• Om Tattoos & Cultural Appropriation (4 min read)

    You’ve most definitely seen the famous Sanskrit symbol for “Om” used in various places, such as jewelry, clothes, and even jokes about it on television, social media and in films.

    When I ask a group of 20 preschoolers if they’ve done yoga half of them arch their backs rigid, cross their legs, squeeze their hands shut tight and say “ommmmmmmm” in a funny voice.

    When 2 and 3 year olds telegraph yoga this way, it is safe to say this sacred sound has pervaded our entire culture.  Since the presence of the Om symbol is seen virtually everywhere, what we get is degrading of its meaning. The symbol and all it stands for has lost its touch, its sacred meaning. Many people simply don’t understand its originally intended use and instead rep it as a cool lower back tattoo for the wrong purposes and places. If we want to use this symbol, we must understand and respect its true origin and meaning. So let’s dive into what it’s really about…

    The Om symbol represents what is necessary in Vedic thought; it is one of the most sacred mantras in the Dharma. It means unity with the highest, a combination of spirituality and physicality. It appears at the beginning and as well as at the end of multiple Sanskrit prayers. This deep and powerful symbol refers to life and the whole universe.

    “The syllable Aum, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the universe. Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, and whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is Aum. And whatsoever transcends past, present, and future, that also is Aum.” ~ The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester

    Cultural appropriation is a long-standing problem that waters down the depth of meaning to which we often turn a blind eye. By definition, it is known that cultural appropriation is taking a fragment of a culture of which we are not a part and using it for our own purposes or benefits, without honoring the culture that brought that noun/thing/meaning to life. If you’re a bit confused on the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, learn the differences here.

    Om is so much more than just a symbol.

    “Om is pure unitary consciousness, wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. It is ineffable peace. It is the supreme good. It is One without a second. It is the Self. Know it alone! This Self, beyond all words, is the syllable Aum.” ~ The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal by Swami Prabhavanand
    Unfortunately, the appropriation of a foreign culture is often done among privileged people. If you’re thinking about getting yourself a tattoo with the Om symbol, think why do you want to use such a powerful, sacred sign? How do you connect to this symbol and what does it mean to you? If you want to connect to yoga, and are a die-hard yogi, might there be better ways to appreciate the yoga culture.

    Get creative! Perhaps you can tattoo something personally inspiring to you. You can tattoo animals, poetry, the rising sun, but perhaps rethink about such a meaningful spiritual and religious symbol. Imagine a person out there with a cross tattoo, who doesn’t believe in Christianity but wants to embody the teachings of Jesus? A bit strange of a choice to label yourself with that religious symbol.

    Also in the Hindu faith it is often considered problematic and disrespectful to place sacred symbols on parts of the body such as the feet or near private parts.

    It helps to be fully aware of the power and cultural relevance of this symbol, and embedded in the culture to be able to tattoo such patterns. But ultimately it’s up to you… and I want you to THINK about why you are getting one, and how you will react when people ask you if you are Hindu; because spoiler alert, they will!

    The existence of the Om symbol does not date back to a couple of hundred years ago, but rather several thousand years. This is cultivated in a given culture, worshipped and understood by its people.

    Western culture often underestimates the history and power of such significant things. So much in the West is commercialized. Therefore, it is no wonder that Vedic practitioners and many Indic religions are outraged at our use of a sacred symbol to advertise a better yoga studio, a beer or a new sweatshirt design. We should respect such a distant and sacred culture, and stop spreading a fallacy of said culture, in a misunderstood and mindless manner.

    If you TRULY feel attached to the Om symbol, and want to rep it as a tattoo, please know its true meaning and feel attached to what it represents. And definitely choose a place on your body that respects the symbol’s religious integrity. Remember what Om (A-U-M) means:

    “Ahhh” expresses the creation of the universe and everything that is physically connected to it, and unites you with your ego. This syllable allows for an experience of the total existence of the world.

    ”Ohhhh” is a syllable that expresses the energy of the whole universe and your mind model. This sound unites you with your inner understanding that there is something beyond your physical body. It makes you feel light, good and balanced.

    “Mmm” embodies the energy of the whole world, the thoughts and beliefs that created you. This portion of the sound connects you to the universe, cultivating a feeling of connection between everything and everyone around you, equally.

    Given the exact meaning of the mantra pronounced, think about how you want to worship this symbol and how it will make you feel by having it marked on your body permanently. Will your beliefs change in 40 years?? Comment your thoughts below if you have an Om tattoo!

    For more on this guest author, visit https://www.susannabarkataki.com/ to read other blog posts on cultural appropriation of yoga.

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    By Susanna Barkataki

    Deepen and Honor your Yoga Practice Here

    An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki supports practitioners to lead with equity, diversity and yogic values while growing thriving practices and businesses with confidence. She is founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs 200/500 Yoga Teacher Training programs. She is an E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist with International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT). Author of the forthcoming book Embrace 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 over 10,000 participants. Learn more and get your free Chapter from her book on indigenous roots of trauma informed yoga at embraceyogasrootsbook.com/  Complimentary masterclass to embrace yoga’s roots without appropriation: www.namastemasterclass.com

  • What is Mudra and How to Do It Respectfully?

    Before diving into mudras, we should ask ourselves how we acknowledge yoga a universal practice while honoring its roots.  It is essential to jump in with this as mudras are at the core of many practices such as yoga. Yoga stems from South Asian and Indian cultures.  That is the very tip of what any aspiring yogi from Western culture should know. It has been transported to our Western culture and has been popularized here.

    So what is a Mudra?

    Mudras are a posture that includes a ritual gesture, and are symbolic in nature. They have been used within meditation in yoga for thousands of years to heighten the experience that is meditation. Mudras may come in many forms. Some are gross, meaning done with the physical body. Some are subtle, meaning done with the mind, and some are transcendent, alluding to when the practitioner merges with the mudra itself and there is no separation between the symbol, the doer, and the meaning.

    A quite common mudra is a hand posture where the thumb and index fingers touch at the tip, creating a circle, and the rest of the fingers lie straight. This is Gyan Mudra, or wisdom mudra, a gesture to help instill a sense of peaceful, calming, wisdom as well as spiritual enlightenment. 

    Another famous mudra is Anjali Mudra, often called Namaste mudra, or  the prayer’s pose which is held with both palms touching one another at one’s heart center. In Sanskrit, Anjali is translated to “offering.” It signifies something along the lines of, “I bow to the divinity within you from the divinity within me.” It can also be used as a sacred “hello” or “thank you” — spoken to recognize the divinity of everyone. For a further informative video on what Anjali Mudra means and looks like, click here.

    Mudras are so important to Indian culture that when you enter the New Delhi Airport (International Terminal), you see GIANT mudras on the wall to welcome foreigners to India and its culture! However, in addition to the most common forms seen in media, yoga classes, or at temples, there are also rather unknown mudras that involve the head, body, heart as well as perineal area.

    Another mudra we love to use in our daily lives is the Jupiter Mudra, where you point your two index fingers together, harnessing the power of Jupiter. The purpose is to activate good luck in your aims and projects. Interlocking the fingers together can help you focus your energy before taking an exam, before an important interview, or to break through difficult barriers in your communication. Here you will find a resource that can give insight into the different mudra positions possible, and how to best achieve them.

    What would be disrespectful when using Mudras?

    If you were to walk into a yoga studio in New York City or Los Angeles, the most common demographic you would find is white, upper class women waltzing in with their $100 lululemon leggings on and Gaia tank tops. While what they wear itself is not disrespectful, it is important to avoid disrespecting mudras and their use in yoga practice. Why we mention the demographic of these big city studios, is because often you will find that yoga is moreso appropriated than appreciated.

    Many of the individuals in these studios find yoga as a fun and calming workout, instead of for what it was originally culturally intended. If you were to walk in and ask one of the students from these studios about the history and origins of yoga, and specifically about mudras, we guarantee most surveyed will not be able to tell you much, if anything at all.

    In order to not just throw up the funky, cool hand signs your teachers are doing and not knowing anything about these positions or their use, do your research! I mean you wouldn’t toss gang signs with your hands without knowing who or what they represented first, would you?

    How can I avoid being disrespectful?

    If you are someone who walks into big city studios with your expensive lululemon leggings, don’t think this is all a jab at you. It is simply to avoid the appropriation of yoga. In order to respectfully practice yoga, and more importantly mudras, it is essential to be a forever student. Always do your research, learn more about the culture from which the practice comes, and learn the proper ways to use and do mudra postures.

    A final thought

    Western yogis aren’t necessarily ruining practice in yoga per se, but we are at fault for not informing ourselves and being respectful towards the origins of yoga. However, now, with some basic knowledge on mudras, for example, one can jumpstart their own research into a lot of different avenues within yoga; therefore cultivating more knowledge and, thus, respecting the sacred healing practice. We hope you found this helpful as a basic guide into mudras if you have been curious about them, and how they could be beneficial in your own meditation!

    By Susanna Barkataki

    Deepen and Honor your Yoga Practice Here

    For more information and tips like this to incorporate into your own yoga practice, practice meditation and asana with Susanna on Yogagirl.com, visit our guest author’s blog: www.susannabarkataki.com or follow her on Instagram for daily tips @susannabarkataki 

    An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki supports practitioners to lead with equity, diversity and yogic values while growing thriving practices and businesses with confidence. She is founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs 200/500 Yoga Teacher Training programs. She is an E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist with International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT). Author of the forthcoming book Embrace 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 over 10,000 participants. Learn more and get your free Chapter from her book on indigenous roots of trauma informed yoga at embraceyogasrootsbook.com/  Complimentary masterclass to embrace yoga’s roots without appropriation: www.namastemasterclass.com

  • 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

    Deepen and Honor your Yoga Practice Here

    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

    Deepen and Honor your Yoga Practice Here

    An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki supports practitioners to lead with equity, diversity and yogic values while growing thriving practices and businesses with confidence. She is founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs 200/500 Yoga Teacher Training programs. She is an E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist with International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT). Author of the forthcoming book Embrace 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 over 10,000 participants. Learn more and get your free Chapter from her book on indigenous roots of trauma informed yoga at embraceyogasrootsbook.com/  Complimentary masterclass to embrace yoga’s roots without appropriation: www.namastemasterclass.com