Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Yoga and Colonization

“With the practice of yoga, we can experience holistic recovery, self-control and personal responsibility that allows disorientation to transform into integration and connection.”


To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land and culture.

As an Indian woman, this is often the feeling I get in many Westernized yoga spaces today. I’ve been ignored, kicked out and uninvited to teach in yoga festivals and spaces, been looked up and down in yoga classes as if I didn’t belong, had teachers dismiss me except to ask me how to pronounce Sanskrit words, and when I raised concerns about how a practice didn’t sit well with me or folks in my family, been completely ignored or even mocked. I’ve grieved the loss of the wisdom of my ancestors robbed from us by colonization, and once again taken and reduced to tips for getting a better “yoga [insert sexualized body part].”

Susana4I’ve shed tears of frustration at so many of us being shut out by yoga institutions in the West. I’ve written letters, called, spoken up, campaigned and cried, listened and laughed for over two decades. This brings me here. There is so much work to do. I’ve desired for so long to have the deep practice I know and love from my family and teachers in the tradition be shared far and wide. I want nothing more than this practice that we cherish to be honored and respected, taught in its fullness for us and for future generations. 

And I’m still here.

The trauma of colonization can happen during colonization and post-colonization as the impacts of the erasure of culture, norms, behaviors and practices are intersectional and cumulative over time. Institutional and systemic colonial violence, which seeks to control,

deny and exploit, can lead to symptoms such as cultural dyssynchrony (feeling out of place within one’s culture), disorientation and feeling isolated, not at home in one’s environment, out of sync with culture, time and place, a lack of purpose, and personal internalized oppression. Those impacted exhibit symptoms not unlike PTSD—hypervigilance, depression and personal and social anxiety.

This can show up in the bodies of BIPOC folks feeling disoriented, disconnected, having a sense of tightness and stress in the belly and chest, tension headaches and health concerns such as increased heart rate, high blood pressure and other forms of physical disease. It can show up mentally and emotionally through anxiety, depression, stress and other forms of psychological and emotional trauma. 

This trauma impacts the mind, body and spirit, so yoga can be an effective tool for healing.

Entitlement to pick and choose and to take what we want from the yogic system because it benefits us without regard for those we are impacting is called “colonial supremacy.” 

We may see colonial trauma and colonial supremacy forces at play in yoga spaces today in the following ways:

  • Characteristics of many/most Western yoga spaces: Cold, quiet, clean, bare
  • Yoga culture can be filled with competition and specialization
  • Expert status—a consolidation of knowledge and power
  • Interactions are transactional and rigid

open bookThis contrasts with traditional yoga that I observed in my travels and practice in North, Central and South India, as well as in my practice within Indian yogic communities in the diaspora. Instead of cold, quiet and bare spaces such as in the West, in traditional yoga teachings often happen in community and collectivized spaces. It is quite common for yogis to be seen in connection and conversation in community. For example, instead of a focus on competition and individualism, traditional yoga encourages humility, respect for teachers and traditions and a lack of focus on the self. Instead of simply focusing on expert status, there is an understanding that knowledge resides in the Vedas, the sacred texts, as well as many divine and inspired teachers. Traditionally, interactions are not transactional but rather embedded in relationship.

Colonial trauma leads modern yogis in the West to perpetuate dehumanization.

Just as early colonialism sought to divide and separate, control, deny and exploit. The antidote is connection and unification, uplifting and belonging to one another. Often the community-care models that are most effective today for dealing with trauma are similar to the collectivized, non-hierarchical community and collective living spaces of many indigenous ancestors.

Part of the work of reclaiming the roots of yoga is living and practicing yoga as a way of being, a philosophy and way of life. We invite this in by asking: Do my choices lead to more separation or more unity? Indigenous and traditional practices of mutuality can help to rebuild cultural rhythms. These include storytelling; listening to the stories of past trials and challenges builds resilience. Engaging in ritual and rites of passage. Practicing non-attachment—swaraj—connecting to our karma and taking personal responsibility while working toward our dharma or purpose. Opening to understand a more cyclical nature of time and healing. 

Though colonial trauma is pervasive, fractures culture, and creates disorientation and separation, yoga is a way of being, a philosophy and way of life, and its deep practice leads to unity. 

With the practice of yoga, we can experience holistic recovery, self-control and personal responsibility that allows disorientation to transform into integration and connection.


Excerpt from Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Practice by Susanna Barkataki. Copyright ©️ 2020 Susanna Barkataki. Reprinted with permission from Ignite Wellness & Yoga Institute. Get your book at embraceyogasrootsbook.com

Susanna B 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/

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