Thursday, May 30, 2019

Ways to Lessen Exclusion in Yoga

by Susanna Barkataki

I cry tears of joy and release on my mat, frequently, and experience moments of oneness and bliss through practice. Yoga is that powerful for me. And I sure need it.

As an immigrant, brown, skin and bones girl-child, I had integration vertigo for years after we moved to the U.S. I never fit in, couldn’t figure out why, and started to hate myself. I tried to take up as little space as possible. I bumped into everything around me. Hostile territory; my interactions with the world symbolized my inner state of complete disorientation. I was a stranger in a strange land, both inside and out.

I learned to slowly unravel the girl who had turned in upon herself through deep breath and asana. I started to admire rather than fear my surroundings as well as myself. I began to value the power of the brown-skin, bi-cultural, not-neatly-fitting-in perspective where I live. Yoga and breath helped me undo the binds in my body, spirit and mind. I began to love my uniqueness. As I began to accept and love myself, I realized that others experience this same kind of exclusion on various bases—such as race, gender, sexuality, ability, class and other forms of target identities. 

Many people want to act like we are all the same and wish our society was colorblind because they hold the vision of equality for all. Equality is a beautiful ideal. I'd love to invite us to explore how we can celebrate individual uniqueness rather than erase it on our journey towards equality. Perhaps, this might look more like finding equity.

We live in a less than perfect reality. My happiness and success is interconnected with suffering and injustice. This is true in the yoga world as well. True peace and freedom are possible only when they are available to all. In the yoga world of the West, we live in a reality where classism, shame around our bodies, different proportions, ability and disability as well as privilege and racism play into who represents and benefits from the popular face of yoga today.

My practice has been so helpful in reminding myself that I matter, that I am valuable and valid, just as a breathing human being. My practice helps in dismantling internalized racism and self-hatred. I know others like me suffer and could benefit. I know we need to share the practice further and more widely.

So now our yoga can move out beyond the mat.

We can aspire to practice and share yoga to create spaces where ancient wisdom’s’ practical tools are applied to modern struggles, opening up the knots in our voices and bodies, undoing the binds of patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, and all forms of internal and external domination. We are bringing true, full, multi-faceted liberation that is accessible to all anywhere, anytime. Yoga can bring liberation from every construct.

Here are five ways to bring more oneness to our yoga practice while honoring uniqueness:

1. See stories and self-reflect.

We each have our unique, beautiful and powerful story. Yoga is a path of embracing individuality as well as one of universality. So if we allow the practice to open us up, we are called to intimate self-reflection. We can ask ourselves the hard questions about our identity and social context. We observe who is sitting on the mat next to us, who is teaching the class. We can ask “for whom is yoga accessible today and how might any missing links be a legacy of past injustices? How can we use this opportunity to address these injustices through our teaching, practice and our lives?”

2. Don’t feel guilty. Act to uplift.

This isn’t a call to feel guilty or resentful about history and its litany of past oppressions. It is an invitation to focus on the present moment where we have the power to make change. To act where can we make our classes more inclusive, accessible and relevant to a more varied and multicultural audience. Where can we encourage someone to practice who may not have ever thought they’d walk into a studio?
3. End exclusion, own privilege and live compassionately.

We can exclude people without meaning to. Exclusion leads to misunderstanding, alienation, discrimination and even hate. We may say, “Exclusion has nothing to do with me.” This is the nature of power and privilege. Those of us with it are often unaware we are wielding it. It is invisible to us but not to those who lack the very power we so blithely exercise. We can practice responsibly, considering our privilege, acting from inclusion, compassion and care. This may feel uncomfortable at times. By including those who are marginalized we show we are all connected. We can heal the forgotten places in ourselves as well as build a more authentic community of powerful practice.

4. Practice yoga holistically.

We can also increase our experience of oneness by studying yoga holistically. In addition to asana we need to understand, practice and teach all eight limbs of yoga. We can focus on yoga ethics and go deep into considering how to live our practice.
5. Respect individual uniqueness while holding the truth of oneness.

We can be humble with these aspirations and our practice. I too am still working out the beautiful tension of individuality and universality, self and oneness, holding the ideal of inter-being while addressing the beauty of our differences as well as the reality of privilege and power.

Let’s live our own authentic practice while not ignoring time, culture, place and context or the truth of our interconnectedness. That bliss of oneness we feel on the mat is a taste of the true union of yoga. We can amplify this connection in life by practicing a yoga of liberation from every construct, including those of race, gender, class, narrow definitions of beauty, time, space, fixed identity and even history herself. We can practice and teach a yoga of unity while honoring each of our individual gifts and truths to further the evolution of all towards understanding, compassion and love.

Suzanna Barkataki is a diversity coach, inclusivity trainer, and yoga culture advocate. She helps yoga teachers, studios, nonprofits, and businesses become leaders in equity, diversity, and yogic values so they can embody thriving yoga leadership with integrity and confidence. She is the Founder of Ignite | Yoga and Wellness Institute. She has an Honors degree from UC Berkeley, a Masters in Education, is an E-RYT 500 Teacher as well as an Ayurvedic practitioner. She is honored to have worked in education, training and social justice for over two decades. She studied with her family and Masters in India and the United States in the Hatha Yoga tradition. Susanna loves to support clients in expanding their leadership integrating equity with yoga and wellness. Learn more and get your free Yoga Manifesto gift for 15 ways to Honor Yoga at

This article originally appeared in the conference proceedings of the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May, 2019 and also in a longer version on

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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