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Reclaiming the Legacy of Yoga


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Today’s episode isn’t just for yoga practitioners! Susanna Barkataki joins us this week to share the true meaning and history of yoga, helping to decolonize the ancient practice and help people everywhere find something valuable for their physical, mental, or spiritual journeys in the wide range of yoga practices.

In her work as a yoga teacher, Barkataki has made it her mission to educate others on the true roots and meanings of yoga, merging authentic yoga and social justice. She is the founder of the Ignite Institute for Yogic Leadership & Social Change, where students are trained in using authentic spiritual tools to create positive social change. She is also the author of the international bestseller “Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice.”

Check out this week’s episode to learn how you can both help decolonize yoga and find something for yourself in yoga, no matter your age, size, fitness level, or even religion.

Western appropriation of yoga

Having studied in India with yoga masters, learning the roots of the tradition and its various branches, Barkataki promotes a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be a yoga practitioner. 

Unfortunately, as with some other traditions, many in Western culture have appropriated and altered the practice, turning it into something different. “[T]he way that yoga is practiced in the US, which is very recent [only about the last 50 years], is really watering down what yoga is and misrepresenting this ancient wisdom practice.”

Barkataki traces the Western adaptation of yoga to Swami Vivekananda, who introduced it to California residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The practice later took off among movie stars, who “understandably kind of connected it with their focus on the body, their focus on physical appearance.” Decades later, practitioners founded the Yoga Alliance and other organizations, “[a]nd these were, I think, well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed organizations that were composed of people who said, ‘[T]his is a valuable practice, we want to make sure to preserve it and organize it in some way.’ But they were primarily white folks, you know? And they didn't ask the people from whom yoga had come for their input.”

Today, about 80% of yoga practitioners in the West are white, and the practice is often reduced down to asana, its physical branch.

what yoga really is

So if what we see in many Western studios isn’t aligned with the historical roots of yogic practice, then what is yoga?

According to Barkataki, there are eight limbs of yoga, and not all are aligned with asana, the physical version with which most of us are familiar. Yoga also addresses ethics, devotion to the divine, self-inquiry, breathwork, and more. “You could practice it and never sit on a cushion or practice on a mat.”

Barkataki closely aligns what she has learned about yoga with activism. Shankar Ji, her teacher in India, taught that “‘yoga is action in the world, and you need to go back, get out of India, go home to where you're from, and do what I'm doing in your communities.’” That's what drew Barkataki to teaching yoga. 

To Barkataki, yoga isn’t so much about broadcasting that she does yoga or proselytizing it to others but rather living her life according to certain yogic principles. “[W]hen I look at the yoga teachers in my life, the ones that I've learned from, they're not out there telling people what to do. They're just quietly living. They're guiding by action [and] by living in a practice.”


It’s not wrong to connect with a practice from another culture and to continue that practice to create mindfulness and health in your life. However, Barkataki points out that when you want to take that practice to others, you must consider whether you are uplifting the original culture and its people or causing harm.

For those wishing to teach fitness-focused classes, that could come down to citing sources and the practice’s history, being honest about teaching only asanas or “yoga-inspired fitness,” and pointing those who want to dive deeper into yoga practice toward those trained in the historical roots and broader practices of the tradition. “We can kind of network and resource each other.”

If you’re interested in connecting with yoga but you’ve always struggled to do so, Barkataki encourages you to look into other branches of yoga and to find the right teacher, because “[t]here are teachers who will understand you and, even if they're not like you, they'll care enough to listen and to connect and to try to tailor the practice to what you need or what you want.”

Tune into the full episode to learn more about Barkataki’s thoughts on appropriation, the different branches of yoga, and her personal journey with yoga!

If you’re interested in learning more about yoga, its various practices, and how it can be a tool for personal growth and discovery, check out another leader’s story about the transformative power of yoga.

Listen to this episode to learn about...

  • [1:10] Western appropriation of yoga
  • [3:40] The evolution of Western gatekeeping around yoga
  • [6:27] Ensuring everyone feels welcome in yoga
  • [8:45] The eight limbs of yoga
  • [9:36] Yoga as activism
  • [12:27] Barkataki’s struggle in the Western yoga world
  • [14:28] Yoga as a lifestyle
  • [16:33] Cultural appropriation
  • [20:09] Connecting with other cultures and practices while avoiding appropriation
  • [28:53] The non-denominational essence of yoga
  • [31:03] Finding your pathway into yoga

Tune into the Members Only episode to learn about Barkataki’s hope for the future of yoga.