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A Yoga Class Has Been Canceled at a Canadian University Over 'Cultural Issues'

Jen Scharf has been teaching yoga for about 60 students at the University of Ottawa's Center for Students with Disabilities since 2008. In September, the student union informed her that she could no longer proceed because of “cultural issues."

by Tamara Khandaker
Nov 23 2015, 8:20pm

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

Student leaders at the University of Ottawa are not backing down from a decision to cancel a free weekly yoga class over concerns about cultural appropriation — a move that is at odds with the university's own views.

Jen Scharf has been teaching yoga for about 60 students at the Center for Students with Disabilities since 2008.

In September of this year, the student union-run center informed her that she could no longer proceed because of "cultural issues."

In an email to Scharf, a student leader noted that "while yoga is a really great idea, accessible and great for students" the center had 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."

The email noted that it was often sacred and spiritual practices that were taken from 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."

Related: Canadian Music Festivals Are Banning Aboriginal Headdresses as a Fashion Accessory

Scharf offered to call the class "mindful stretching" to reflect its content and to distance it from any controversy over appropriation but that idea was rejected because the words couldn't be accurately translated into French.

"It was presented to me as a mish-mash of increasingly desperate and non-sensical arguments," said Scharf in an interview. "It's getting to the point where these initially well-intentioned social justice warriors are saying things that don't even make sense anymore."

Meanwhile, on Monday, the University of Ottawa distanced itself from the student union's decision, tweeting that free yoga classes are still available on campus.

"We don't even know all the facts, and we're leaving that up to them," said media relations manager Néomie Duval, adding classes had already been scheduled for December, in time for exam season. "Yoga is good for our students' well-being, and that's what we're sticking with." 

In a statement, the student union said the yoga program, which had never been reviewed before, was "put on hold to allow the service center to do proper consultation amongst themselves, with service center users, and others interested, and this is needed to provide better programming."

In an interview with Radio-Canada, student union president Roméo Ahimakin said consultations would be aimed at making the classes more accessible and inclusive.

"We are trying to have those sessions 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," he said.

Scharf, who started practicing yoga at 16, says she found early on that far too many instructors were teaching "from a place of egotistical gratification," and that her goal as an instructor was always to do the opposite.

"I feel like I can set that example as something for people to aspire to, rather than somebody in a leotard who is appropriating these practices for maybe dubious reasons," said Scharf. "Those people are out there who are ... making claims they can't substantiate and overstating their expertise."

"I acknowledge that I don't have any business calling myself 'enlightened' or saying I'm an expert in yoga,' she said. "I'm not talking about Ayurveda, I'm not talking about ancient scripture — I'm talking exclusively about how to do the physical postures."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk