Yoga class scrapped at University of Ottawa over ‘cultural issues’

Woman practicing Yoga outdoors.
Yoga has its origins in India and it’s a practice that has been widely embraced by the West.

How far is too far for accommodation of cultural issues?

News just broke that a yoga class at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Students with Disabilities has been cancelled – at least temporarily – over “cultural issues.”

Cultural issues over yoga classes?

The word “yoga” originates from the Sanskrit word “yuj”. The meaning of the word is “to unite or integrate.” Yoga doesn’t just use physical poses for exercise, but it also benefits the mind and spirit. There are many schools of yoga, as well as ways to practice it.

Yes, Yoga has its origins in India and it’s a practice that has been widely embraced by the West. Many people do it because it’s great physical exercise and surely nobody practising it means to offend Hindu culture.

That is also the opinion of the instructor who was teaching the yoga classes, Jen Scharf, and who tried to accommodate the complainers by suggesting the name of the class be changed to something like “mindful stretching.”

However, according to Scharf, the student administration didn’t like the new name and decided to scrap the program. For its part, the Centre for Students with Disabilities claims that it’s “reevaluating the programming” of all its centres.

However, Scharf claims that they saw it as a “cultural appropriation issue because yoga originally comes from India.” Scharf explains that: “I'm not claiming it's anything more than a physical practice within that class…There's been so much positivity and so many people positively helped by this, and that's part of the reason why I'm fighting so hard to keep it.”

If Scharf isn’t claiming she’s teaching yoga as a religious practice and it’s helping people, then why make it an issue? After all, cultural appropriation is about stealing elements of a culture that is being oppressed.

Is there a point at which people and groups should be called out over being culturally insensitive? Definitely. For example, when something is truly meant to offend and/or it crosses into racism, or any other kind of –ism.

One such case, where racism was found, is the case of 13 Indo-Canadian vets who were allegedly racially discriminated against by the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association. The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal recently decided in their favour, found there was racial discrimination, and slapped the medical association with steep fines.

The 13 veterinarians, born and trained in India, claimed that the association was conducting unscheduled inspections and forced them to take a language-proficiency test that was impossible to pass.

The decision by the tribunal stated that “race-based stereotypes” were present in how the veterinarians were treated, including: “negative generalized views about the credibility and ethics of Indo-Canadians in relation to their veterinary practices.”

The point here is that there is a glaring difference between a yoga class being taught by a non-Hindu teacher, and professionals being racially discriminated against by their regulating body.

CBC News asked one couple who attends the Hindu Temple at Ottawa-Carleton and they didn’t have an issue with a non-Hindu instructor teaching yoga.

Additionally, long-time Ottawa yoga teacher Girija Waghray told CBC News : "In Hindi 'yog' means to unite. To unite with who? With your true self. That's what yoga is. Here we tend to relate it with the postures but it's not just postures ... and it has nothing to do with religion."

Remember people: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As long as nobody in the West claims they actually created yoga themselves or know more than our Hindu counterparts, let’s live and let exercise.

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