uOttawa’s yoga class isn't cultural appropriation

The suspension of the free service was entirely misguided.

Murphy, TA for Yoga in India and the West, rejects the notion that uOttawa’s free yoga class was problematic.
Murphy, TA for Yoga in India and the West, rejects the notion that uOttawa’s free yoga class was problematic.

The recent cancellation of a free yoga class through the Centre for Students with Disabilities at the University of Ottawa has raised a number of issues in the media and within the yoga community.

Issues such as the legacy of colonialism, oppression, cultural appropriation, cultural sensitivity, capitalism, religious authenticity, accessibility and the limits of political correctness have been evoked in debates surrounding this case.

In discussions of modern yoga practice, investigations into these issues are certainly warranted. However, cultural appropriation and insensitivity are non-issues when it comes to the free class that was suspended at uOttawa. 

Modern yoga has a complex and nuanced cross-cultural history. As a result, context should inform our discussions.

Modern scholars and yoga historians have challenged the commonly held notion that modern yoga practices are derived from a thousands-of-years-old Indian Spiritual Tradition dating back to the Vedas.

Hindu scholar Meera Nanda describes the link between ancient Indian tradition and modern yoga practice as a “Nationalistic Myth”, while the work of Mark Singleton shows that modern postural yoga is an amalgamation of Indian practices with Western bodybuilding and gymnastic techniques. 

The idea that yoga as we know it here in Canada is something that’s been appropriated directly from ancient Hinduism is questionable.

The origins of these practices aside, it’s important to acknowledge that Indian Gurus came to the West with the intention of spreading the teachings of yoga. Yogi Bhajan, the master of Kundalini Yoga is one of many examples. As the story goes, Yogi Bhajan came to Toronto in 1969, to train teachers and to spread the practices and values of his brand of yoga.

Those who raise the question of who owns yoga, or who has the right to practice yoga, need to acknowledge that Indian Gurus intentionally shared yoga with the West and some have capitalized on the dissemination of their spiritual teachings.

Critiques of the cultural insensitivity and capitalistic nature of Western yoga practices are certainly valid. Yoga is a multi million dollar industry in North America. We’re correct to question the mass production of $100 yoga pants, and the appropriation of Hindu imagery in the name of corporate profit.

The lack of accessibility to yoga classes should be a major concern for yoga enthusiasts interested in social justice. As it stands, yoga classes, workshops and retreats are dominated by white middle- and upper-class women. We should be asking why this is the case and how we can make yoga more accessible.

In the particular case of the Centre for Disabled Students’ free yoga class, oppression, social justice and a lack of cultural sensitivity shouldn’t be issues. 

The class instructor, Jen Scharf, isn’t lululemon. She isn’t appropriating the culture of another for her own personal gain, and she isn’t claiming to teach spirituality. 

In response to accusations of cultural insensitivity, she offered to change the name of her class from yoga to Mindful Stretching. In this case, it seems that an individual with the intention of helping others to manage stress and feel better in their bodies in an accessible and politically correct way, has been shut down due to misguided charges of cultural insensitivity. 

Sarah Murphy is a PhD candidate in the School of Cultural Studies, specializing in yoga and mental health. Sarah has taught and assisted with the course Yoga in India and the West at Queen’s University. She has been teaching yoga since 2006.

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