Canada: Student centre cancels free yoga program, controversy erupts

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times, Toronto
  • Updated: Nov 27, 2015 20:24 IST
Speaking to the Hindustan Times, yoga instructor Jen Scharf (in picture) said: “What makes this so funny is nobody complained in class!” (HT Photo)

A student centre at the University of Ottawa in Canada has become embroiled in an absurd controversy over its cancellation of a free yoga class on grounds that the practice amounts to cultural appropriation.

The Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) had a free yoga programme that started in 2008 but was taken off its schedule recently.

In an unsigned email, a representative of the centre wrote to yoga instructor Jen Scharf: “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced and what practices from what cultures (which are often sacred spiritual practices) they are being taken from.”

“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.”

Translated, this means western cultures that “oppressed” India should now refrain from adopting traditional practices from the country. It’s ironic given that the Indian government and the Indian diaspora in the West are actively seeking to popularise yoga worldwide.

Speaking to the Hindustan Times, Scharf said: “What makes this so funny is nobody complained in class!”

She had volunteered to lead the free sessions held twice a year, during the fall and winter semesters. Scharf said the classes were often “packed”, sometimes with between 40 and 50 students attending. And the feedback she received was always “positive”.

While the centre did not announce cancellation of the class, it did place it under review. That decision attracted much criticism and mockery across Canada, though the centre has not ruled out reintroducing the classes in January.

While the CSD did not respond to a request for comment, it said in a Facebook post that “no one attended the classes this year (.) It’s why they were paused.”

Scharf said the onus on promoting the classes were on the CSD and when it did so, as was the case last year, it proved “very popular”.

Meanwhile, in the face of growing ridicule, the University of Ottawa announced it was “not ending free yoga” and pointed to a series of classes in December on campus that all students can avail of.

Scharf said she had reached out to the CSD: “I’m trying to be reasonable. Let’s put this behind us.” For now, she hasn’t received a response.

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