Student leaders at a Canadian university have put a stop to a free yoga class over fears that the ancient Indian practice could be interpreted by some as a form of “cultural appropriation” – the concept of a dominant culture borrowing symbols of a “marginalized” culture for dubious reasons.
Yoga teacher Jennifer Scharf , who has been conducting the weekly sessions at the University of Ottawa since 2008, says she was shocked when she was told in September the program would be suspended.
Local media quoted an email sent by staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that “while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice”.
The centre goes on to say, “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.”
The centre is operated by the university’s Student Federation, which first approached Scharf about offering yoga instruction to students both with and without disabilities.
The email adds: “Since many of those cultures have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”
But Scharf said the concept of cultural appropriation does not apply in this case, arguing the complaint that killed the program came instead from a “social justice warrior” with “fainting heart ideologies”.
“People are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find,” she said.
Student Federation leaders however, have denied that the suspension of the class was not the result of a complaint.
The Federation’s president Romeo Ahimakin told the Ottawa Sun newspaper that the class would be suspended while students were consulted to “make it better, more accessible and inclusive 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.”
Scharf has since offered a compromise – offering to call the class “mindful stretching” instead of yoga.