University Of Ottawa Cancels ‘Exclusive’ And ‘Insensitive’ Yoga Classes

Philip DeVoe Contributor
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The University of Ottawa’s Student Federation canceled a free yoga class it has sponsored for the past seven years because of concerns over cultural appropriation and exclusivity.

Instructor Jennifer Scharf was told in September by a representative from the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD), the division of the Student Federation responsible for the class, that the CSD would not renew her class for the 2015 fall semester because “a couple students and volunteers” felt “uncomfortable with how [CSD is] doing yoga while [CSD] claims to be inclusive at the same time.”

Scharf, who teaches yoga with Rama Lotus Centre in downtown Ottawa, however, was surprised anyone would accuse her class of exclusivity, arguing the complaint that killed the program came instead from a “social justice warrior” with “fainting heart ideologies,” reports the Ottawa Sun.

“People are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find,” Scharf told the Sun. “There’s a real divide between reasonable people and those people just looking to jump on a bandwagon. And unfortunately, it ends up with good people getting punished for doing good things.”

Alternatively, acting Student Federation president Romeo Ahimakin told the Sun the decision resulted from a consultation with students to make the class more inclusive to “certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces” and “done in a way in which students are aware of where the spiritual and cultural aspects come from, so that these sessions are done in a respectful manner.”

In a French-language interview with Radio Canada, he said the Student Federation ended the class as part of a review of all programs “to make them more interesting, accessible, inclusive and responsive to the needs of students.”

Scharf, however, said she never intended to insult or exclude anyone with her class.

“This particular class was intro to beginners’ yoga because I’m very sensitive to this issue,” she told The Washington Post. “I would never want anyone to think I was making some sort of spiritual claim other than the pure joy of being human that belongs to everyone free of religion.”

Cultural appropriation is a social phenomena in which one culture adopts practices or traditions from another, usually oppressed, culture. Yoga has been appropriated by westerners from Hinduism, which, as the main religion of India, suffered oppression by British colonists. Advocates of cultural inclusivity detest the novelty with which modern yoga has become associated, that is, more with expensive loungewear and hobby than spiritualism through meditation.

“As the multi-billion dollar yoga industry continues to grow with studios becoming as prevalent as Starbucks and $120 yoga pants, the mass commercialization of this ancient practice, rooted in Hindu thought, has become concerning,” according to the Take Back Yoga initiative, a division of the Washington D.C.-based Hindu American Foundation. “With proliferation of new forms of ‘yoga,’ the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga are being lost.”

While advocacy groups and social justice warriors claim to understand the damage Westernization does to yoga, Dilip Waghray, a Hindu who has practiced yoga for 50 years, chooses to focus on the benefits of yoga’s emergence in the West.

“When I saw what was happening [with big crowds for free yoga] on Parliament Hill I was thrilled and probably a little bit ashamed that my body wasn’t as flexible as theirs. I said, ‘Wow,’ and the first thing I did was share with my classmates back home,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “If you look at what the Western world has adapted it is just phenomenal. Imagine how much good they’re doing for themselves. They’ll live a long and very happy life.”

Ann Althouse, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, on her blog, Althouse, struck back at Ahimakin and others who suggest yoga’s ban will help respect the culture of origin.

“That strikes me as a moderate approach, not a ban, but a call for deeper reflection about something that is, in its origin, deep and that has been made shallow for the purposes of consumption by health-minded young people in stretch pants,” she said. “A university should be a place of learning and a search for greater understanding.”

Back in Ottawa, Scharf’s fight over her class was far from over. After being told she could not continue to teach the class in an email correspondence, obtained by The Washington Post, Scharf attempted to reason with the Student Federation representative, whose name Scharf requested be removed, and reclaim her class, even if the title were slightly different.

“Yoga in its truest form is not a religion and is practiced by many religions,” Scharf wrote back. “What do you think about having a class that is just stretching for mental health? We don’t have to call it yoga (because that’s not really what we are doing, we are just stretching). I think that will work because it would literally change nothing about the class. … I know some people are offended but I am sure we can change it so that everyone feels included. If there is anything else I can do to help out, please let me know.”

At first, the representative agreed:

“I believe this is super important and I apologize for what I said before and being so abrupt about it,” the representative said. “I think that keeping some kind of weekly fitness programming for people with disabilities to access on campus is very essential. … Maybe if we could work out doing some kind of fitness classes if you were still willing we could talk a bit about moving away from what is considered yoga and make it exercise and stretching for people with disabilities.”

Scharf responded:

“I’m totally up for making it a simple stretching class for people with disabilities,” she wrote. “There wouldn’t need to be any change to the content of the courses because I don’t use the posture names and don’t refer to yogic mysticism. Now that I am aware that this is a sensitivity, I can just leave all yoga-ness out.”

Yet, Scharf said, it never happened. Student leaders debated changing the name, but ultimately decided a French translation for “mindful stretching” would not appear well, aesthetically, on a poster advertising the class.

“The higher-ups at the student federation got involved, finally we got an e-mail routed through the student federation basically saying they couldn’t get a French name and nobody wants to do it, so we’re going to cancel it for now,” Scharf told the CBC.

Although the Student Federation largely dismissed Scharf’s class as insensitive and offensive, one official, Julie Seguin, spoke up in her defense.

“I am also still of the opinion that a single complaint does not outweigh all of the good that these classes have done,” Seguin said. “Labeling the CSD’s yoga lessons as cultural appropriation is questionable [and] debatable.”

Scharf was told her class, which teaches beginner yoga to over 60 people, might return in January, but she still harbors some frustration with the situation regarding her class.

“I’m not pretending to be some enlightened yogi master, and the point (of the program) isn’t to educate people on the finer points of the ancient yogi scripture,” she told the Sun. “The point is to get people to have higher physical awareness for their own physical health and enjoyment.”

Tags : yoga
Philip DeVoe