How My Yoga Practice Taught Me to Speak Up for Myself


There I sat. Shaking in my seat, my shallow breath in my chest.

I used my toe to push my carefully completed report on the Underground Railroad deeper into my backpack, heart thumping, hoping my teacher wouldn’t see my homework or shaking hands.

Even in third grade, I was the kind of kid who loved to learn, hated to disappoint, and always did her homework. But I didn’t know I would have to read my paper aloud. There was no way this shy kid was doing that. I cringed at my teacher’s withering look, feeling crushing shame when I didn’t stand to share. But my heart was in my throat. And my meticulous homework was crumpled, like my confidence, at the bottom of my backpack.

My shyness was painfully inevitable. A brown immigrant girl-child—accented, thoughtful, philosophically bent. My best friends lived in the pages of books, where I shared in their terrific adventures.

I grew up believing I didn’t have anything to say that anyone would want to hear. I just tried to keep my head down and not draw too much (negative) attention. I was shy by nature, and the racism and sexism I experienced daily from the neighborhood boys of my new country made every day feel like a social battlefield. Back then, I didn't really understand these social dynamics, and there wasn't anyone I could speak with about them. Without such help, I grew up not knowing what I thought about myself, my experiences, and the world in general. But even if I’d known, you would not have heard me speak about it.

I grew up believing I didn’t have anything to say that anyone would want to hear.

After many years of silence, learning to speak up was a leap of faith. I learned to “faith it ‘til I made it.” I would act like I was comfortable talking with people in the elevator or on the phone, until one day my experience changed. I was no longer “faking it” or relying on faith. It just felt normal and I was confident speaking to people. It started with gradually growing comfortable speaking with someone one-on-one, and then spread to connecting with small groups. Eventually, when faced with a classroom of my own, I discovered that I could confidently speak to a larger group as well.

Now, I am often the one to speak up, start the conversation, write the article, lead the group, or even speak to the crowded room. Although my heart is sometimes still in my throat, I speak up anyway. It’s now a matter of surviving and thriving. Because it is imperative to combat the sexism that would keep me quiet, or the racism that wants to silence brown voices. That’s why I speak up.

And I still think it’s the quiet ones we need to make space for and listen to. It is often the quiet person in the room who has an insight that could help a situation or solve a problem. After teaching students young and old for the past 15 years, I’ve observed that if we allow space for the quiet students to speak, we often go much deeper in our conversations or analysis of an issue.

We all have our unique stories. It may be easier or harder for us to tell them, but they are still ours. And I’ve found that if and when they elude us, we can learn to access them through our breath.

When I first began teaching English, yoga, and meditation at 22 years old, my students often complained that they couldn’t hear me—they repeatedly asked me to speak up. I deeply wanted to teach them, but they couldn’t hear what I was saying. And I just couldn’t speak up. I knew I had to learn this skill, to access my voice, in order that my own students could do the same. My first classes were full of young, brown immigrants who were very much like me when I first moved to this country, and I wanted to be a positive example for them. I wanted to guide each one to find their own footing in this new land, their own voice in a new language, their own peace in a new world.

It took me months of practice before I learned to breathe, speak, and project from my belly. I began preparing for my class in the morning. After I sat in quiet meditation to let any agitation settle, I would do a yoga practice that involved strong core work—poses like uttihita chaturanga dandasana (plank pose) and navasana (boat pose). Before class, I would place my hand on my abdomen and remind myself to breathe and speak from there. Doing practices to strengthen, breathe, and speak from my core helped me gain enough confidence to speak up so my classes could hear me.

It took me months of practice before I learned to breathe, speak, and project from my belly.

In large part, I felt this practice worked because of the subtle energy of the body that I was accessing through breath and asana. In yogic anatomy, the abdomen is the site of our confidence, power, and self-esteem. The third chakra, or energy center, is located in the solar plexus (about two inches above your belly button). This aspect of the subtle body is called manipura, or jeweled city, and it’s associated with the element of fire.

When this energy center is out of balance, it’s said that a person can feel insecure, lack confidence or worthiness, even feel an overwhelming sense of failure. Because the third chakra is associated with the qualities of self—confidence, worth, and esteem—it can be nourished through acting with strong integrity. A question that I’ve found to help develop awareness of this center is: “What does acting from confidence look like here?” Breathing from the belly, core work, and strong, vigorous practice are also said to fire up this energy center.

A Confidence-Building Practice for Finding and Speaking Your Truth

Place your hand on your belly. Appreciate your belly. Feel the breath as it expands your belly. Notice the simple in and out rhythm. We are constantly rising and falling every moment of every day. Breathe deeply and feel your confidence expand as your breath lifts your hand. Spend a few minutes breathing intentionally like this and you may find it much easier to speak from a strong core.

A core asana practice will also help fire up this center so we can approach challenges with confidence. Try sitting on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you. Then lift your feet off the ground so that your shins are parallel with the ground; you can stay here or start to straighten your legs. If you have tighter hamstrings, keeping your knees bent is a wonderful option. Try holding navasana, or boat pose, for about 10 smooth in and out breaths. When I really want to challenge myself to be strong, I touch the ground to the left and right of my outstretched legs with my hands, alternating for another 10 breaths.

After this core-strengthening practice, I feel I can do whatever task I have before me!

Above all, remember this: The private world you share through your speaking, your writing, and your stories is powerful, and it is yours alone to share. It is no better or worse than anyone else’s.

Find the space within to discover what you think—to breathe it and then to speak it. And encourage others to do the same.

About the Teacher

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Susanna Barkataki
An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki supports practitioners... Read more