A free yoga class at the University of Ottawa has been suspended after complaints that it might be disrespectful cultural appropriation of an Indian practice. Jennifer Scharf, the yoga teacher offering the free class, was shocked to learn the news of her class cancellation via email, but accepted it nonetheless with 60 students left without their yoga class.
Scharf has been offering her free yoga classes for the Centre for Students with Disabilities since 2008. While she was preparing her new academic year’s classes, she received an email that her class was suspended due to a formal complaint made over fears that it is a form cultural appropriation.
The Ottawa Student Federation, an independent student body, made the decision. Romeo Ahimakin, the student federation president, said there were no direct complaints regarding Scharf’s class, but rather questions over the class’ content.
Scharf said that her yoga classes prioritize the physical and health benefits of yoga rather than its spiritual aspect. The email sent to her highlighted how yoga classes must be carried out with caution given that the culture this practice comes from has experienced “oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas,” CBC reports.
According to the Ottawa Sun, Scharf asserted that the complaint was part of a wider political correctness trend that often seeks to make an issue out of a noncontroversial idea or situation.
The yoga instructor told the Washington Post in a telephone conversation that her class never sought to be spirituality-focused. The only claim her beginner’s yoga class intended to make was “the pure joy of being human that belongs to everyone free of religion.”
A representative from the Centre for Students with Disabilities told Scharf that there were complaints by students and volunteers alike that they felt the class was not inclusive, making them uneasy over the ways the class was carried out.
In her discussion of the issue, Scharf tried to convince the student body that there’s no intention of a takeover of an Indian practice. The Independent reports how Scharf responded to the news with the following proposal:
“Why don’t we just change the name of the course?’ It’s simple enough, just call it mindful stretching… We’re not going through the finer points of scripture. We’re talking about basic physical awareness and how to stretch so that you feel good.”
Confident of her class’ positive impact on people’s lives, Scharf told the CBC that even though the matter of cultural appropriation is a serious one, her class doesn’t fall into this category:
“…[I]t’s not me they should be mad at; it’s the fake people that are making claims they can’t possibly substantiate.”
According to Romeo Ahimakin, the free class might be available in the new year if they managed to create a more accessible version of it.
In political terms, ‘cultural appropriation’ refers to the practice of borrowing symbols, practices and acts from a marginalized culture and integrating these into a dominant one in a manner that feels disrespectful or oppressive for the marginalized culture and people.
Student federation official, Julie Seguin, supported Scharf and her right to continue offering her class. She said that the benefits of the class outweigh the complaints.