belong, that this wasn’t my home, the U.S., and England wasn’t, and India wasn’t (I didn’t know it very well), so I just felt so profoundly alone and disconnected. And just worthless, really. I think that story is actually the story of what’s happened to so many of us, and to yoga today, right? It’s been taken out of context, used more as a tool for happiness or peace or some kind of personal gain, and disconnected from its roots, which is what had happened to me, you know? So that’s a little bit of-
Rachel: That is a heartbreaking story, yeah. No, but it touches me deeply. For someone who is really new to this topic or new to this subject, because there is … I think that was a great portion of why this became not just a conversation, it became more of a debate or very heated is that it was such a surprise to many Westerners to hear people from India and are Hindu descent say that teaching yoga or practicing yoga in this specific way is cultural appropriation. And for a lot of people in the West, yoga is this thing that’s very dear to their heart. Me personally, me included. I’m Swedish, born and raised, white. I’ve been practicing yoga half my life, teaching for a decade. It’s very personal to me. The way things go, if someone challenges something that we hold dear, there is not a lot of listening happening. What I realized is that this is just … People are very ignorant to this fact and don’t even know what cultural appropriation means, or where the line draws between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. So, for someone who is brand new to this who might be listening right now really wondering, “What? Am I doing something wrong?” Wanting to learn, what is cultural appropriation? Just down to the basics.
[12:00] Susanna: Yeah. Yeah, that is a great question. So … Essentially, cultural appropriation is taking something from another culture that we don’t have an immediate connection to, and then using it for one’s own gain without acknowledging where it came from, or the people that that impacts, right? So for me this is so connected to colonization. It’s so obviously. The British went to India to colonize and to get raw materials, labor, the crown jewels that are still in England that are Indian, right? They’re Indian jewels. It’s obviously, you can say, “Oh, they took that. They exploited that. They took that for their own use.” When I say they, I am also British, right? So I speak from both sides, I speak from both perspectives.
And it’s natural, because we all want beautiful things. We all want things for ourselves. But when, now, when we take yoga, it’s like we’re using it like it’s something to own, or something to take and then call our own without acknowledging where it came from, the context of its practice, the roots, and then often really taking it out of context or putting it into places where it’s actually counter to what yoga stands for.
[14:00] And of course we do this, right? Of course we do this, because, you know, I studied philosophy, Western philosophy, and I think about why things happen and why we relate the way we relate. And during the Enlightenment, which is around the 16th century, which is when the British went in, the Royal British East India Company went into India, Rene Descartes, this philosopher, said, “I think, therefore I am.” And with those days he named a radical shift in thinking that has impacted all of us, especially in the Western world since then, which is this separation between us and what we observe, between the mind and the body, between the spirit and the soul. Because of this training and separation we’re just all steeped in, we think that we can own yoga. We relate to it as something to exploit. And so that is what cultural appropriation is coming from, that perspective of, “Oh, because it’s benefiting me, it’s mine and I can do with it what I will without considering the impact that it has on others.”
Rachel: Because I think this … How this gets challenging for people in the West, really to grasp, and from my personal journey in this, my first real big moment of enlightenment, I had never heard the words cultural appropriation spoken before. When I was a teenager, 18 or 19, I had just left Sweden, I was living in Costa Rica at the time, I had just found yoga and meditation and I was immersing myself in all of these new things, this new way of life, that were all very beneficial for me. But I didn’t have the context of the big picture, you know? Where do these practices come from? But I was kind of like a little sponge, soaking up things left and right that I felt were benefiting me on my own journey. And I got into the habit of using bindis together with my best friend. And I didn’t know what they meant. They weren’t the traditional bindi, but anything sparkly, like a little gem, I would put it on my third eye because I had read about the third eye and third eye meditations and tapping into your intuition and chakras and this and that.
[16:00] And I did that for a long time. I wasn’t on the internet, I wasn’t a public person. I was living in a small village in Costa Rica seeing very few people. No one ever, you know, never heard anything spoken about it. Then a couple of years later, my best friend who I had lived there with passed away, and I got sort of back into the habit of putting a little sparkly gem on my forehead, because it reminded me of her and of our time being so young, finding yoga together, and meditating together and all of this. And then I had … I posted a photo, I can’t remember what the context was, and someone wrote me and said, “Cannot believe you’re being so disrespectful to Indian culture! Remove that thing from your forehead. This is cultural appropriation! Shame on you.” And I had no idea what it meant. I couldn’t understand at all the concept of this thing, “It’s very personal to me. This has nothing to do with you or with anybody else. This is my practice. This is my thing that I do.” And I was, of course, very offended that someone would challenge me with this emotional attachment that I had to this, you know … Which of course I can sort of laugh at it now that I know better, but it took some time for me to actually acknowledge that what I was doing was offensive. And it didn’t take just one person telling me, it took a few people telling me before I sat down and started googling the term “cultural appropriation” and what it meant. And then also came about the significance of the bindi, the history of the bindi and how it’s part of a very religious practice that isn’t mine, a culture that isn’t mine. And with time I stopped using it. But I can definitely see that those first moments … Because I wore one on and off for years. If I didn’t have that moment of enlightenment, I might be sitting here with one today thinking that, “Oh, but this doesn’t affect anybody else, at all.”
[18:00] So, I’m wondering how …. A lot of people have been asking, “Where does the line go between the looking of this is me and mine?” Relating that to yoga as well, because I was able to see that, oh, you know, it was an easy thing for me to let go of that [bindi] once I realized that that was offensive. Something like the yoga practice, even more personal, even more intimate to so many people, many people that might not even know very much about the origin of the practice, how can we practice in a respectful way, or make sure that what we’re doing is appreciating culture and not appropriating it?
Susanna: I think that’s such a wonderful question. Even just beginning there, like, asking that question is a great place for everyone to start. I just felt, just want to mention, it just started thundering here. I’m in Orlando, Florida and you get these periodic half hour thunderstorms that come through, so if you hear some crunching in the background, grumbling, it’s the thunderclouds in the distance.
Rachel: Oh wow!
Susanna: Yeah, dramatic backdrop for this conversation.
Rachel: Dramatic backdrop, yes!
Susanna: [laugh] So, you know, I can only speak from my own experience with this, right? I truly believe that there isn’t … Yoga came to us, and it came through, right? It didn’t come from someone, but it came through. It was brought to this country and Europe and all sorts of different places all over the world by people, but yoga itself has a consciousness or an entity, and what it means, yoga is to yolk, to unite.
[20:00] So, if we are able to get open and to listen and to ask, what I’m doing, is it creating more union or is it creating more separation? Then that is a really good place to start. Because we can befriend our own practice and listen to that consciousness of yoga to inform us with our own integrity with it, and to begin by, you know, like you said, asking the question, “Is what I’m doing creating more unity or is it creating more separation?” And sometimes we’ll need to learn, like google and learn about the roots of the practice and listen to what other people say and listen to how it makes them feel as we’re coming into an answer to that. Because I do have to mention even though many of your listeners may not be aware of this, and I think it’s important to know, is that unfortunately yoga can be used as a tool of fascism as well. In India right now, there is a big movement afoot to use yoga to exclude, especially religious minorities. Like Muslims or Jains or other religions, to say that to do yoga you have to be Hindu, or that doing yoga makes you Hindu. I personally think if that isn’t what yoga is about either. Yoga is about union and not creating separation. So we can’t necessarily turn to an authority outside of our self. We have to be in this process and journey of inquiry, and that is our yoga, this questioning.
[23:18] Rachel: So for someone who might be an avid practitioner or a teacher, or even someone like myself who makes a living from this practice, teaching yoga, if my practice and my teaching makes me feel more at peace and more in union with myself, with my heart, with my students, with my local community, does that excuse doing anything within the realms of yoga?
Susanna: [laugh] I’m glad you asked that. No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t! I think that a huge part of, you know, what when I look at for what yoga is is, besides honoring the roots of the practice, it invites us to practice self-enquiry and looking at position and privilege and power, and then using that to make others feel welcome and lift others up. Because yoga, it’s been … in the West, it’s been such an exclusionary practice. So even someone like me, right, like I’m … or my aunts and uncles, like, my aunt actually said to me the other day, she’s like, “I want to trust this yoga,” she’s Indian, she wears a bindi, she wears a sari every day. She says, “I want to go and practice yoga, but I don’t feel like I belong in the studio.” And I thought, ugh, if my aunt, who is from this matriarchal process for yoga and Ayurveda, has been practiced for centuries is saying, “I don’t belong,” we have a real problem. I think a lot of people have spoken about that. There’s body issue, people who feel not included because they don’t feel like their body type is welcome. Definitely around race, culture. So I think every one of us, including, especially like, I also have a yoga business and I teach Yoga Teacher Trainings and other courses, we have a responsibility to look at who is not there. Who isn’t in our classes? Who isn’t showing up to our retreats? Who isn’t in our studios? And then do what we can with the power and the position we have to bring other folks in, right? Or maybe it’s not bringing other folks into our world, but going into theirs and listening to what they need, and sharing these tools that have helped us with others.
[26:00] Because it’s like pairing self-study with service. Which is something I know you care about. That said, I’d love to hear a little bit about what you think about that question of can we kind of be let off the hook if it’s bringing us and our community peace.
Rachel: Yes, yes. As someone who has sort of been … I have a big aversion towards social media, strangely. I have a sort of hate-love relationship. I think a part of me would love to live in more peace. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “Does this bring more peace into my life?” And sometimes the answer is no. But I also feel really purposeful in my work, and I want to continue my work, and I know that social media is the way to further that and also help educate and help bring awareness to things that I find important and ways to be of service. I have had a lot of personal, really serious introspection through this. The interesting thing, there has been a lot of things that have clicked for me just the past couple of days. That conversation that was sparked in social media actually came from … I shared a fairly public post when Mia Wilson was murdered a little while ago. I have been sitting with the question, myself, of why don’t we have more people of color in our retreats and in our trainings? At the studio, the local community here in Aruba, we don’t really think about that a lot, because we have 83 nationalities on the island. There’s no way to tell what an Aruban person looks like. It’s all very mixed. We have more people of color at the studio from the local community than white practitioners. But in our actual retreats and trainings, which of course are the costlier programs that we have, and the more immersive things, very very very few. And I have been pondering this. We’ve had meetings about this at the studio, we’ve been going back and forth. How can we go about this and make sure that we are being more inclusive?
[28:00] What I came back to again and again is that I was scared to ask the question publicly, because I was scared that I was unintentionally doing something racist. Is there something that I am doing wrong? Is there something of how a practice that we have, how I’m portraying my teaching? I was scared that the answer would be something that I didn’t want to hear. So I didn’t have the conversation publicly. I didn’t open up and say, “Hey, I need to work on something here. Can anybody help me? Give me some advice.” I just, I kept it really quiet.
And then I opened up about that, which for me was a fairly scary thing to do. I think as a white woman it is … it can be a really intimidating thing to do, to get into any conversation about race, which I think is a reason a lot of white women, specifically, we stay very privileged and comfortable in our own corners. What is that quote? That it’s the ultimate privilege when we don’t even have to think about our privilege, because we’re so privileged. It doesn’t even come up. But I brought that up and I shared a post on it. And then through that was connected to some really amazing women of color, one of whom is Rachel Cargle, who does amazing work within black feminism and supporting how white women can support women of color all over. So we decided to do a podcast together, and then I shared that.
Then magically, which then didn’t feel like magic to me because it came with a lot of challenge, the question was brought up, “But wait, you’re going to have this conversation about feminism and white feminism or black feminism and supporting women of color? Where are the Indian people in your community? You are cultural appropriating yoga by teaching it the way you do, by having your studio in the location that it is, by being a white woman teaching yoga.”
[30:00] And it wasn’t a question I was prepared for. I was so focused on feminism and the specific topic that we had and bringing people of color into our retreats, and then I was sort of sidelined with this, “Wait! Have I been so completely ignorant that I’m not honoring the roots of this practice that completely envelops my entire life in the right way?” And I can really humbly say right now, also to everyone who is listening, this was not an easy thing for me to be faced with in the way that it came about, at all, because it came from a place where, yeah, there was so much truth in that. Absolutely. How am I supporting the Indian community here in Aruba, because there is a fairly sizeable Indian community here? Not at all. The answer to that question is not at all. And I’ve had my focus on many different, in other ways, other places, and have not been inclusive enough or educational enough or respectful enough in what I share in social media and websites and things like that. So it’s been a big … yeah. I find myself questioning my entire work, I guess, over the past couple of weeks and have now landed in this place of what a beautiful thing. What a beautiful thing, to have your roots shaken up so that I can really scale things back and get to the heart of why I do what I do, and if I need to change something. Beautiful! Great, you know? But I can’t do that work before I’m faced with that work. So what initially felt like almost an attack or drama now just has settled in me as gratitude, and I’m just listening now. I don't know if I’m rambling or if I’m making sense to you. [laugh]
[32:00] Susanna: No, it makes a lot of sense. And I so appreciate you opening to this, because as you mentioned, so many people can sit in that place of privilege and never engage. It’s like privilege allows … And I do think, actually, in this day and age, that privilege has an expiration date, and you could have postponed it, right? But instead you turned into it and you opened it up. And it is really uncomfortable and it is really painful, because the history of what’s happened is uncomfortable and painful. When I went to India I walked in Shimla, which is this beautiful village up in the foothills of the Himalayas, and I met villagers who said, “You know, when the British lived here, they didn’t let us walk on these streets, on the main thoroughfare.” Other villages said, “We couldn’t practice yoga or Ayurveda, the healing science.” It’s the sister science to yoga. “If we did we would be punished. If we practiced, we were punished.” Because there was an intentional breaking of that lineage as the practice that gave people their medicine, their resilience, their mind-body-spirit strength. So much so that even today, folks like me who grew up in the diaspora, I grew up in England and then the U.S., that lineage is something that I have to fight to understand and to reclaim.
And of course, yes, it’s in me and it’s in my blood and my bones and my ancestral knowing, that coming through me. And it’s not an easy thing when we’ve had a context of separation and disunity and disconnection, right? We all have that separation from ourselves, from each other, and we’ve lost the natural experience of unity that yoga says is our birthright and that it gives to us and can teach us.
[34:00] I really believe with yoga we get a taste of that world of unity once more, and that it’s everyone’s to connect with, and that no one need be or should be excluded or left out, and that if we’re practicing this kind of authentic, seeking, listening like you said, really listening, then yoga will speak to us. And the yoga of inclusivity, the yoga of diversity, of honoring. And so it’s just, I’m grateful that you’re doing this and hope that your many other people who are listening will take this as a jumping off point.
And I really want to speak to this for a second. If someone is listening and is like, “Mm, she’s just saying only Indians can do yoga.” Right? Or, “I don’t get, like, why does she keep talking about the past? It’s past. It’s not now.” My request is really to ask you can you feel the humanity, the shared humanity? My pain, the suffering, and connect to that? Also, what would it mean for your worldview or your life if this were true, right? If there was so much more that we needed to look at and explore in yoga then what we’ve been doing in the West, what would that mean? And can we open to that for a second and just sit in the … there’s this possibility that we can all walk into together.
[36:00] Rachel: There is hope. There is … Definitely, definitely. I mean, coming through on the other end of this, if there is such a thing, what a beautiful moment of unity that would be. And I think now the … if you go into the extremes of this, and I think that’s a little bit what’s been happening with this conversation online is that it’s been hard for people to distinguish the conversation from the emotion, which is also making a note of the fact that anyone speaking of this from a place of anger has an absolute right to be angry. So how can we … And I think specifically in, yeah, the Instagram conversation that happened over on my page, there was a lot of women from Indian descent who were very very upset as part of this conversation, and that anger really translated through their words. So instead of listening, there were a lot of Western women who just became upset at the anger, and “I can’t listen to you when you speak in that tone.” It went to extremes on both sides. Do you have any advice as to, well first off, as Westerners how we can listen and sit with emotion even if it’s there? Or how we can have this conversation in a more accessible way?
Susanna: Absolutely, yes. I love that question. I think that … So, I work all the time in having high charged conversations around issues of diversity and race and cultural difference in the yoga world. I’ve consulted for Yoga Alliance and other places on these types of things. So, it gets heated because it’s personal, and we’re invested. So, the very first thing is really to listen for what impact our words have had or an action has had on someone else, and then to address the impact.
[38:00] So if someone was speaking with a lot of anger, then recognizing that they’re hurt and addressing that hurt first, not speaking from condition but speaking from compassion. So letting the emotion crack us open. Like crack open the, “Oh my goodness, she/he is really suffering! For them to say those things that are so harsh or so angry or so cutting or hurtful, they must really be hurting. Why are they hurting?” So, take it as a point of curiosity and then allow that compassion to form connection. So we’re not just trying to be right or defend positions, but really connect. And I know, as you mentioned, social media is so hard because it is really almost like a debate format rather than connection. But I’ve had some opportunities on social media to engage these issues and when I just stay present and I’ve listened to someone who is attacking and ask them questions about their pain or their fear, or why they’re so hurt? Then usually after some time back and forth, back and forth, they’re able to get to what’s underneath the emotion, which is real grief and sadness. And we can connect person to person, you know? Heart to heart and human to human. So, I think practicing the yogic principals, right? Of ahimsa, of non-violence, of non-harming, and of Satya. And then also aparigraha, letting go of possession and just being present with another being in their moment of suffering.
[40:00] And I wish that there was a way to bring the format of, like counsel, or dharma sharing, that’s another way I’ve heard of it, a practice I love and touch on every week where we sit in circle and just speak from our heart. No one answers, there’s no crosstalk, we just share. And the most profound things come out. Like, suffering, joys, and no one needs to answer anyone else. We just share and we listen, and there is bonds that are formed that … they never end, those bonds. I wish there was a way to bring that social media, because I think so much of this would be resolved if we had a forum for that kind of loving space of exchange.
Rachel: It’s so interesting that you say that. We’re working on bringing something similar about, actually, right now. It’s part of something we’re launching soon. But I have really been looking for that. I have yet to see a social media forum, at least with this many people, the space that I hold has a lot of people, so I think it of course gets challenging the bigger the platform is, but where there has been really constructive discussion leading to a place of peace. Usually how social media debates to is if something is heated, people will just jump in midway and there will be personal attacks and back and forth. And what I feel really sad about right now is that there is a woman who sparked this debate recently with really important questions, really important points, and the way she came about them, it came from this place of absolute immense anger, and it was really quite intense to be on the other end of. She ended up sharing a lot of photoshopped images of me. It was an image of me bathing in money, and I am a devil, sort of the consensus after that she was sharing that no white person should ever teach yoga. We should never put our hands in prayer, we should never do this, and of course this made other people really upset to read, because that also was of course personal to them. So it became this sort of vortex of just crap.
[42:00] In the end, the woman, because of the images and because of the anger, I didn’t do it, but she was banned from her own account, because it became so hateful in the end. I was sitting with this this morning and I was like, I wish there was a way I could bring her voice back without the anger. Because I would love to have that really constructive conversation with her and listen. But it became to distracting, and other people jumped into my defense, and then it became a sort of not a pleasant place to reside. I wish there was a way to hold space and let that anger be, and then separate it so that I can listen easier. Because I sense that in myself, when I feel attacked, I just shut off. If I feel personally attacked, it’s really hard to listen and be objective and hold a space for that conversation to unfold. I think social media is missing that.
Susanna: Yeah. It’s true. And I think … that sounds like her anger was very intense. But so many of the people that are angry, their anger is righteous, right? Their anger is for them. It’s their experience, it’s their experience of so many moments of suffering and of feeling like they have nothing, or like they have access to nothing, and being told that they’re … you know, even my experiences, imagine that multiplied, multiplied, multiplied. And so they’re speaking from the depths of that pain. And they may not have, you know, all the tools or the access to, like, for me I’ve done a lot of meditation, and meditation retreats, I’ve been able to utilize the tools of the practice, and that has helped me come to this place of more inner reconciliation and inner peace. Also it’s my own life path, being Indian and British, it’s like, how can I forgive the lines of both the colonizer and the colonized within, or forgive the colonizer and reconcile with the colonized and empower the sad or angry or fearful parts of myself without causing more suffering?”
[44:00] There’s stages of that. And so I think it’s a really complicated thing, because you’re in a place where with so many people listening and talking, it’s like, how can you curate on this imperfect platform a space where an Indian woman is able to be heard, right? Or many Indian women, or Indian people, in their pain or in their suffering, and not be shut down by spiritual bypassing, saying, “Oh, it’s all light, it’s all love,” but instead to curate a platform where people listen and open and hold that space. But it’s so challenging! I hear you. Because anger is scary especially when it’s directed right at us and we feel attacked. But underneath that anger I think is a lot of grief and a lot of sadness. There has been so much harm done, so acknowledging that harm is a really powerful way to begin.
Rachel: Can you give some … because I know people that are listening, they would love for this to be a black or a white issue, a yes or a no, simple. A lot of the questions I got, and I have received so many questions, were very specific. Like, is it cultural appropriation to play music in your yoga class? Is it cultural appropriation to put your hands in prayer at the end of class? I have a list of I don't know how many things, and maybe we can get into a few of those. But is there a really clear example you can share fairly objectively right now of cultural appropriation within the yoga world that you see often?
[46:00] Susanna: Yes. So one very clear, for me, example of cultural appropriation is when people do, like, say “Mantra and Mimosas,” or “Yoga and Beer.” Because for so many Indians, yoga is a spiritual practice, a practice of coming into union with the divine. It’s not something that should be paired with alcohol because alcohol is counter to that religious context or that spiritual context of creating more clarity, creating more union. So, anytime where there’s a practice that’s done without understanding the roots of that practice, it has a possibility of being cultural appropriation, right? So something like Anjali Mudra, bring your hands to prayer, that I do feel like people understand the roots and they understand the context and they are, most people, most yogis I meet all over the world where I’ve practiced, they really mean, “The light in me honors and salutes the light in you.” And we share it with intensity and integrity, with beauty. And so to me, that’s not appropriation.
However, if we’re doing mantra and chanting to the space of divinity within ourselves, or clarity or purity or abundance, but we’re also drinking, that is appropriation, because it’s not actually respecting the roots of the culture, and it also feels harmful to so many people who practice yoga in a way where they’re chanting as devotion. I hope that’s helpful.
[48:00] Rachel: Yeah, that was very very clear, yeah. Yes.
Susanna: Yeah. It is tricky, and again, I cannot speak for all Indians, I can’t speak for all people to say like, clearly, this is appropriation, this isn’t, but I can share my own experience. And so, you know, the other thing is that check in of, “Is what I’m doing creating more separation or creating more inclusion?” So, if I’m teaching a set sequence and I tell people, “If you don’t do it this way, you’re doing it wrong,” to me, that is also appropriating. Because yoga is not about making someone feel bad or making someone feel lacking or unworthy. But of course challenging, right? We need to push ourselves and push each other and challenge each other, but bring us to a place of inclusivity, where everything and everyone with every experience is welcomed. So I think just coming back to that check in, looking at the roots, trying to learn and explore as much as possible, and then ask. Begin from there, from “Is this creating more connection?”
Rachel: Yes, yes.
[51:06] Rachel: This also is a way to apply it also is in terms of the tools that might accompany the practice, a lot of questions came in about that. So, mala beads, for instance. I wear mala beads every day. I have several with different intentions from different times in my life, and they’re very very sacred to me. Since I wear them every morning, I have the habit of when I come to my mat, I will take them off and I will lay them at the top of my mat of something to remind me of that intention or remind me of that anchor, or whatever it is that I’m focusing on in that moment or that practice. And I’m learning now that placing mala beads on the floor can be cultural appropriation. Is it cultural appropriation? And if it’s done with respect in a sacred way, which that has been for me, it’s a practice that I absolutely would be willing to change if that is the case, but a lot of questions came in about that. Can we do anything if it’s respectful in our own sense?
[52:00] Susanna: Hmm. Right. So, I think that’s so important and so tricky, right? Because I can feel the reverence and the depth of your own practice with the mala beads that you’ve been working with while you talk. So while that is very real and it’s very true, yes, in general, placing a spiritual object on the floor or somewhere near our feet can be seen as disrespectful. So maybe it would be like laying the beads on a little dais or a little shelf or a little, you know, something near where you’re practicing. But also, while we look back and while we learn about how do these items, our sacred objects, have been used, our practices are evolving and they are changing, and they are kind of weaving together the form of web that is something that we’re all co-creating. And so I don’t think it’s so much coming out of fear, like, “Is what I’m doing wrong?” But really, like you just did, tuning into where is this coming from, and how can I best honor my own intention and also honor this sacred tool? Right? This technology that has been developed and passed down for years and years and years. Thousands of years. How can I honor that? By understanding how it was practiced, and then feeling in my body and in my own experience how I wish to carry it forward.
[54:00] Because so much of the work that I do is around guarding against the erasure of authentic yoga, right? Because the way we’re heading, I think it’s hopefully taking a little turn now. But the way we’ve been heading, take that 10-20 years in the future, yoga would exist in this same as like jazzercise or exercise, and that would be such a loss to humanity.
Rachel: Such a loss!
Susanna: Such a loss, right? So in what we’re doing, yes, we bring our own reverence, but we look back, we lean back to the ancestral practices and the teachings as we evolve and practice forward.
Rachel: And also being able to take those … if we’re making changes through educating ourselves, through learning something new, and that inspires us to make a change, I find in these senses it often makes that sacred act even more sacred in the first place. So … we used to have … this is many years ago now, but I had a little statue of a Buddha in my living room, and it was on the floor. Someone came to our house and shared, “Oh, you know, you’re not supposed to put Buddhas on the floor, they’re supposed to be elevated.” Then I did my research and I found out more about it, and now I really think about that. If I see a Buddha on the floor, I elevate it, or I try to educate someone kindly. And that same Buddha, I still have it at our house, but it has a bigger presence now, because I feel more anchored in the culture that I’m appreciating by keeping a statue or a deity in my own home. So it’s not just something that adorns anymore, but it has more intention. Just from that action of elevating it, I’m tapping into that culture in a more respectful way. So the meaning that it represents in my life becomes greater. And I can just, having this conversation with you, I’m just … how hard is it for me to place my mala beads on the little table next to my mat, for instance?
[56:00] There’s these minor changes that I can make that might have a great impact. Also educating every student that comes into the shala, I mean, there’s a lot of students who come through here every day, I can hold that space and further that education rather than feel offended or threatened in my own practice, just by remaining more open.
Susanna: Yeah. And I want to share with you a story, because I too have these moments of having to be kind of humble and crack myself open out of my own patterns or expectations. So, I went to India, it took me 26 years to save the money to go. I went when I was 26 to my homeland. For me, I also want to mention, it wasn’t like an Eat, Pray, Love moment. It was like going home, right? So I bought that one-way ticket, stepped off the plane. Even though there were wild dogs and cows and rickshaws and everyone crushing up trying to get something, I got down on my need touch the earth, it felt like I am home. I am home. I felt the longing and this connection that finally could never be taken away from me, no matter what. And it was amazing because it generalized to not be just in India but everywhere. But I was living in Dehar in a little village where I was working at a school where children who can’t afford uniforms, so they can’t go to the government schools, they were going to school there, and I was helping teach teachers and teaching the kids. It was great.
[58:00] I worked and listened at a compound with an Indian Sannyasi, a yogi who has just come out of seven years of silent practice, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, a village girl, and then someone from Germany who was volunteering, and then myself. So you had all of these great conversations. But the Indian Sannyasi would teach every day, and he invited people, you know, you had to sit at his feet, lower than him, he would sit up on a high chair, and learn. And I was like, “Ugh, I’m an American feminist! I’m not going to sit at any man’s feet and learn anything! No way am I doing that. There is no way. The arrogance and …” You know, I was up on my own righteousness that I held really firm.
One day I walked by and I heard him teaching a village young man, and I was struck by the power of what he was saying. He was teaching on the Bhagavad Gita. All of the sudden I realized his teachings were free for all, I just had to show respect, and a formal way of showing it was to sit at his feet. But truly he was teaching a teaching of no hierarchy. So I sat there and I feel like I didn’t get up for months, and just learned the depths and the practice of, the story of Arjun and Krishna and coming to a sense of oneness and union that is beyond even words. Beyond being able to put it into words. But I had to get beyond my own sense of what I thought was right, to the deeper truth for me, to even be able to learn that.
Rachel: What a teaching moment. It’s beautiful when we’re presented with those moments. It really is. Sometimes it shows up and it looks like a challenge, or it looks like something else. I don’t think teaching moments usually just, “Oh, here’s a teacher, great, let me learn.” We always have that moment of, “Ugh, this … I have to change something now? I have to humble myself hear? I have to lower myself a little closer to the ground? Ugh.” You know? It’s a hard thing to do. But it’s so worth it, so so so worth it always.
[61:28] Rachel: So, for the many people listening now who, you know, most are Westerners. Many have a daily yoga practice, many are teachers, many have businesses that relate to yoga, that make a living through or from this practice in some shape or form, what are something really solid pieces of advice you could give to every Western person listening as to how they can continue teaching yoga, continue practicing yoga, and still deeply honor the roots of the practice? So have it be appreciation and never steer over into the place of appropriation?
Susanna: Hmm, right. So, exactly what you’re saying, right? Specifically honor the roots of the practice. Be able to cite cultural references. Know, for the things that we’re doing, if we have mala beads or we’re using bells or we’re chanting mantras, know where those came from, and what they mean, and commit to that personal deeper practice, right? It’s a beautiful thing, actually, to then want to deepen our own practice by honoring those roots and creating a more authentic transmission. Because we have that personal responsibility. So I think, first, honoring the roots of the practice, and then second, taking personal responsibility to stand up and to speak up in the face of racism or exclusion or spiritual bypassing or cultural appropriation. To really name it, not in a way that makes someone wrong or makes someone other, but name it in a way that invites people into a deeper practice themselves as well. So, I think in order to do that, honoring the roots, personal responsibility, as we talked about before, I add the self-inquiry.
And then practicing tapas, right? Tapas, the spiritual fire. Making sure we’re never forgetting our own thought in our own practice. And really burning off, for me, I consistently have to do a practice of burning off my own insecurity or ego, flip sides of the same coin, where I am getting stuck in, “This is mine, this is about me.” It’s not. It’s about this message, practice, it’s coming through me and for future generations. It’s really, I’m so minor in the scope of it. Yes, it’s wonderful for us to personally benefit, and of course we will, because that is the gist of yoga is we will all benefit from every place that it touches our lives. I think we all know that, and we’ve all experienced that, and that’s why we love it so much and we want to share it. And it is here for us individually, and it is here for us to share. So really taking the time to burn off the things that we know are the distractions, the things that get in the way so that we can be in alignment with the heart of what yoga is. Which really is union. So, again, coming back to that question, “Is anything that I’m practicing causing separation?” Right? “Is anyone left out?” And if anyone is left out, what can I do to bring them?
So I want to go back to a concrete answer to your question about teacher training or the higher priced offerings. Something that I’ve done, because I’ve also run teacher training, is offer a tiered system of payment. So, folks who are folks of color or queer or bigger body or differently abled, they (if they choose to) can pay in at a different level of payment than the upper priced, the highest priced. So that alone makes the training more accessible.
[66:00] And then the other thing that I’ve done is work with other organizations to actually fund completely peoples’ Yoga Teacher Training who could never afford it, and then training folks who are then going to take back the tools and the practice of yoga into communities that really need it, you know? Communities that are experiencing a lot of trauma right here and now, like through gun violence or poverty, things like that. So you do things that are really concrete things that you can do. It’s not enough for me to say, “Oh I have a teacher training and I’m just donating to an organization in India that supports women,” (which I do!) “but I also do things locally to bring people in locally who would normally not have access to a couple of thousand-dollar training. So there are very concrete things that you can do.
Rachel: There are, there are. And in those cases, say someone listening might be practicing yoga at a studio that might be engaged in cultural appropriation of some kind. Do you have any advice as to how we can address that, in a way? Because I understand, being a studio owner, or someone who isn’t immersed in this topic, or haven’t begun the education yet, which it was very clear a lot of people in my community were in that place, having someone come off the street saying, “Hey, you’re culturally appropriating yoga! Stop doing this this this and that.” Chances are they’re not going to respond to that very well. And I would love to be able to leave people with some, yeah, some good advice so we can also help be part of the change that actually needs to happen in our own local communities.
I can share some things that we have done at the studio. We’ve been providing yoga for people that are in need of the practice in their own local community. I feel we’re doing a really good job there too. We support social workers and we work with the orphanages here, we provide free classes for a lot of people that need it.
[68:00] What we haven’t done is focus specifically on the Indian community on the island, which is work that I’ve started through this conversation. So I’m really excited about that, actually. Looking up and seeing who is already practicing here that’s part of the Indian community, and how can we reach more and really engrain that, and have the studio be the heart and soul? Because there’s not a lot of yoga here on the island. It’s really spread, and there’s a lot of tourists that come and practice. But we didn’t open this studio for tourists, we opened it for the local community. So it brings me back to my original intention as well.
Another thing that I was completely unaware of that I humbly apologize for, if anyone has been here and felt offended by it, we had a deity of Kali in one of our practice rooms. Someone informed me, you know, if when you’re laying in Savasana you’re showing your feet to one of the most sacred deities we have in this practice. That is a sign of disrespect. I was unaware. And it was such an easy thing for me to display that statue in a much more appropriate place and in a much more appropriate way. And also educate each teacher of the meaning. Why did I choose to put Kali in this place? What does she represent to the studio, to what we talk about in teacher training? Because we talk a lot about it there, but not so much in the day-to-day with every teacher that comes through the halls here. So it’s my job as a studio owner to educate not just myself but everyone who works here, and also the people that are taking part of this practice, because I am in charge of this space. I am responsible for this space, and I can control so much of how we respect the practice and what happens within these walls.
But my maybe not every … It’s not always going to be an easy change to make. And of course this didn’t come easy for me either, and I’m not saying we’re done now. “I had this podcast now and now I’m done, I’m going to close this chapter and move on with my life.” [laugh] This is the beginning of this, of course. Like a springboard. But for anyone who might be listening who might be practicing at a studio or might have noticed some of these things in other places, what are some ways that they can help effect change in a really positive way?
[70:00] Susanna: Yeah, I think that’s a wonderful perspective to go into it with, because I was recently at a studio where they had a deity in the bathroom. And that’s a really inappropriate place to have a deity, even though it’s a beautiful decoration, I understood they were relating to it as a decoration and not as a sacred object and a manifestation of the divine, and that was appropriation and disrespectful. So I went up and talked to the studio owner, I said, “Tell me about the statue, where did you get it?” And listened to the story, and her passion for it, and her experience. And then said, “You know, from my perspective …” And I just shared what I just shared with you. I did it in a very calm and connecting way. I was like, “Wow, we both really love Ganesh, we want to honor Ganesh,” and so at the end of the conversation, I didn’t even need to ask. She was just like, “Oh, I think I’m going to move it to this other person’s studio.”
I think asking people about their connections to that thing that they’re doing, that thing that they have first, and then sharing, “Oh, this is what I’ve heard, or this is what I’m learning, this is what my experience is,” can invite them to have that cognitive transformation, awareness, without feeling attached. And it can be especially hard, you know, if there’s … people in studios too have a ton of stuff from India that they’ve marked up 1000% and aren’t necessarily even giving back to the community that they’re buying it from.
[72:00] So there can be many layers, and it can cause a lot of pain or suffering or anger, again. But to really do the work, this is my way to do the work to get to a point where I can connect heart to heart on what we care about, and then I share the rawness and the pain of like, “Wow, I feel for the artisans that made these beautiful journals, because my uncles do this kind of work and I know how little they got paid, and I really hope that you’re making sure you or your company is compensating them well.” When I’m able to do that, I can share my pain without it meaning that they’re wrong. Or if they take it as they’re wrong, to just say, “Yeah, you’re feeling some of the pain that I or other people I know have been feeling for some time, so let’s connect on that.” But really to go in with compassion and with connection. And to speak up, right? We have to do it. We have to do it to create this shift to a more culturally honoring yoga that we’re practicing, to elevate, like we’re doing, those who have been marginalized, who have been left out. There is no Indian yoga celebrities! There’s none! And it’s not an accident. It makes it more comfortable to erase the teachers from the source of the teaching, because then we feel like, as Westerners, we can just be here and we can be the yoga bosses and the yoga teachers. But there are amazing teachers from Indian cultures who are in diaspora and who are intentionally excluded from that position of authority. So bringing them in, there might be some on your island that you’ll love to get to know and that you can invite to teach.
[74:00] I think a lot of organizations are doing this now. Slowly, I think, with elevating these different voice and giving these teachers different time slots, teachers who normally wouldn’t get the prime time slot because maybe people couldn’t come to their class because they wouldn’t know what they have to offer, all these little depths can build towards creating a more inclusive yoga landscape.
Rachel: Definitely. Such a great and also really tangible advice, which I feel people really need. Because it’s true, this can remain just a discussion and it can remain a hurt and pain, and it can … Yeah, this could have remained, this specific instance, the social media debate that ended and then we carried on. So I’m happy that you’re able to provide some actual action that people can take in their own local communities right now.
Rachel: Right now I feel … I think we’re going to, when I end this podcast, I’m going to see if I can find the original woman that I know sparked a lot of drama, and a lot of hate and anger came through that, I would love to elevate her voice somehow because despite the anger directed at me, I’m really grateful that we’re having this conversation, and it wouldn’t have happened without her. So I’m going to do some detective work and see if I can find her on the internet somehow.
[76:00] Susanna: That’s great. Yoga, I mean, it can either mirror and reflect the society we’re in, or it can transform it. And it takes us to transform society with these yogic practices. And like there’s no perfect pose, we’re not perfect, right? But we do need to try. That’s what I hear you doing, and that’s what I aspire to do and what I hope all of the people that we get to connect with in our different communities and our overlapping communities also really really try.
Rachel: Yes. So I know this is only the beginning of the conversation. For everyone listening, Susanna is going to contribute with some really helpful reading material for everyone in the community, so we’ll be submitting some articles that go more in depth maybe with specific areas of this topic. I also have other writers from the Indian community that will … different voices speaking on different things. So I’m really excited for this to be this springboard toward more … more learning. And hopefully a lot more change as well. But if you would like to take a class with you, or a 200-hour or a 300-hour training, at susannabarkataki.com, that’s the right website, right?
Susanna: Yes. So people can go to my website, which is my name. And I also have a free gift, which is the yoga manifesto, which are simple really clear action steps to honor and live yoga. For you to put into action right away. And I’d love to hear what was evoked and learn more about what people are inspired about with diversity and inclusion with yoga. I just invite people to connect with me and bring me into the conversation. Talk to me on all the socials, which is again just susannabarkataki.
Rachel: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m 100% certain that your social media following is going to grow by quite a bit. This has been not just a really inspiring conversation, but very uplifting. Uplifting without skipping over the pain and the hurt that brought about the conversation in the first place. So thank you for speaking so eloquently on such a challenging topic.
[78:00] Susanna: Yeah, it’s my life practice, and I’m very much honored to be a vessel and a vehicle. Like you said at the beginning, like, you felt a little nervous with having this conversation. I do too, in the sense of just wanting to be a vehicle for yoga to speak through me and to come through me. I feel very honored and grateful to be able to do that and to be able to have this heart to heart conversation with you and with everyone who is going to engage with it as well.
Rachel: Yeah, thank you so much. You know, Orlando is a very quick flight away from Aruba, if you ever want to take a vacation somewhere, we would love to host you at the studio. It would be an honor to meet in person.
Susanna: Yeah! I’d love to meet in person, that would be wonderful. Maybe we could do something on a retreat or a practice on honoring authentic yoga.
Susanna: And see if there’s people from your local community as well that could come out, that would be the best!
Rachel: Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. Yes. Like we said in the beginning, this is only the start. Pretty certain we’ll be having this conversation on a couch together sometime soon.
Susanna: Yeah! And again, I just want to say, Rachel, I so appreciate … when these things come up it can be so easy as, especially someone with privilege, as a white woman, to ignore it or sweep it under the rug or just say, “Those people are just angry.” And thank you for not doing that. I know you’re not doing this to get handouts or cookies from folks of color either. I know you’re really in this for the long haul, and I appreciate that, because so many of us have been doing the work for so long, and you’re doing it too! I know you’re beginning it, or you’re on your own journey with it, but it’s … I feel so grateful that you are willing to show up and to have this conversation, and that so many of your listeners are as well willing to open hearts and minds. That’s what this practice is all about!
[80:00] Rachel: Thank you so much. Thank you thank you for acknowledging that. Yeah. I do my best. We can only do our best. I can also look back to the version of me from 10 years ago and 5 years ago … You know, we do the best with what we have. And I hope this inspires change for a lot of people listening. We have about 700,000+ downloads a month, so this might be a little tidal wave of change coming the Western yoga world’s way. So, hoping for that.
Susanna: Powerful, powerful. Yeah!
Rachel: Thank you so much, Susanna. And for everyone listening, thank you thank you thank you. Would love to continue this conversation in social media. Let’s keep it respectful, and if you’re a Western woman or man listening, keep listening! I think that’s being on this end of the conversation for a few weeks, that’s the one big piece of advice I can give is just keep listening, and let’s see where this takes us. Thank you Susanna for coming on the show.
Susanna: Thank you.
[End of Episode]