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."
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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