To begin, I’d like to invite you, the reader to breathe with me.
Wherever you are, you can find a nice comfortable seat and sit up tall. Eyes can have a nice soft focus on something in front or eyes can be closed.
Take a slow deep inhale through your nose, filling the lungs all the way to the top. Pause. Slowly release with an open mouth exhale through your mouth. Repeat 3x or as much as you need. I’ll be here whenever you’re ready to begin.
Let’s dive in.
The Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga Summit 2019 was an online summit led by Susanna Barkataki that featured 26+ diverse speakers to have conversations about honoring yoga in the world today. These speakers range from yoga teachers, individuals in healing spaces, mindfulness educators, organizers and more. The majority of these speakers are from incredibly diverse backgrounds and unlike any other yoga summit I’m aware of, they discuss powerful topics like: diversity, inclusion, cultural appropriation, white supremacy and so much more.
As a yoga instructor and woman of color (Filipino American) I was introduced to this summit by a wonderful stranger on Instagram also interested in these conversations. I had no idea what to expect, but I was hungry for the conversation as these were topics that I was eager to learn more about. Being a minority in yoga spaces was always normal for me, but I never really stopped to think about why that was or how that really made me feel. It’s only been a recent question of questioning that and diving deeper that I became more aware of how serious the issue is.
I can only speak from my perspective/understanding of these topics and truthfully I’m at the beginning of a lifelong journey. As a new teacher still at the beginning I felt overwhelmed when diving into this summit, but at the end of it I felt like the seeds of knowledge were being planted.
We all start somewhere right? It’s my intention that by sharing this, conversation can be started and we can all learn collectively.
I graduated teacher training last year with the intention of bringing and sharing the practice of yoga with more people who look like me. Fellow minorities and people of color. I firmly believe that these healing practices are for everyone and people should feel welcome and included in these spaces. When I actually started teaching, I found that having these goals was challenging in a world that views yoga as a primarily white, able bodied, hyper flexible practice only available to those that can afford the clothes and access to studios.
Enter the Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga Summit led by Susanna Barkataki.
Susanna Barkataki is a passionate yoga educator and founder of Ignite | Yoga and Wellness Institute in Orlando, FL. She has a background in education and extensive yoga training experience. Susanna is of Indian and British descent and speaks to how yoga is of her lineage and practice within her family. In her conversations, she highlights how yoga has come to the West and how it has been diluted and appropriated. In covering topics like: cultural appropriation, white supremacy, colonization, spiritual bypass, social justice and more she dives into these conversations with fellow speakers. This summit addressed these conversations so powerfully and opened up the floodgates of the experiences and conversations of marginalized communities in yoga spaces. There were moments where I, even as a minority/person of color yoga instructor, felt like I needed to evaluate my own inner biases and how I had been appropriating the yoga practice. Needless to say, there were many profound takeaways and moments that I feel have only started this life long journey of questioning and reflection.
Yoga, as a lineage and practice, is rooted in Southern Asia. The birthplace and roots of yoga are that of India. It is a deeply spiritual path whose rich history has been diluted in the West and throughout much of the world today. And if you don’t believe me, I encourage you to pause and take a moment to reflect when I ask: “When you think of how yoga is presented in society today and more importantly, the people that practice it, what are the first things that come to mind?”
*Pause for reflection*
It’s my guess that people of color, individuals of different body shapes and sizes, people of different socioeconomic status, LQBTQ+ individuals are not the first people to come to mind. Or that people meditating under a tree is considered yoga, or that living a lifestyle that embodies yoga in how we treat others & ourselves comes to the forefront either.
I say this because it is a point of reflection. Why is it this way? Do we really even understand what yoga is?
There’s so much that has been done that forgets or even erases where and who this 5,000+ year old spiritual practice truly comes from. Susanna and the many speakers on the summit discuss the pain and injustice of what has been and is currently happening as well as how we can honor yoga in our world today.
With so much being discussed in the summit, I will summarize my 10 takeaways in what I’ve learned.
1.) Yoga is a practice that extends far beyond a mat.
Yoga is not only the physical practice and getting into shapes. It is not just a physical practice and getting into shapes for the sake of getting into them. When we think of yoga and how it is portrayed in society, there is a mass marketed idea of what it is and more importantly, what it sells. Achieving some kind of look that is available to those that have the resources is what is packaged in our social media feeds and what is shown to us as yoga.
This idea of yoga caters to the ego, yet the actual practice of it functions to feed the soul.
As Susanna reiterates throughout the summit in her conversations: Yoga was originally practiced by those who were on the fringes of society and stood outside of societal norms. The original practitioners rejected society’s ideas of what life was in pursuit of-they rejected the pursuit of wealth and material goods. They retreated to caves and practiced away from society to pursue connection with God/the Higher power/spirit (however you wish to define this). The word yoga translates to union. It is the union of the self with something beyond it. It’s a deep, 8 limbed path that does include the physical practice, but also breathing, meditation, moral & ethical guidelines, and so much more on that journey to union.
I believe there is something wrong when we dilute yoga to just poses. The physical practice is the entry point for many people to come to yoga and it’s how I found my way. Yet there is a great disservice if that is all we ever believe it to be.
2.) Yoga is not separate from the world that we live in. It exists in this world.
In the chaotic world that we live in today, I like to think there are spaces that are exempt from the issues that permeate society. I thought that yoga spaces were those bubbles and that they were a refuge from the challenging issues that are constantly flooding media. However, in listening to the conversations between the speakers and Susanna, I realize that the challenging issues like: racism, white supremacy, a lack of inclusion, a lack of accessibility and more exist in these spaces. It is even seen in the example of how these spaces are being created and who’s showing up.
These issues exist in yoga spaces and rather than avoiding them, it is important to work through them. In addition, I’ve come to understand that the power in the yoga practice allows us to be able to navigate those challenges. That it better equips us to sit and work through the discomfort. While I can understand these concepts, I’d like to be transparent in that I’m currently working on integrating my understanding with action. My delusional bubble needed to be popped to understand that these issues exist in the yoga world and that ignoring them isn’t useful if we’re trying to better the world around us.
3.) There is a fine line between appreciating and appropriating cultural & spiritual practices.
We can all appreciate the beauty & wisdom in cultural & spiritual practices. After all, there’s so much that we can learn from ancient wisdom because it has persisted for so long. Yet how often are we really trying to understand something instead of claiming it as our own? This is a fine line to walk and to be honest, I have made my own mistakes of appropriating because I didn’t know any better.
Appropriating different aspects of spiritual & cultural practices is cherry picking other cultures and is harmful in the way it’s passed to others. In a way, it’s taking whatever aspects of spiritual & cultural practices and claiming it as your own without having a deep understanding or relationship with them. Examples of this would include: chanting sacred messages without understanding its translation in class or having statues of various deities in your space as decoration rather than for the purposes of worship or reverence. These are just a couple examples. Essentially claiming spiritual & cultural practices as your own when they do not belong to your ancestral lineage practices falls under cultural appropriation.
In the summit, Susanna as well as other South Asian folks discuss their experiences and sentiments when they witnessed individuals appropriating their own culture and spiritual practices-in seeing their deities on display as decoration in yoga studios, in how yoga is portrayed as a purely physical practice and more. In understanding the difference between appreciation & appropriation, this is a serious question of inquiry that we can all do for ourselves.
Prior to the summit, I honestly had not thought about the impact that those things would have on South Asian individuals whose cultural and spiritual roots they are. Since the summit, I have become more mindful of my own personal practices and what I decide to incorporate into my classes. Taking my time to develop a better relationship with aspects of my personal practice and what that looks like and choosing to keep my classes very grounded in what I know rather than what I don’t.
4.) Colonialism and its impacts are very real. They are still felt to this day and through generations of colonized peoples.
Speaking from the perspective of a Filipino American, I can tell you that colonial mentality and the effects of colonialism are real to this day. The Philippines is a country whose history is that of Spanish & American colonization and that leaves a mark on generations of our people. It’s the kind of mark that makes us ashamed of our own skin, how we talk, our interests, our aspirations, the very people that we are. It ingrains this toxic message in our minds that we are less than and that we are not worthy if we don’t subscribe to beliefs of conforming to the colonized ideal. Even worse-it makes you forget who you are, what is yours and the unshakeable power in that. There are many of us that are lost in who we are and are trying to find our way back home.
As I listened to Susanna and other South Asian folks about how British colonialism impacted India it resonated so deeply. It brought up anger, frustration and sadness for me because I know what it feels like to feel disconnected from my roots and ashamed for who I am. British colonization is part of India’s history and yoga was used to rebel against it. I can only imagine the kind of anguish and pain that comes with seeing your culture’s practice of self-preservation and rebellion repackaged today, as that of a practice that is dominated and controlled by colonizers.
For minorities and people of color, colonization has left indelible imprints on our psyche that require so much work to overcome and dismantle. We cannot change the past, but it is our responsibility to change our present and the future for those that will come after us. It’s not a matter of power between minorities/people of color and white people, it is a matter of acknowledging the pain of the past and using it to more forward-together. Trust me, we all have our work cut out for us and this is far easier said than done.
5.) Discern if you are the right person to speak on certain topics or if you can elevate the voice of someone else.
Understand what you know and be clear about what you don’t. I believe yoga teachers have a responsibility to their students and to share the knowledge of what they know. And if they don’t know something, to acknowledge that gap and work to either better understand it or simply not practice it.
If you are in a position of someone with white privilege or white passing privilege and in spaces where you are not the expert, how often are you using that opportunity to elevate the voice of someone who is the expert? Not in a way to tokenize any person of color simply for their appearance, but for someone that is better educated than you are in something. How often are you stepping down from your position to make way for others? We can all learn from each other, but if people with the privilege are the only ones speaking or having a platform for others to hear them, we are only listening to one perspective. What about the people who have the voice that needs to be heard but aren’t getting the opportunities?
A point was brought up by the speaker Luvena Rangel, an Indian yoga teacher, about the lack of opportunities for Indian teachers to come to the West to share their knowledge and how beneficial it would be to expand those opportunities. How it would help give Indian teachers a platform, to help elevate the understanding of yoga and actually pay tribute in honoring the origins of yoga. This would be an incredibly powerful way to elevate skilled teachers that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so and it would send a message that this knowledge is valued as such.
It takes self-awareness to admit what you know and what you don’t and we can all benefit from learning from each other. I’ve learned the importance in elevating other voices and how much we can learn simply from this summit. Had it not been for Susanna and her work, the conversations had with the incredible speakers, and the work that the speakers are doing we would not be this position to change together.
6.) Be humble in your learning and teachings.
There are people that have come before you that have laid the path for the knowledge to get to you. And there will be people after you that will continue your work and knowledge. It is important to know your place in the cycle and to respect that. What will you do with your role?
Yoga was not invented yesterday, there is so much richness in its teachings and so much to unpack with how it changes with society that would take a lifetime to learn.
Seek out people to learn from, seek out deeper knowledge about a lineage that you resonate with and be better educated in areas that you need. We all have things we need to learn more about. For me, it’s pretty much everything and in the past that used to ignite so much fear because I felt like I had to have the definite answer to what I didn’t know. Now I understand that there is so much that I don’t understand and so much that I don’t know. Rather than seeking to be right or seeking information to confirm my thoughts, I am choosing to try to simply understand things better for myself.
I think we can all sit down. Be humble. And do the work.
7.) There is a difference between intention and impact. Both are necessary to understand.
Having the best intentions to do good is one part of the equation, but if there is a negative impact done that’s an opportunity to take a step back and re-evaluate.
As much as I like to believe that I have the best intentions for my students that show up, I can’t deny the fact that somewhere along the way I have made a negative impact or caused harm in some way. Maybe in the way that I created my class, perhaps in my adjustments, the language that I used or teaching something that I was not confident in. From the summit, I’ve learned that understanding the impact of our actions in yoga spaces is so important for yoga as a practice and also for the students that come to find healing.
Because by being aware of both the intention and the impact, then we are able to get a better idea as to what needs to change. And that is unique to the individual and the situation. My takeaway from this was that if the impact isn’t matching the intention, what steps need to be taken in order for it to be done in a way that does better? What can I change in my power to do better for the yoga practice and for the students that are coming to class seeking this knowledge.
We have all done harm at some point in our journeys. But the question is, how can we do better?
8.) Honor Your Roots.
Throughout the summit, Susanna and the many speakers go back to this theme of honoring your roots and making deeper efforts to connect with your own lineage and practices. How in doing so this creates a better relationship to your culture and its sacred practices.
This resonated with me so much and made me more curious about my own roots and excited to dive deeper into my understanding of Filipino ancestral practices. We all have a unique lineage and so much that can be learned from exploring within our own cultures. I think this point is extremely valuable in that this also allows us to have a deeper respect for other spiritual/cultural practices that resonate with us.
In truth, it can be difficult to accurately trace back what spiritual practice belongs to what culture or people. There can be so much similarities between different indigenous practices and so much deep history that the average person would not know. I’m not saying that we should neglect understanding where things come from because it’s confusing. I believe that we should try to better understand the spiritual/cultural practices that we choose to engage with as a matter of respect.
In making deeper efforts in my own life to understand more of my family’s history and cultural practices, I feel like this creates a deeper respect of other people’s cultures and their personal ties to it as well.
Lastly, I’ve come to understand that there is a difference in what we personally practice vs. what we come to profit off of. When we work to honor our roots and engage with practices on our own that is a completely personal journey that only the individual knows. However, I do believe it is problematic when we engage with practices of other cultures and make a profit off of it without respecting where it comes from.
Which leads into point #9…
9.) For individuals that are making their profit off of yoga (teachers, studio owners, etc.) how responsible are you being in respecting & honoring the practice?
This was a HUGE takeaway for me to unpack as I am a yoga teacher and after going through the summit, there are moments where I find myself questioning how responsible I am in honoring yoga.
To the individuals and companies making a profit off of yoga, I think there is an inherent responsibility in understanding what our role is and how we share the practice. Yoga has made a profound impact on my life and I think it would be a disservice if I neglected the people this practice comes from and did not take responsibility for how I shared it.
For me, I’m choosing to honor yoga in how I share the practice: in making clear that the physical asana poses aren’t what yoga is all about, that there it has a rich history beyond what is mass marketed in society and continuing to deepen my own connection with yoga. Additionally, seeking out resources and teachers that I can better learn from. This is where I’m starting and I know that this will be a continuing journey.
When I initially finished the summit, I was so overwhelmed by all these heavy topics-especially since I am a teacher at the very beginning (Completed my teacher training last year!) How was I supposed to know what to do to digest all this info? What action was I going to take given all that I’d come to absorb over a couple weeks? How was this going to inform the way I continue my journey?
With these questions and more I quickly felt paralyzed by my questioning and a fear of making mistakes. But it’s like they say, when you know better, you do better.
10.) We all have work to do. It’s time to show up and get to work.
This is uncomfortable work and trust me, I have and still feel the same discomfort that you do as I am wrapping my head around these big issues. It’s not easy to open your perspective and understand these larger, complex issues at play. And it’s DEFINITELY not easy to reflect on your actions, biases and how you have been complicit in these systems. It takes a whole lot of courage to sit down with yourself and ask some tough questions.
This is where the work is in. Our process in deepening our understanding these things is different from one another and that’s okay. We are all on our own journeys, yet I hope you know that I am right there with you. I’m not an expert in these things, I’m afraid to mess up too, but I want to learn and be better. I’m figuring this out along the way and am showing up to do my best. I have and will continue to make mistakes and you will too-for we are all human. This work is messy and challenging. We’re all learning. And I truly believe that in the efforts to better our knowledge & selves, we work to better the world that we live in.
If you’ve made it to this part, I am deeply thankful. Thank you for taking time to sit down and absorb this information.
In closing, we can end as we began. I invite you to find your comfortable seat wherever you are and sit up tall. Eyes can have a nice soft focus on something in front or eyes can be closed.
Take a slow deep inhale through your nose, filling the lungs all the way to the top. Pause. Slowly release with an open mouth exhale through your mouth. Repeat 3x or as much as you need.
From my heart to yours, I am deeply thankful to you for your time and attention. May this knowledge serve you in your growth and may you know that you are not alone in this.
I also extend my deepest gratitude to Susanna Barkataki and the many incredible speakers (full list at the bottom) on the summit for having these conversations. For doing the work and inviting everyone to the conversation so that we may all learn and grow together.
Photo credits of the image belong to Susanna Barkataki (@susannabarkataki) This was from the email sent the day before the summit began.
Credits to Julie of (@juthesyoga) for introducing me to this summit.
Yoga Speaker & Teacher | Susanna Barkataki
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Full List of Summit Speakers:
Sonali Fiske, Luvena Rangel, Jessamyn Stanley, Elizabeth DiAlto, Alex Van Frank, Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Kelley Carboni-Woods, Christine Gutierrez, Nisha Moodley, Suzanne Sterling, Sophia Ansari, Crystal McCreary, Charlotte Nguyen, Hemalayaa, Amber Karnes, Shereen Sun, Trish Hosein, Kino MacGregor, Kerri Kelly, Jacoby Ballard, Layla Saad, Rachel Brathen, Priya Deepika Mohan, Patrisse Cullors, Lashae Copeland, Denise Diaz, Krizia Lopez