• The Cultural Appropriation of Sanskrit

    You walk into yoga class and by the end of it, you have probably heard some terms like “namaste” “sutra” “drishti” or “mandala”. If you’ve never questioned the meaning behind these words besides knowing them as yoga terms, you’ve probably fallen into a common pitfall of cultural appropriation.

    Yikes! But not to fear, we’re here to break down an intro to Sanskrit for you. It is not uncommon to fall into cultural appropriation, and it can really happen to anyone simply because we do not think to ask where these terms stem from and the possible implications of their use. Many times we just take it for what it is, which in our small circle is a yoga term. Even then, have we questioned from where our favorite Vinyasa class has originated? Do we CARE to know? When engaging in these activities, and using certain language (in this case, Sanskrit) it is important to appreciate the cultures that gave us them, versus appropriate them.

    What is SANSKRIT?

    Sanskrit is a language that is thought to have come about around 1500 BCE. It is part of the Indo-Aryan languages which were spoken by individuals inhabiting Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Within ancient and medieval India, it was the language of intellectuals and was the language the early first yogis spoke and used in writing ancient yoga manuscripts. Let’s backtrack for a second and revisit those terms we talked about in the beginning. “Namaste” “Sutra” “Mandala.” These are all actual words from an ancient and highly revered language, not just something Stephanie, your yoga instructor, uses to calm you down every Friday evening. The words themselves each have different meanings:

    • Sutra: Sutras are actually different philosophies used to find true happiness and how to live ethically. They are part of eight different limbs of Yoga.
    • Mandala: Mandalas are circular forms representing the universe. In yoga, they are used as support in meditation.

    What About Namaste? Should we Use it to End Class?

    The term Namaste deserves its own section, as it is an incredibly frequent term used at the end of yoga classes. Namaste in english terms means “bow to you” which is usually why it is used at the end of class. The way its shared often in the West is that there is a spark within each of us, and that is used within a bow to conclude yoga classes. However in India, where it originated, it’s used as a greeting not an ending! It’s often used interchangeably with saying hello! We say it to elders and those who we want to greet with respect. As long as we understand that we are using the term appropriately, we know the history and meaning behind it and are appreciating the culture it stems from, yoga teachers should not fear using the term to wrap up class. After all, it does stem from the culture that brought us yoga.  The problem lies when we are oblivious and do not care to inform ourselves, and instead are okay with just throwing the word around it without taking into account the weight it holds.

    Appropriate Usage of Yoga Terms

    When incorporating the Sanskrit name of yoga poses, in order to not appropriate the culture, you may be wondering what is the best way to go about using them. First and foremost, not only is it important to learn the meaning behind different terms, but it is essential to learn how to properly pronounce them. No one would appreciate someone completely butchering the pronunciation of their name, and that goes for butchering cultural words as well. To learn how to properly pronounce the Sanskrit words of poses in yoga, there are many resources online. You may click here to learn about the pronunciation of letters and some tips on how to better do so, while practicing yoga.

    Final Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

    There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. The main difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is connected to:

    1. Power
    2. Harm

    So much depends on the intent, awareness, and, most importantly, the impact behind connecting to and partaking in another culture. With appreciation comes knowledge, it is being open-minded, being kind and willing to learn the background of different cultural items, languages, traditions, etc. Appreciation aims to not offend and instead celebrate different cultures. Appropriation on the other hand, does not aim to know the background of cultures, and simply takes it for face value. Knowing the difference between the two will make the biggest difference in answering “Is this cultural appropriation” when you are put in areas that may seem to be gray. For more information on our guest author, visit susannabarkataki.com for articles on forms of cultural appropriation and ways to handle it in today’s society.

    By Susanna Barkataki

    An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki is the founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs Ignite Be Well 200/500 Yoga Training programs. She is an E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT). She is the author of the forthcoming book Honor Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice. With an Honors degree in Philosophy from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Education from Cambridge College, Barkataki is a diversity, accessibility, inclusivity, and equity (DAIE) yoga unity educator who created the ground-breaking Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga Summit with more than 10,000 participants.

  • Interview with Susanna Barkataki

    I had no idea when I first started learning yoga, reclaiming and practicing the spiritual technologies of my ancestors how much inner power I was about to tap. I simply didn’t realize that I could transform from a shy, quiet, insecure person into a leader that doesn’t flinch at getting on camera or speaking on international stages.

    Describe your personality in three words.

    Fiery, caring, passionate.

    About you- Where are you from and/or where do you live?

    I am from England and India. I was born in Middlesbrough, UK – to an Indian father and British mother. My whole life has been shaped by large geopolitical influences! I was born at a time when Indians and White people didn’t marry, let alone date. Despite this, my parents felt an undeniable chemistry and decided to marry – but they couldn’t find anyone to perform the ceremony! They were told they would have to adopt – or they’d have “half-breeds.” Luckily, they decided to have me anyway – but as I was growing up there was so much violence against mixed race families that they had to leave England for a place of more tolerance and chose to move to the United States. This landed us in Los Angeles, where I grew up. Through a few twists of fate, I am now living not far from Kino and your wonderful yoga center in Orlando, Florida on unceded Seminole land.

    What is yoga to you?

    To me, yoga is unity.  Just like people, yoga has a place. It has roots. It has culture. It is from somewhere. You know where you are from. You can probably name the block, city, town, state, country and continent.  And those elements, aunts and uncles, foods, climate, environment – have been a huge part of shaping you for better or for worse. Similarly, yoga is from somewhere. We can’t just surgically remove yoga from its context. From the people, places, religions and society that influenced and influences it. Even though yoga is unity, we have to look at all the places that it’s been used to separate in order to create the true unity it promises us.

    How did you feel after your first yoga class and how do you feel this influences or impacts the space you create for your students?

    One thing I learned while teaching high school students that all true learning comes from the inside out from an internal, intrinsic motivation. I try to create a space that invites, inspires, opens this curiosity within a person, to be intrinsically motivated to learn how to honor, rather than appropriate yoga.

    What impact has yoga had on your life? Who were you before you started practicing and how have you changed, evolved and transformed?

    “Speak up, miss,” my ESL students used to call out over the lesson I was attempting to teach. I was SO shy when I first started teaching (my first real job after college – I had to put that Philosophy degree from Berkeley to good use!) that my students literally could not hear me! As a quiet, shy, small mixed Indian girl from the UK growing up and then teaching in LA schools, I never imagined I’d be here – one of the go-to people for when people have questions about yoga and cultural issues! But back to me standing there sweating and petrified, I had important things to teach but I was afraid to speak them – those were some of the hardest moments of my life. Because I cared so much about empowering my English as a Second Language students with knowledge (after all, they were immigrants, just like I was, and I wanted them to have a fair chance at success in this brave new world) I simply had to learn to speak up! So I sought out great teachers to learn from and also taught myself how to teach all while learning and practicing the yogic traditions of my roots. Yoga and meditation was such a solace during that hard first year of teaching in LAUSD. And since then, I’ve been speaking up around issues of peace, harmony, nonviolence, equity and inclusion everywhere I can. So now, people look to me sometimes for answers to their questions around cultural issues and yoga. My goal now is the same as it was with those early students in my ESL 1 and 2 classes. To share the best knowledge to empower us all to make a difference and create a better world with yoga.

    Why did you decide to start teaching yoga and what qualities do you feel are important to build and work on as a yoga teacher?

    I had no idea when I first started learning yoga, reclaiming and practicing the spiritual technologies of my ancestors how much inner power I was about to tap. I simply didn’t realize that I could transform from a shy, quiet, insecure person into a leader that doesn’t flinch at getting on camera or speaking on international stages. But you know, it wasn’t always this way. I used to be terrified to speak in front of a few people, let alone the hundreds and thousands I now teach. Pencils bouncing off desks, voices echoing off walls, one afternoon, my AP English 12th grade class was completely out of control. I’d had it. I took a deep breath and said “Alright, y’all. Shakespeare isn’t working for us right now. Get up, everyone.” I almost couldn’t believe I was about to do this. I’d never shared yoga with anyone else before. “We are going to try something new.” We entered into a 15 minute session of yoga, breathing and ended with meditation. “Let’s just see how it goes,” I said to the students. At the end of the session, they looked at me. Dez, one of the most active and goofy students said, “Miss, I didn’t realize my mind could get so quiet. I’m going to do this every day.” Instead of hiding away the practice that gave me the greatest inner power, I realized part of my job, no matter what I was sharing, was to teach yoga as a practice to inner and outer power and transformation. My teaching and life was completely different after that.

    What has been your biggest struggle and your biggest milestone in the practice, in teaching and within the yoga community?

    Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how we are sold yoga in the West. How it is watered down and how that robs us, and future generations of the depth of this powerful practice. And right now – diversity, inclusion & representation are seemingly “on trend.” But addressing representation and appropriation in yoga is “not a boxed to be checked” but rather an exploration to be undertaken, learning to be had, connections to be made!

    Why do you practice, and why do you teach?

    As a child my father chanted in Assamese (our regional language from Assam in North East India) and Sanskrit to help me fall asleep at night. As I lay there, tense, sleep eluding me, I’d try without success, to relax. My dad would smooth my brow, invite me to practice pratyahara and dhyana, mindfulness and meditation. He would invite me to envision a glowing ball of blue energy at my forehead and sing a beautiful chant that his own mother had sung to him. Engulfed in waves of sacred sound and blue light energy I would drift off to sleep. I am a reverent student of the practices from my roots that bring more peace and more power. So much more than asana is part of the fabric of yoga and lends important context to our yoga practice. I’m always so curious to learn! Honoring the spiritual lineage we practice within is so key.

    What is the single most defining issue facing the global yoga community today?

    How to honor and not appropriate yoga – so we can practice the full expanse of what yoga has to offer us.  I BELIEVE IT IS time for yoga to restore the authenticity and diversity it deserves.  Yoga has so much potential. It means unity. But today, it is anything but this. I speak for my ancestors when I say “We are no longer here to allow this corruption and lack of diversity of this healing path. We all lose.” Instead, we can lean back while practicing forward to a future that includes everyone.

    Do you have any recommended yoga reading?

    I always have a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras somewhere close at hand. I read from them in the morning and in the evening. I prefer these texts translated and with commentary by spiritual teachers. Through your own personal journey, what do you feel is your path and offering to the community- local and global? I’m a teacher, inclusivity promoter, and yoga culture advocate first and foremost. As an inheritor of yogic wisdom, I am passionate about bridging cultural connections and healing with yoga for us and generations to come to experience all that this incredible practice has to offer us. My work is how we can bring the roots of yoga in action with diversity and inclusion. I invite us to explore together as modern day yogis, purpose seekers, coaches, adventurers, mystics, spiritual practitioners, and people who know there is more to the story.  I see a world where yoga is unity and excludes no one. I feel yoga is here for us to cultivate power and transcend our very limitations, personally and socially. Not to create more separation but as a way to connect, dissolving separation within and without.

    What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out on their yoga journey?

    Always be a student, practice yoga ethics and cultivate your sadhana, or personal practice.

    Are there any current projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?

    Yes! I am finishing up my upcoming book Honor Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice for folks who teach, practice, or want to learn yoga. I’m excited to share this invitation to truly bring your practice alive in a way that deepens and honors yoga’s roots. You can find the book and free resources at susannabarkataki.com/book

    By Susanna Barkataki

    An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki is the founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs Ignite Be Well 200/500 Yoga Training programs. She is an E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT). She is the author of the forthcoming book Honor Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice. With an Honors degree in Philosophy from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Education from Cambridge College, Barkataki is a diversity, accessibility, inclusivity, and equity (DAIE) yoga unity educator who created the ground-breaking Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga Summit with more than 10,000 participants.