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University Suspends Free Yoga Class Over "Cultural Issues"


November 24, 2015
by Susan Dutca-Lovell
 The University of Ottawa recently suspended their yoga class after students raised concerns that the exercises were offensive and a form of cultural appropriation. Instructor Jennifer Sharf, who teaches the class for free, feels people are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find. The Student Federation, who also happen to be the ones to invite Scharf to the university back in 2008, claim there are cultural issues of implication involved, and that many cultures that practice yoga have undergone oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy.

The University of Ottawa recently suspended their yoga class after students raised concerns that the exercises were offensive and a form of "cultural appropriation." Instructor Jennifer Sharf, who teaches the class for free, feels "people are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find." The Student Federation, who also happen to be the ones to invite Scharf to the university back in 2008, claim there are "cultural issues of implication involved," and that many cultures that practice yoga have undergone "oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy."

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After being told her yoga program would not return the following fall semester, Sharf offered the student body leaders a compromise by changing the name of the course to "mindful stretching," according to Fox News. No agreement was reached. Sharf told CBC News that, "I guess it was this cultural appropriation issue because yoga originally comes from India." According to Sharf, the class does not focus on the "finer points of Scripture" but rather examines the "basic physical awareness and how to stretch so that you feel good."

When you think of yoga, you may envision an extraordinarily fit thirty-something woman in designer yoga pants who goes to the yoga studio as part of a healthy physical regimen, but is that an overgeneralization? How did yoga make it into Western culture?

Though there is scarce literature and history on yoga, historians trace the earliest yoga practices to 3300-1500 BCE in ancient India. Originally, yoga was ostensibly used as a means to teach self-discipline and avoid any kind of over-indulgence. Later, yoga came to be known as spiritual/meditation practice, a critical ingredient in the pursuit of enlightenment. Different schools of yoga emerged during the medieval era and taught either spiritual atonement or self-deification.

However, by the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, yoga became less about enlightenment and religion, at least in North America. Westerners began to focus on yoga that removes excess thought from the mind by focusing on a single thought, often using a particular word or phrase to aid them. Earlier 20th century yoga was predominantly taught by Indian instructors, and by the 1980s Americans began seeing the significant health benefits, both physical and mental and used yoga as means to basic, overall personal health rather than transcendence or indeed, nirvana.

In the last 15 years, the practice has increased more than fivefold and offers myriad benefits that can help counter what has become an epidemic in North America; one of sedentary living and overconsumption of fast food, television and movies.

Should Sharf be able to teach her free yoga classes, despite the clamor from offended students? Can yoga courses be more culturally-sensitive? Leave us your insightful comments below.

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ish mu  on  12/10/2015 2:52:41 PM commented:

Let the Teaching continue, and the very persons that lack a good understanding, perhaps they may take a class and invite more Yoga teachers, because everyone will be so in balance within their wholeness in the universe and want to share that new energy released due to their YOGA practice. NAMASTE !

ish Mu  on  12/10/2015 2:46:30 PM commented:

the comments that Yoga practice is offensive, were probably made by and uneducated person. When one makes an observation and only sees what they want, or go with strict rules or practices that have been past down to them generation to generation. That comment is easy to understand. Yoga, fortunately is a Whole Body practice. We Yogis strive to open our mind, bodies and spirits. Enriching ourselves with the energy from the universe and within. All human beings can benefit from YOGA practice, both meditation and physical exercises. When your Chi flows freely and you energize your Chakras, you won't have time to contemplate on NEGATIVE thoughts or practice NEGATIVE actions. NAMASTE !

night nurse  on  12/10/2015 4:33:48 AM commented:

how ridiculous! what is wrong with people

Swami S  on  12/4/2015 12:17:47 AM commented:

Claudia C. on 11/24/2015 3:18:26 PM commented: >>Yoga falls deep into Indian culture, and it is without a doubt religious.<< So does than mean you can only teach a religious subject if you believe in it yourself? So my teacher shouldn't be teaching me anything about anything religious if she doesn't believe in it? Amazing - I'm going to complain that she is culturally appropriating and get her kicked out, then I'll have more time to stay home, eat junk food. I could also practice some yoga. Hang on a mo, can I actually practice yoga if I don't believe in the religiousness of it? Oh I'm so confused.

Victoria D.  on  12/2/2015 1:57:52 PM commented:

In my perspective, she can continue teaching her yoga class. Is her class harming anyone? No. I do not understand why people have to argue and complain about so ridiculous that they have to cancel a yoga class because it was offensive and a form of an "cultural appropriation." Really? I think that it is an poor excuse to ban something that does not even harm anyone.

Ann R.  on  12/2/2015 11:08:07 AM commented:

This is a yoga class, not a debate class. It offers physical exercise. Yoga has been taught for many years and I don't see how it can be culturally offensive. I think people just want to find something to complain about and make the wording sound politically correct so they can ruin it for other people. If they don't like it or are offended then don't go.

Kirill Neko  on  12/2/2015 10:53:14 AM commented:

"oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy." What? Okay, "cultural appropriation"-people, let's thinks about it in you terms: if that's "Not okay" for whites to wore a feather headgear, or cloths of "other" nations, then stop appropriating White as culture as well - wore your culturally appropriate cloths and use technologies develops only by YOUR culture and nations. ... but no one wants to think the obvious. Base line is: no one should care. Unfortunately - and looking at sh_tstorm on campuses, Western civilization is going extinct: culturally and intellectually, since those crybabies are the next generation on politicians, workers and scientists. "It was fun while it lasted" is appropriate to say here.

Judy D  on  12/1/2015 9:12:55 PM commented:

I am Christian by nature. I was raised Catholic. I do yoga regularly, and I find it is always about being in the moment. None of the practices I have been involved in force a faith on anyone. I think they should continue to offer the classes and anyone that disapproves does not need to attend.

Linda R  on  12/1/2015 7:18:09 PM commented:

Everyone should have a choice to practice stress relieving activities so long as they are adhering to the certification requirements for that particular group activity. I think it's a blessing to have options for any type of exercise regimen on college campuses.

Person A  on  12/1/2015 4:32:11 PM commented:

I think the students who were offended should go screw themselves. This is a great example of how the PC culture is ridiculous and shows that people get offended by anything nowadays. If you don't like it, don't take advantage of it.

Chelsea k  on  11/30/2015 3:55:40 PM commented:

Of course she should be able to teach it. If there is a cultural faction that is getting offended then I am sorry. But he physicall benefits are something that should not be denied to college students under their amount of stress. The fact that something that started in India is now practiced around the world should be a good thing. Yoga is accomplishing what it set out to do. It is making people more mentally and physically sound. If more people can reach that state in the embrace of yoga then why should they be prosecuted.

Chan B.  on  11/27/2015 9:46:52 AM commented:

I feel like today's generation is so motivated to make their voices heard and establish peace in society, which often leads them to demonstrate how passionate they are about the issue by acting upon it. However, I believe that if they truly want to achieve peace, these "Social Justice Warriors" should stop blowing up minuscule situations, looking for the negative in EVERYTHING to try to make a point. My school has a yoga club and students love it because it teaches them how to relieve the stress that comes from school through this practice. Nothing offensive in that; rather, it's very helpful. The solution is simple: if you don't like something, or if it offends you, don't get involved with it. I feel like society is being torn apart rather than being united by these types of people.

yoga. a  on  11/26/2015 11:24:34 AM commented:

I am still trying to figure out how this yoga class had anything to do with imperialism. On the other hand, practicing this beautiful discipline is a celebration of a great culture, a continuation of a tradition and acknowledging that the Western world does not have all the answers. These people who protested against this class just have nothing better to do and are not any better than the western supremacy they are protesting against.

Rebecca P  on  11/25/2015 4:03:03 PM commented:

Sharf is offering a free service intending to share her version of yoga with others. She shouldn't have to stop giving her services because a group of people feel offended by it. It's okay to have different feelings about something, but recently people have been voicing their opinions and taking action before thinking about the other side of the argument. In this case, the offended students should just try a different yoga class and let the people who enjoy it to continue their classes.

Alexis M  on  11/25/2015 4:02:30 PM commented:

No matter what you do in life there will always be someone who disagrees with what you do but, that doesn't mean you go and get someone's job taken away because what they're doing offends you. People will find anything anymore to say "I'm offended by this and I won't be okay until it stops" when in reality it doesn't bother them at all, they just want something to complain about. This being so, the yoga class should not of been cancelled because I'm sure there were people in that class who enjoyed it. People who don't agree with it can drop the class and find something that doesn't offend them in any way.

Gisell R  on  11/25/2015 8:14:59 AM commented:

I believe that in everything we do , we can possibly offend someone. It's ok to be against something but things shouldn't cost someone their job. All these kinds a things can be defended by the first amendment. She has the freedom to express her self and express something that might have originated from religion or culture. If anyone is against it they should just refrain from it and let the people who feel comfortable with it continue.

Anastasia C  on  11/25/2015 8:07:29 AM commented:

It was a free yoga class, no one HAD to go. If you didn't like the class don't go, but don't take it away from everyone else that enjoyed it.

Debbie H  on  11/25/2015 7:43:18 AM commented:

Yes, Sharf should be able to continue to teach her free classes. From my perspective the benefits of yoga outweigh this association being made between it and social injustice. On the contrary many yoga instructors are using their practice and love of yoga to address and lessen social injustices. I have heard critics of yoga but this is the first time I have heard of this. Seems a far reach.

Tiffany s  on  11/25/2015 5:57:29 AM commented:

We need more classes like that. It helps me to get focused on getting through the day.

ß Æ  on  11/25/2015 2:09:59 AM commented:

I do not find anything wrong with yoga. I believe it's great to have it on campus because it can help in many ways . For example, yoga can be a stress reliever. With all the pressure and stress college students go through I believe it can help them . I do believe that the teacher somehow should have taught the meaning of yoga because it isn't only a 'class' but it is also part of a culture and others see it as a religion. I alsp believe an Indian or anyone else who knows about yoga should have taught this class to feed the students minds with knowledge of yoga or to those who want to expand their minds and culture & to learn about the beauties of our own world . Yoga is such a great excercise , in my own opinion.

Victoria L  on  11/25/2015 12:01:26 AM commented:

There is a huge difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. I think people need to learn the difference instead of just yelling things they heard from social justice warriors on Twitter and assuming they're right.

A. Person  on  11/24/2015 10:24:48 PM commented:

This age group is so liberally anti racist it's become prejudice.... There are way bigger problems in the world then fake culture. If she can't have fake yoga then Chinese restaurants can't have fortune cookies because they're not Chinese.

A. Person  on  11/24/2015 10:24:21 PM commented:

As a member of a minority people I can tell you that we don't need majorities being a big brother, let us hold our own heads high and take the stage to defend ourselves when we feel stepped on. You don't see us Hispanics ending companies like taco bell for making fake Mexican food, so I don't see why this lady can't have fake a yoga joint. Quit fixing things that aren't broke.

A. Person  on  11/24/2015 10:08:45 PM commented:

As a member of a minority people I can tell you that we don't need majorities being a big brother, let us hold our own heads high and take the stage to defend ourselves when we feel stepped on. You don't see us Hispanics ending companies like taco bell for making fake Mexican food, so I don't see why this lady can't have fake a yoga joint. Quit fixing things that aren't broke.

Grace G  on  11/24/2015 8:56:53 PM commented:

This is completely ridiculous to me and really goes to show how close minded some people to be. I am a Christian and do not feel the least bit uncomfortable practicing yoga. Yoga is good for your body and mind, and gives people the opportunity to relax while being active. Yoga also teaches skills that can help in day to day life. Coming from someone who struggles with anxiety the breathing exercises taught in my yoga classe has helped me subdue panic attacks. Yoga is overall very helpful and should not be banned.

Dwight S.  on  11/24/2015 7:35:53 PM commented:

Maybe if the yoga instructor offered participation trophies for those that take the classes the students wouldn't have been such hypersensitive babies about this. Seriously, though...if this is how things went down, the University of Ottawa is failing their students. When these kids graduate, they are going to face the cold, hard facts that the world doesn't care much about sparing their feelings.

Chrystal M.  on  11/24/2015 7:34:14 PM commented:

I personally think as a religious person, if the name of the course and course description offended you, then you shouldn't have taken the class in the first place. This world isn't going to conform to the one religion you support, it's way too diverse take a different class I'm sure there are plenty more to take, don't mess with someone's job because you can't be mindful of others personal thoughts

Ryan G  on  11/24/2015 7:06:29 PM commented:

The instructor should sue the offended parties for harassment. It's getting to the point where the complainers are interfering with her livelihood to make a statement. Even striking workers aren't allowed to prevent a business from operating.

Danielle E  on  11/24/2015 6:33:21 PM commented:

Yes she should be able to teach her free yoga class. There should be more people that want to an interest in their overall health of their body and mind. I am a 17 year old high school senior that goes to yoga classes with my 52 year old Mom. There will always be someone with negative comments , but that doesn't stop us.

Tony G  on  11/24/2015 5:53:32 PM commented:

OMG...when will it ever end? This notion of being "offended". Get over it for crying out loud.

Adrienne  on  11/24/2015 5:45:34 PM commented:

Applying for scholarship im im in school online with Kaplin University taking Hospitality Management

Lauren C  on  11/24/2015 5:35:32 PM commented:

I agree with the yoga instructor when she said everyone's just looking for a reason to be offended. If you don't agree with whatever someone else is doing and they're not hurting anyone, why bother saying anything? You'll rarely meet someone with the exact same beliefs and morals as you so you're bound to run into someone you don't agree with. Variety in beliefs and ways of living life is what gives each culture their beauty and, in America, we have the freedom to choose what culture or belief system we want to follow. Yoga can be seen as a religiously affiliated or just as an exercise. If it's not killing you or harming you in any way, leave it alone and let those who enjoy it, do it. No ones forcing you to do anything.

Sabrina B  on  11/24/2015 4:52:55 PM commented:

In my honest opinion I feel that Sharf should be able to host her free yoga class, students would go to the class to find ways to feel good. I'm almost positive people won't strictly take the class because of the cultural aspect of it. And obviously it's becoming more popular in North America so I think if people want to do yoga they should be able to do yoga without feeling like they are being culturally insensitive. Yoga isn't just for people of Indian decent it is a practice that everyone should be able to participate in no matter what culture you're part of.

Adrienne  on  11/24/2015 4:03:08 PM commented:

Applying for scholarship im im in school online with Kaplin University taking Hospitality Management

Charles B  on  11/24/2015 3:37:06 PM commented:

While in an open society people can express their views with no worries of retribution. My view is that this is an example of universities caving in to sophomoric, spoiled, obnoxious young people, my age. They are there to be exposed to the many disciplines, cultures, everything that in our 18, 19, 22 years we only see on computer, tv, etc or read about.. All through someone else's views. I'm here to expand my vision of what living a meaningful life is. That university is doing no service for these kids. ( And that's what we are...kids awkwardly learning how to be productive young men and women)

Ben Powell  on  11/24/2015 3:29:14 PM commented:

Feel like there is nothing wrong with the yoga class but in a way anyone could see as a bad thing if they didnt like the instructor and tryed to find any simple thing to get ride of her

Claudia C.  on  11/24/2015 3:18:26 PM commented:

I think the fact that she named her classes yoga but said that it only focused on strecthong was offensive in nitself. Yoga falls deep into Indian culture, and it is without a doubt religious. I feel that she shouldn't be the one teaching the class at all. A white woman who cares not about the people who created yoga or their plight should not teach a class about yoga. If anything, an Indian person who does has deep knowledge about the subject should be teaching it. That's the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. So, no, Ms. Sharf, people aren't looking for a reason to be offended. You are giving it to them.

Cornelius Fletcher  on  11/24/2015 2:56:13 PM commented:

It's unfortunate that such nonsense would stop a useful free service from being offered to students of their university. I feel sorry for the students and more sorry for the instructor. She even offered a reasonable compromise and they wouldn't accept it. I hope that we will stop being offended by everything because this is really making college students look bad.

Mary D.  on  11/24/2015 2:53:31 PM commented:

Reading this hurts me to the core. No topic comes without drama and political or spiritual criticism these days. Keeping hope for our children's generation or the world they are entering, gets harder and harder these days. Yoga is a place of peace and release from stress to strengthen mind and body. The teacher of this class must be beyond disappointed. What a shame!

AA  on  11/24/2015 2:46:53 PM commented:

If her methods effectively improves the people who participate in them then they should keep the class. The class is made to improve how u feel and if it's doing just that then why should it matter? Cultural things are constantly changing from the traditional methods, that is just apart of the world changing as a whole, every generation.

Adam U  on  11/24/2015 2:38:34 PM commented:

This is a bit of a joke. They are prohibiting an activity that supports physical wellbeing because it originated in a culture that was imperfect.

Nathaniel F.  on  11/24/2015 2:36:22 PM commented:

Anytime a minority voices concerns about feeling oppressed, the majority needs to stop and listen. If students found the classes insulting to their identity then it was right for the classes to be canceled. However, yoga should still be able to be taught, just in the context of the culture that it comes from. An Indian heritage class that incorporates yoga taught by an actual Indian person would be beneficial for Indian students and other races who want to appreciate the authentic, rich culture of India. No matter the context, it is always the burden of the majority to ensure the voice of the minority is heard and heeded, only then can different cultures interact and intermix in peace.

mikeisha m  on  11/24/2015 2:18:48 PM commented:

If you don't like yoga or say it's offending then don't sign up for the class I couldn't possibly see how you would be offended by working out?

Ricky G.  on  11/24/2015 2:18:35 PM commented:

Oh dear lord what have we become. Society is so sensitive to some of the littlest things nowadays. These people who protested this class remind me of a 5 year old child throwing a temper tantrum than any activist who can make a change for the better. If these people truly cared about the cause they were undertaking, then they would've tried to find a way to incorporate the original concepts of yoga back into class. It would not only allow students to relieve any stresses or pains that come from college life, but it would also enable them to learn about Indian culture, and how it impacts western society today. By saying that Western Culture has "genocided" any other culture, you say that the western culture is still the same as it was hundreds of years ago, which if you haven't noticed is absolutely false. Instead of focusing on how "evil" the "westerners" are, why not let us take a look on how other cultures have impacted us? Does anyone else think it's amazing how all of these cultures have been able to mesh without causing any serious problems between the people who practice them? The only people who're causing the ruckus and disrupting the peace between us are the so called "social justice warriors" who think they help us by undertaking these non-issues and abolishing such an innocent class. One could argue that these people openly support the segregation of cultures by doing this, as they obviously only want Indians to practice this tradition, instead if letting everyone else learn about it.

Anngie R.  on  11/24/2015 2:15:05 PM commented:

Yes. Yoga should definitely be a thing, I feel like nowadays people find the smallest things to get offended by. All I'm saying is that if you don't like yoga, you don't have to do it, but don't ruin it for others who do.

Joey Pocreva  on  11/24/2015 2:06:39 PM commented:

I am saddened that people crave attention this much that they will cause unrest and unnecessary turbulence because they want someone to pity them. It's yoga. This is crazy.

Paige H  on  11/24/2015 2:04:57 PM commented:

She should have every right to hold her class. Everyone these days are looking for an argument. The cultural in the United States have taken things from other cultures and changed them to our way of life. It's like saying China shouldn't have a McDonalds because it offends the United States culture.

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