Accessibility Isn’t Accessible Unless It's Inclusive

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

"She who experiences the unity of life sees her own self in all beings, and all beings in her own self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye."

- The Bhagavad Gita



As an Indian woman living in the U.S., I’ve often felt uncomfortable in many of our yoga spaces. I'd love to share a story with you of a time I'll never forget.


Back in my teens, I’ll be honest, I was super awkward. I don’t know what possessed this shy bookworm, but somehow I took a brave step and ventured outside my comfort zone and went to a yoga class at a local backyard studio. Up until that time, the only yoga I had done was within my own family at my aunts’ and uncles’ homes.


Driving across the hot endless grid of the San Fernando valley, I felt excited to be exploring something so personal outside my family and within my community. I parked and walked through the beautiful garden to the backyard studio, paid $25 to the teenager about my age at the door taking our money. As I slipped my shoes off, I noticed a Ganesh statue, not up high where I’m used to seeing him, but low, on the shoe rack. Immediately, I felt an uncomfortable lump in my belly, knowing this would feel so disrespectful to my family who always place Ganesh or other representations of the divine up high. It’s a sign of honor and of respect. Still, I walked in, blinded for a moment by high ceilings and vast white light shining from the wall-to-wall windows.


The teacher, a thin, able-bodied white woman, stood at the front of the room. She didn’t welcome or greet me, though there were only a few of us there. I rolled out my mat in the back corner, sat down. She also sat.

A trace coldly, she said, “I want to expose you to the culture. We will chant Om to start class.”

This made me feel a bit like an exhibit at the ZOO, but AUM was a familiar sound. I closed my eyes, and despite my discomfort felt myself carried away, our vocalizations invoking something greater than myself. Waves of peace rippling through me, we began a rather vigorous Sun Sal A and B sequence. As I rose into Virabhadrasana 2 on my right side, I looked over at the wall - only to see that in her studio a huge, beautiful bronze Om symbol was hanging completely in the wrong direction.


The tightness in my stomach rose again. I couldn’t breathe. How could this teacher connect us to a culture she apparently barely understood?


Throughout the whole class my gaze kept coming back to that bronze OM symbol. And I kept feeling for Ganesh outside with the shoes in the hall. It felt like I couldn't breathe no matter how many times she told me to. After bowing at the end of class, I stumbled out of the studio, upset and confused.


I was only a child, but even then I couldn’t help but feel like my culture was being stripped of its meaning and being sold back to me in ways that felt humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst.


As hard as that was for me when I was I trying to define my own identity, over time I came to understand I am not alone in this type of experience. I’ve noticed an inescapable pattern. My Assamese Aunt and Bengali Uncle want to take yoga but told me they don’t feel welcome in yoga studios. You, or the person sitting next to you, may have their own similar story.


I just completed an online summit called Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga, where I interviewed over 20 BIPOC experts and each of them had a similar story of their own to tell. I’ve been doing this work for a while. In the interviews I’ve conducted, 90% of people who hold marginalized identities, primarily black and brown folks, and especially South Asians, don’t feel welcome in yoga studios today. Do you feel the implications of this?


You all might be waiting for me right now to say who is and isn’t allowed to teach yoga.

But that isn’t for me alone to decide. I believe we need to work systemically, not just individually. And work together.


So what is this yoga culture we’ve created?

Who creates yoga culture?


Yoga has been arguably practiced from 10,000 to 2,500 years, depending on who you talk to. I like to listen to Indians speak about our own history, much of which is oral history with no markers that Western academics can substantiate. So 10,000 years if you ask a rshi, a bit over 2,000 if you ask the latest Harvard grad. Either way, it’s a long time.


Both ways, dominant culture creates and shapes who tells the story. Who is here and who is left out… and this is part of how yoga gets appropriated.


And notice, it isn’t an accident to dislocate Indians from the seat of authority.


But changing norms isn't just about checking off boxes. It's about honoring and changing culture. It’s about healing harm.


I've been the invisible other in the room often enough to realize the importance of the questions:


"Who or what am I missing?”

“Is my yoga causing more separation or more unity?"


I’d like to invite you to consider along with me that maybe there's a way we haven't thought of. We've maybe been going about solving the prob of accessibility thinking about what new tools we can bring, what the space or place looks like, what we can say to make people feel welcome. And as I write this, I keep in mind that accessibility and accommodations are critically important. I’m partially deaf in my left ear, mostly blind in my left eye.


These are important steps in solving this problem we all want to solve together.


And I'm going to invite you to expand beyond what we normally consider when we try to solve problems of accessibility.


Invite you to go beyond the seen to unseen to even unthought of. After all, not seeing what’s right there in front of us is the nature of privilege.


Perhaps we can even go towards the obvious truth right in front of us.


Yoga, yuj, to yoke, is unity.


We move towards not appropriating when we allow accessibility to be defined by how we practice yoga as unity.


Eknath Easwaran explains this as follows: “The ideal is to live in the world in full awareness of life’s unity."


We need to lean back, honor roots, dismantle appropriation, to move forward.


I’d like to invite you to take a look around your mental image of a yoga studio in your town. Look at the room - and notice who is there.


Who is there? Who is in the room. Who is left out?

And perhaps even more discomfortingly - consider, what have I done to cause - or not disrupt - this exclusion?


Breathe.


Like Gandhi who, when he was asked by a very earnest British reporter what he thought of western civilization, replied, "Well sir, I think it is a very good idea."


Practicing Yoga is a very good idea.


Because yoga is not just something we do, right? It’s something we aspire to. And even, at times, something we are.


Inclusion is an accessibility issue. And accessibility is an inclusion issue.

Honoring yoga with accessibility can be defined by how we practice yoga as unity. And part of how we do this is how we undo systems of oppression and colonization. How we create reparations.


An inclusive culture sustains a sense of belonging; it practices respect for the diverse talents, inherent dignity and worth of each being, their backgrounds, beliefs and ways of living.


Diversity is celebrating all of our intersectional uniqueness, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.


Yoga at its heart sparks our minds and imaginations and helps us experience and share a felt sense of unity.


You've felt that, right?


I see a world where we honor the ancient practices and lineages in a way that brings alive the spirit of inclusion, diversity and liberation for all. After all, I know we all believe yoga is unity and we've each had experiences of this profound truth. But there are barriers to access and unless we address them, to the best of our abilities and then some, we miss the opportunity to practice that very good idea and create the unity we seek with yoga.


So what blocks this sense or experience of unity that we all want? What prevents it?


My own young sweet Bengali-Assamese cousin, born in Kolkata and raised in LA, who built businesses, loved heavy metal and feeding birds in his backyard, died March 2017 at the age I am now because of this lack of access to tools like yoga, wellness, health education. We need to talk about this. We need to talk about why it’s so crucial we include diversity in accessibility and change the face of yoga today. It’s not just about honoring the past; it's about creating the future we need to all breathe and live.


Black and brown folks are disproportionately affected by heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, high maternal death rates, violence, and suicide and other afflictions, and at the SAME TIME also not represented in wellness or yoga. We don't have statistics on this, but in my town for every 100 yoga practitioners there are 5 black, 3 latino and 1 South Asian. 91 white including the teacher.


We simply don’t have access to wellness tools that can help us get healthy, stay healthy or heal.


If we don't see folks like us doing healthy things, it’s hard to learn.


I learned from the U.S. Department of Minority Health, Native and Blacks Americans have a 1.5 higher rate of death from heart disease than Whites. South Asians have a 4x higher risk of heart disease. Black Americans are 77% more likely than White Americans to be diagnosed with diabetes. Latinos have a 66% greater chance of heart disease, and 1 in 3 live with diabetes. Almost 1 in 3 South Asians will die from heart disease before age 65. And when I was talking to folks, almost all of us have a loved one who is sick, in treatment, or who has died.


Yoga is a healing tool and system that should be available to all, regardless of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, or any other background.


We begin to right the wrongs caused by colonization and appropriation's harm when accessibility is defined by how we practice yoga as unity.


This means this practice needs to be opened up to everyone; anything else is elitist exclusionary and is not really serving the aims of yoga.


I’d love for you to go out into your home town and into your communities and do this one thing.


Because, the yoga we do can either mirror the society we are in or transform it.


I ask you to take on the personal responsibility to allow yoga to speak through you as a vessel for unity.


Just like there’s no perfect pose, we don’t need to be perfect vessels. We do need to try.


Our role is to lessen harm, avoid appropriation, envision, practice and share alternative possibilities of living to create these new cultures.


Inclusion needs representation and connection. And that means looking at who is and isn’t present and doing what needs to be done to change that.

To really interrogate our own environments and context. For example, back home I make sure that we provide scholarships to train folks who are the least represented in our community in the Yoga Teacher Trainings my school runs. These organizers of color will go back into their communities and share these healing tools.


Because accessibility is shaped by how we practice yoga as unity.


So I invite you to use this check in - Is what I am doing causing more separation or more unity?


And as you practice yoga - be a Unity Activist. Look at who is showing up in your space - and take responsibility for who is and isn’t showing up and consider why. Here as well as when you go home - no saviors here - but by getting into relationship with someone who you see is missing. Don’t just invite them in. Go to their territory and turf. Listen. Connect.


To close, I’ll share a story about where I learned this Unity practice, while I lived for a time in the hot, flat plains of India in Sevagram, Gandhis ashram in Wardha. While there, we spent time talking with the villagers and I became friendly with Sandhya, a local teacher. At the Ashram, we worked for every meal and our practice was to find out what the villagers needed that week. We worked alongside them, helping provide food for the school, milking cows, sorting rice, cleaning the trash, rebuilding roads and classrooms. These simple actions became spiritual practice through relationship, yoga in action as seva as service. And connected us all deeply. Though Gandhiji is gone, his teachings live on in the simple life of service many Gandhians continue all over the subcontinent and many of us in his spirit do to bring yoga alive in a truth force that’s continued to this day


Gandhiji speaks of how we can live our yoga in service of unity:

"I offer you peace, love, friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source and I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.”


Unity happens when we see ourselves in the other. So I invite you to build a thoughtful relationship with just one person or organization - to practice yoga as unity.


How we honor and practice this GOOD IDEA of yoga will define how accessible we are able to be.


Yoga helps us experience the life-altering truth that anything other than union is just an illusion.


Now our job is to go out there and put this into action.


Thank you.


Learn more and get 15 ways to Honor Yoga in your free Yoga Manifesto PDF gift


This talk is a compilation of ideas I've been ruminating, writing and speaking about for quite a while. It was an honor to give this talk at the Accessible Yoga conference. You can check out Accessible Yoga and their work here.

2,569 views

"Let's work together to realize yoga as unity and make yoga fully inclusive and diverse."
- Susanna Barkataki

Brush 'Download'.png
  • Social Icon - FB
  • Social Icon - IG
  • Social Icon - Twitter