In studios across the nation, as many as 20 million Americans practice yoga every day. Few worry that their downward dogs or warrior poses disrespect other cultures.
But yoga comes from India, once a British colony. And now, at one Canadian university, a yoga class designed to include disabled students has been canceled after concerns the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Jennifer Scharf, who taught the class for up to 60 people at the University of Ottawa, said she was unhappy about the decision, but accepted it.
“This particular class was intro to beginners’ yoga because I’m very sensitive to this issue,” she said. “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.”
The trouble began on Sept. 7. That’s when Scharf, who said she had taught a class since 2008 through the school’s Centre for Students with Disabilities — part of the university’s Student Federation — got an e-mail.
“I have unfortunate news,” the e-mail from a student representative of the center read. “Apparently our centre has chosen not to do yoga for programming this year. Let me know if you have any questions or concerns in regards to this and I am welcome to explain. Thank you so much for volunteering to do yoga over the past couple years. It has truly been wonderful and I hope to stay in touch in the future.” (Scharf provided the e-mail exchange to The Post, but removed the name of the representative so the person could not be identified, saying: “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.” A message sent to the representative’s e-mail address was not immediately returned.)
Scharf was sorry to hear of the cancellation — attributed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to the University of Ottawa Student Federation, which describes itself as the “instrument of political action” for the undergraduate population at the university.
“That’s disappointing news for sure, is there someone I can speak to about this?” she wrote. “Do you know why the decision was made? I don’t mind doing it for free so if money is a concern, that’s no problem.”
Money was not a concern, however. Culture was.
“I think that our centre agreed … that while yoga is a really great idea, accessible and great for students, that there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” the response read. “I have heard from a couple students and volunteers that feel uncomfortable with how we are doing yoga while we claim to be inclusive at the same time.”
Explaining that yoga has a fraught history, the representative continued.
“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced and what practices from what cultures (which are often sacred spiritual practices) they are being taken from,” the e-mail read. “Many of these cultures are cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy, and we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves and while practicing yoga.”
The upshot: no more down dog.
“For the moment we would just like to pause the programming also because we are very short on staff and do not have the capacity to do this as programming,” the representative wrote. “But in the future (after we have reflected on which kinds of exercise are more inclusive for our centre).” The e-mail concluded: “It is not something that is easy to explain. It is a sensitive topic for some people that use our Centre and I would just like to respect that for the moment.”
Scharf said she understood, but tried to emphasize that her class was “just stretching.”
“Yoga in its truest form is not a religion and is practiced by many religions,” Scharf wrote back. “I would never want to culturally impose anything.” She added: “I do wish I had been consulted on this decision because yoga has become a fixture for many students, who come back year on year and are happy to have the option of a free class that they feel good after doing.”
Scharf speculated that the problem might be the branding.
“What do you think about having a class that is just stretching for mental health?” she wrote. “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.”
The representative seemed okay with change: “I believe this is super important and I apologize for what I said before and being so abrupt about it,” a response to Scharf read.
It continued: “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 was game.
“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, in the end, it didn’t happen.
“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 CBC.
— CBC News (@CBCNews) November 23, 2015
In a French-language interview with Radio Canada, student federation president Roméo Ahimakin said there were no direct complaints about the class. Instead, it was ended as part of a review of all programs “to make them more interesting, accessible, inclusive and responsive to the needs of students,” as the CBC noted. The class could return in January, he added.
Some members of the student federation questioned the action.
“I am also still of the opinion that a single complaint does not outweigh all of the good that these classes have done,” Julie Seguin, a student federation official, told the Ottawa Sun, defending the use of the word “yoga.” “… Labeling the [center’s] yoga lessons as cultural appropriation is questionable [and] debatable.”
Yoga, however, has been questioned outside of Ontario before.
“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 Web site of the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., with an initiative called “Take Back Yoga.” “With proliferation of new forms of ‘yoga,’ the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga are being lost,” reads a Web page for the initiative.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to take yoga back for almost a year now. His nation even has a yoga minister.
“There is little doubt about yoga being an Indian art form,” Shripad Yesso Naik said in December. “We’re trying to establish to the world that it’s ours.”
The Ottawa controversy — just one of many involving colleges and alleged political correctness — was widely reported, and picked up by at least one Canadian conservative news site.
“The day yoga needs a safe space is the day parody meets reality,” the Rebel wrote. “That day has come.”
Scharf, as perhaps befits a yogi, seemed calm in the face of the unfolding controversy.
“The burden of being angry was lifted from me,” she said. “Everyone already had that covered.”
Meanwhile, the CBC tracked down some local Hindus who were not offended.
“If you look at what the Western world has adapted it is just phenomenal,” Dilip Waghray, who’s been practicing yoga for 50 years, said at the Hindu Temple of Ottawa-Carleton. “Imagine how much good they’re doing for themselves. They’ll live a long and very happy life.”
Perhaps the Centre for Students with Disabilities is listening. At press time, the class remained listed on its Web site.