Susanna Barkataki is an Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition who supports practitioners to lead with equity, diversity, and yogic values. She graduated from our M.Ed. program in 2010, founded Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute, and runs Yoga Teacher Training programs. Last month, her new book, Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice, was published and immediately became a #1 New Release and International Bestseller in Yoga.
IHE: First and foremost, congratulations! We are so excited that your new book became an instant bestseller and has been so well-received. When we created our graduate programs, one of our goals was that our alumni would incorporate and infuse humane education – which examines the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental sustainability, and animal protection – into whatever professions they pursued. You’ve done this so powerfully in your work and in your new book. Can you share some thoughts about how your humane education studies and training merged with your practice and teaching of yoga?
Susanna: Thank you so much! It’s been a labor of love getting Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice out into the world! I remember fondly working on my Master’s thesis on storytelling and diverse perspectives. The grad program at the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) supported my interests in storytelling, representation, and cultural elements that are often left out of typical discourse, and it allowed me to go deep into topics that informed my worldview and practice.
Growing up in an Indian family, yoga had always been about more than just the physical. As a child I remember my father teaching me meditation and mental focusing practices so I could ease stress or sleep well. Yoga has been a way of life for me and for so many from within the tradition. It is a path and practice that leads to sovereignty over one’s narrative and experience. Finding IHE, and its M.Ed. program that supported that practice of sovereignty, provided an opportunity to go deeper in education in a spiritually-aligned way.
During my Master’s degree work at IHE, I traveled to India to visit family, go on silent retreats, as well as to conduct research and write. Through my studies and practice, as well as interviews with villagers and sanyasis (spiritual renunciates), I developed and broadened my perspectives and learned how ingrained yogic ways of being are in Indian life. The flexibility and support that IHE provided was incredibly powerful. Just as yoga is more than stretching, education is more than studying. Engaged pedagogy that is culturally aware and alive is truly a path to an inspiring form of education and allows people to be both scholars and practitioners.
IHE: We’re so happy that our graduate program provided both the space and support for what has become your life’s work and profound contribution! There are thousands of yoga practitioners and teacher trainers. How is your approach different, and how does the humane education lens show up in practice?
Susanna: I had no idea when I first started studying yoga that reclaiming and practicing the spiritual practices of my ancestors would tap into so much inner power. I simply didn’t realize that I could transform from a shy, quiet, insecure person into a leader who doesn’t flinch at getting on camera or speaking on international stages. I used to be terrified to speak in front of a few people, let alone the hundreds and thousands I now teach.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate the transformation I’m talking about: One afternoon, my AP English 12th grade class was completely out of control with pencils bouncing off desks and voices echoing off walls. 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. We are going to try something new.” I almost couldn’t believe I was about to do this. I’d never shared yoga with anyone else before. We entered into a 15-minute session of yoga, breathing, and meditation. 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.” My teaching and life were completely different after that.
The work I do now serves at the intersection of education, yoga as mindful presence, and engaged social action. I run a yoga education and training school where we train, inspire, and sustain people committed to healing and justice. Through my book, trainings, workshops, events, resources, and consultation services, we provide a place where those on the front lines of culture shift, social change, and community service can be supported and renewed.
Our work centers on three primary goals:
1. Applying trauma-informed tools from pedagogies of liberation, yoga, and mindfulness to increase the wellbeing of individuals and communities living under the stress of poverty, violence, oppression, and uncertain times.
2. Enhancing access, sustainability, equity, and integrity for wellbeing, social transformation, and community uplift.
3. Fostering an ever-growing movement for social justice to include healing justice.
IHE: Can you share some stories with us about the ways in which infusing your yoga teaching and teacher training with humane education has had a positive impact? How do your students respond?
Susanna: So many students remark that in our classes and training programs they learn not just to practice yoga but to be yoga. They experience the quality of leadership that yoga brings us when we embody it fully. Yoga has eight parts, or limbs, to it – ethics, inner codes, physical practice, breathwork, sensory focus, mindfulness, meditation, and liberation (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi). I seek to impart the lived, embodied experience of all of these 8 limbs. This leads us to become more humane beings, which is the ultimate goal of humane education.
IHE: Today is Dec. 31, a time when many people make resolutions for the new year. What do you hope will be some resolutions people will embrace for 2021?
Susanna: I often don’t set resolutions, but rather plant seeds of intention. Yoga is a path to sovereignty, self-determination, and self-rule. Self-determination can come when we inquire within about the next best step on our own path. I believe that equity, diversity, and care for the environment are part of an engaged education and yoga practice, so I hope that whatever resolutions or intentions we set, we align them with our highest and deepest calling and embrace the opportunity to support our own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of all others.
IHE: What are some of the issues you see in the yoga industry today?
Susanna: There is a huge difference between the yoga industry in the West and actual yoga culture. In the West, we are often sold a watered down version that robs us and future generations of the depth of this powerful practice. Right now, diversity, inclusion, and representation are seemingly “on trend.” But addressing representation and appropriation in yoga is not a box to be checked; it is an exploration to be undertaken. Yoga 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 where you are from is not confined to a place, but also includes aunts and uncles, foods, climate, and the environment that has shaped you. Because yoga is from somewhere, if we remove it from its context, we limit the positive impacts it can have both on ourselves and society.
IHE: What do you say to people who think they can’t “do” yoga?
Susanna: For those who say, “I can’t do yoga; I can’t touch my toes; I’m not flexible enough,” it’s important to understand that yoga is about liberation, love, caring, and uplifting ourselves and others. It’s exactly what humane education is in the world. Regardless of how flexible you are, you absolutely can learn and practice yoga.
Get Embrace Yoga’s Roots or a free chapter from the book at www.susannabarkataki.com.