Cultural appropriation has become a hot topic recently—Last month, ASOS came under criticism for selling bindis as Halloween merchandise. And let’s not forget Miley Cyrus’ controversial decision to sport dreadlocks at this year’s VMAs. While recognizing cultural appropriation is important in eliminating ignorance and offensive practices, it’s hard to distinguish the difference between appropriation and appreciation.
At the University of Ottawa, Jennifer Scharf was faced with this issue when she learned that her yoga class, aimed to include students with disabilities, was being suspended by the school’s Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD). The Washington Post reports that the center emailed Scharf saying some students and volunteers were uncomfortable with the way in which yoga was practiced, and cautioned her on the cultural sensivity of yoga.
Specifically, the CSD stated the following during an email exchange with Scharf: “Many of these cultures are 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.”
Although Scharf replied suggesting that she change the focus to stretching and fitness rather than yoga, ultimately the CSD kept their decision to suspend Scharf’s class. Since its decision, the CSD has received a ton of negativity via Twitter and other social media channels, as reported by the Huffington Post. Some tweets defend yoga’s roots in British culture and accuse India of appropriating the activity. Others believe that the University of Ottawa’s decision is plain ridiculous and an overreaction.
The complaints that caused Scharf’s class to be halted were kept anonymous, but there has been public criticism against the widespread adoption of yoga in Western countries. In 2008, the Hindu American Foundation launched an initiative called Take Back Yoga that denounces the commercialization of the yoga industry. The campaign’s webpage proclaims that as yoga becomes ubiquitous, “the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga are being lost”. But does that mean that classes like Jennifer Scharf’s, which are primarily geared towards encouraging fitness and mental health, deserve to be labeled as inappropriate?
For all you yogis out there, food for thought.