By now, you’ve probably heard about the free yoga class at the University of Ottawa after concerns were raised that the class could offend students, particularly of Indian culture and ancestry. And if you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the basic gist: as The Ottawa Sun reports, Jennifer Scharf had been teaching a free yoga class at the University since 2008, offering yoga instruction to students with disabilities (as well as without disabilities). However, news broke this week that the yoga class is now “on hiatus” until further notice, after a student committee suggested that practicing yoga in Canada is akin to “cultural genocide.”
“[Yoga was taken from cultures that] have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy… we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”
The cancelled yoga class almost immediately became a source of controversy, with accusations of political correctness run amok being levied by internet commenters on one side of the issue, according to News Oxy, and defenders of the cancellation, saying that concerns about cultural appropriation are valid, at least when it comes to yoga as it’s practiced in the West.
So, was the University of Ottawa right to cancel yoga classes for fear of being offensive? Here are three points to consider.
1. What’s This Business About Cultural Appropriation?
As Ottawa Sun writer Aedan Helmer describes it, “The concept of cultural appropriation is normally applied when a dominant culture borrows symbols of a marginalized culture for dubious reasons.” Depending on context and on whom you ask, cultural appropriation can either be a completely neutral thing or an offensive display of ignorance.
For example, if you plan to have a Christmas tree in your home, you’re appropriating ancient pre-Christian, European pagan culture. Is that a bad thing? Since there aren’t any pre-Christian European pagans around to complain, probably not.
But what if you’re white and you wear a Native American headdress to Coachella as a fashion statement?
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) April 12, 2014
Some would argue, rather vehemently, that cultural appropriation is a hideous form of racism. Earlier this year, Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg famously got into a Twitter feud with Kylie Jenner over Jenner’s practice of wearing cornrows — traditionally an African-American hairstyle. Stenberg argued that Jenner’s fashion choice was just the latest example of a growing list of ways in which whites were culturally appropriating black culture.
2. So Where Does Yoga Fit In?
Yoga, as it’s practiced at your neighborhood studio, is an ancient Indian practice in much the same way that a plate of nachos is authentic Mexican cuisine — which is to say, not at all (nachos having been invented in a hotel kitchen in 1943 by a chef who was running low on ingredients). In a 2009 Huffington Post report, writer Nicholas Rosen notes that what we call yoga only dates back to 1960, when BKS Iyengar compiled a bunch of stretching exercises into a book, called it “yoga,” and introduced it to England.
“The REAL yoga, ancient and obscure, was nothing like the feel-good hippie stretching of today. It was more like black magic: transforming one’s semen into magical nectar, flying around and taking over other people’s bodies, and the like. Yogis were like boogeymen and dark sorcerers.”
3. It’s Hideously Easy To Offend People These Days
With almost alarming regularity, stories of seemingly innocuous words or activities being banned because they’re offensive seem to pop up in the news. A Christmas commercial was recently banned in some U.K. theaters because it contains the Lord’s Prayer, which might be offensive to someone; a professor at a British university recently suggested banning pork products from office break rooms for fear of offending Muslims; and the University of Michigan recently published a list of banned words that included “ghetto” and “gypped,” because they’re offensive.
So, why is everyone so easily offended any more? There are no easy answers, but the problem may have its root in the old bugaboo of political correctness. Begun in the 1980s and 1990s as an earnest attempt at clearing away racism and sexism from public universities, the term — and the concept — has since taken on a life of its own, and seems to have given just about anyone and everyone a license to be offended at anything and everything.
As yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf notes, her yoga classes never bothered anyone until one student in particular, whom Scharf describes as a “social justice warrior” who was looking for something to be offended about, spoke up.
“There’s a real divide between reasonable people and those people just looking to jump on a bandwagon. And unfortunately, it ends up with good people getting punished for doing good things.”
Do you believe the University of Ottawa was right to cancel yoga classes? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
[Image via Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia]