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Free Yoga Class Suspended For 'Cultural Appropriation'

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Student leaders at Canada's University of Ottawa have canceled a 60-person yoga class offered free to students for the past seven years, claiming the teachings could be seen as "cultural appropriation."

Staff at the Center for Students with Disabilities believe that "while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students ... there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice," according to an email from the center, reports the Ottawa Sun.

Yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf was first approached by the university’s Student Federation in 2008 to teach free fitness classes to students with and without disabilities. Scharf said she was shocked when she was told the class would be suspended in September, claiming she never meant to infringe on traditional yogi principles.

"I'm not pretending to be some enlightened yogi master, and the point [of the program] isn't to educate people on the finer points of the ancient yogi scripture," she said. "The point is to get people to have higher physical awareness for their own physical health and enjoyment."

Student Federation Acting President Romeo Ahimakin says that because many traditional yogi cultures "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy," any yoga class on campus must be more mindful of these cultural issues.

Ahimakin said the Student Federation has put the yoga sessions on hiatus while working with students "to make it better, more accessible and more inclusive to certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces."

"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," Ahimakin added.

The concept of cultural appropriation is normally applied when a dominant culture borrows symbols of a marginalized culture for dubious reasons, such as commercially manufactured Geisha costumes worn without any regard to Japanese cultural significance or stereotype.

Latha Sukumar, a Toronto yoga instructor of 35 years and executive director at a translation service agency, told the Toronto Star calling Scharf's yoga practice "cultural appropriation" goes against the concept and spirit of yoga because "ownership" is more of a Western practice.

"To call it cultural appropriation is to sort of subvert the term for some political purpose," Sukumar said. “It should be treated like any other healing profession."

Scharf says she never intended to go beyond the boundaries of a physical yoga class, and while "those issues are important issues and they should be raised” she does not feel the complaint applies to her course.

"I'm not claiming it's anything more than a physical practice within that class," Scharf told CBC. "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."

Scharf offered the compromise of renaming the classes "mindful stretching" to reflect the content of the course but not the culture, but student leaders were unsure how the name would translate to French-language promotional materials and instead suspended the class.

Ahimakin said the Student Federation is doing consultations on bringing the yoga class back to the school, and expects to offer "a more accessible version of it" for January. In the meantime, the University of Ottawa has tweeted it will be organizing its own free yoga sessions in place of Scharf's classes to aid the campus population during exams.

Sources: The Ottawa Sun, CBC, The Toronto Star, uOttawa/Twitter / Photo credit: Chris So/Toronto Star

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