Suni Gargaro’s philosophy with business, as a yoga teacher, mother, wife and immigrant from India, is built on inclusion, diversity and unity. As the founder of Sunia Yoga, she is a female entrepreneur who believes in giving back to pave the way for a brighter future. Yoga+Life sat down with Gargaro to learn more about her journey being a woman of color in the health and wellness industry.
What was your experience growing up in Des Moines, Iowa like as an immigrant and Indian woman?
I was so young at the time that I arrived in the U.S., about 11 (6th grade.) As you can imagine, this a tough age to be new, different and trying to keep up with English as a second language. At that time, the people in the U.S. knew less about India than they do today. Unlike today where India’s reputation is associated with very smart people in fields of technology, science, medicine etc., at that time the stereotype I often ran up against was that India was just another “foreign” third world country. So, dealing with those attitudes was difficult at times, manifesting in everything from occasional stray comments, to just feelings of pure awkwardness or being excluded from the social ecosystems in school.
How does it compare to your experience (now living in California) today?
Fast forward 30-plus years and transplanted to Southern California — a very different story of course! The amazing growth in popularity of yoga over the years, in addition to an ever-increasing population of Indians to supply the workforce in the tech sector and medicine, and even the phenomenon that Bollywood has become, all have helped raise awareness and overall esteem for Indian culture.
The experience is really a major improvement over those early years in Des Moines. Here in San Diego, there is a sizable Indian community which gives me an opportunity to stay rooted to my cultural background. I have my favorite restaurants where I can get authentic Indian food (both North and South India, the latter being my favorite!). I met my yoga teacher of 20-plus years in the Black Mountain “Little India” district of San Diego, so this all gives me an opportunity to feel a community connection.
I feel Southern California is a lot more culturally liberal and, in my opinion, more open and accepting of other cultures in comparison to Iowa and the Midwest. That said, and speaking to the recent heightened awareness of social Justice issues that has surged in this country, there is still another side to the story. With all of these great aspects of being here in So-Cal, I unfortunately still feel the pangs of being treated as “different” on occasion. Those instances have been at times very subtle, other times more direct, and thankfully I’ve not run into anything too extreme. It just serves as a reminder that with all the progress we have made in this country around race, ethnicity and gender equality since I came here all those years ago, we do still have work to do.
What is your relationship with yoga?
This is a great question and also a very huge topic! Yoga is dear to my heart and one aspect of my Indian cultural heritage that makes me feel both proud and humbled at the same time. Discovering yoga as a young professional adult really opened my eyes in so many ways, ranging from mundane things like being mindful of my body and self-care with proper hygiene and diet, to a deepening of my spiritual life. My teacher Shashi Pottathil teaches from a very practical, science-based perspective so that people understand how and why practicing yoga can have such a profound impact on health. He demystifies it purposefully, staying away from terminology and concepts that may seem esoteric or religious because he knows that the functional benefits are grounded in reality and backed by research. Yet at the same time, he embraces the spiritual benefits and he helps people understand that those are also very real, independent of any religion (or lack of one) that a person practices.
My mission with my brand Sunia Yoga is really to just inspire people to get and stay on a yoga path, and to help brighten their practice and everyday life with uplifting colors and themes. A big part of that is my Mommy and Me offerings for moms and kids so that they can mix and match and have fun with their yoga attire, and again inspire the our little ones with what I hope will become a rewarding, healthful lifelong path of yoga practice.
Related to this, I recently complete my 200 RYT Yoga Alliance teacher training under Shashi, and I intend one day to integrate yoga classes with my apparel line in a physical yoga studio and teaching practice, combined with on-premises retail. Mommy and Me yoga lessons (as you may have guessed) will be a cornerstone of my offerings as a teacher.
One aspect of this topic I feel important to point out, is that while I am very pleased overall with the incredible popularity of yoga in the U.S. and western culture, I do feel that the true meaning of yoga is sometimes obscured or lost. Terms like “yoga butt” are fine and we all want to be healthy and look our best, but in reality, a yoga path is much more than getting on the mat (in a heated room) to get a workout, sweat and perform a sequence of asanas in perfect form, to sculpt our bodies and look good. I mean, those are great goals and great rewards, but that is not the essence of yoga.
As my teacher defines it, yoga is about mindful movement of body, mind and breath. The original Sanskrit meaning of yoga as “union” really speaks to this, and then taking it a step further (and not everyone may choose to embrace this aspect), the union of those physical components (body/mind/breath) can yield an even higher spiritual union. This is a natural progression of the practice. People that do not see or want a “spiritual” component in their yoga practice are perfectly welcome to ignore this part of the conversation, because it is not necessary to care one way or another about this aspect of it — but they will benefit from it just the same, whether they realize it or not!
What was your journey to opening your own business?
I had always been interested in business but after college. I worked for big corporations and got tired of the 9 to 5 and the politics involved in climbing the corporate ladder. I got started with my first excursion into business ownership in the early 00’s with a retail boutique in the bath/body/fragrance market. My husband shares the entrepreneurial bug with me, and he played an active role as a partner in getting that first business started.
Later after retiring the business to make more time to focus on being a mom, I launched Sunia Yoga based purely on an online, eCommerce business model, so that I could grow it while maintaining a reasonable work/life balance as a very active mom (and continue my yoga teacher training certification). And once again, my husband supported and helped me create Sunia Yoga, and he continues to support me actively in managing all of my digital marketing efforts.
What is your stance on sustainability and social justice?
Regarding sustainability, I am a huge advocate. I currently have a line of select designs that are manufactured on 100-percent recycled material, and my goal is to move in this direction for every one of my products, which I am actively working towards. Notably, our garments are made right here in Southern California where quality standards are high and there is plenty of access to sustainable manufacturing options.
Regarding social justice, as shared in my comments above regarding having emigrated to the U.S., I know first-hand what it feels like to be marginalized or treated as “other.” It is at best, not pleasant, and at worst, humiliating among other possible emotions. One of my inspirations to pursue my own business as a woman of color, was to show my now 10 year old son that in America, anyone has the ability and the right to start a business regardless of race or gender, and I want him to be as free of the marginalizing stereotypes that still exist in our society as possible, as he grows up and pursues his dreams. I want to show him those dreams can be real and not limited or determined by anyone else’s or greater society’s limiting beliefs or stereotypes.
What is your relationship with Social Development Organization Nepal and why did you want to get involved with them?
Children are dear to my heart, and my son’s birth was the single greatest blessing and achievement of my life (and my husband agrees). Nepal is not far from India, and we share many commonalities (and plenty of distinctive traits as well). The kind people that operate this organization were introduced to me by mutual friends on social media, and the more that I learned about what they do, how hard they work and the impact they have on the children they work with, the more in love I became with their mission. Giving back was always an important part of my business mission, and so my decision to sponsor them with our give back program was very natural. That said, I certainly intend to expand this to other worthy groups that I feel are aligned with Sunia Yoga’s mission in the future as well.
Anything else you want to add to the story?
One fun fact about my activewear: my designs are primarily inspired by and named after ancient Sanskrit words and concepts (Prana, Chakra, Ahimsa are all examples) drawing from the deep history of yoga and its ancient roots in India. The goal there is to share these powerful and inspirational concepts with people in the form of our leggings and other activewear. This along with bright, uplifting colors and patterns is intended to give people that little extra “something” to move them one step closer to their dreams whether on the mat or just going about their daily routine.
Photos courtesy of Suni Gargaro.