Yoga instructor surprised replacement unaware of ‘cultural appropriation brouhaha’


[University of Ottawa’s student union has reinstated its yoga classes after initially cancelling them over concerns of cultural appropriations/Molly Shea]

The woman who had her University of Ottawa yoga class cancelled over concerns about cultural appropriation is surprised her replacement, an Indian-Canadian instructor, knew nothing about the controversy.

Jennifer Scharf, in a blog posted on Sunday, responded to a media report that the class she had been teaching for seven years at the school’s student centre has been reinstated.

“I heard today that my old yoga class is back on,” Scharf wrote. “Maybe since I called my foes ‘SJW’s’ and then refused to speak the word ‘intersectionality’ with people who don’t even have a cursory understanding of the term, the student centre has decided to hire a teacher of South Indian descent.”

Scharf told Yahoo Canada News that she was shocked that new yoga instructor Priya Shah was not informed of the cultural appropriation brouhaha before she was hired on by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO).

“How can you not tell her about what happened?” Scharf asked.

Shah, who declined an interview, told reporters she had no idea about the controversy before she accepted the job.

“Nothing was brought to my attention to teach in a different way or do something differently than the other instructor because none of that was really mentioned to me,” she told CBC News. “When I read [about it], I was kind of thinking ‘Did they hire me because I’m Indian?’”

Scharf, who said she had no regrets and lived too amazing a life to hold on to negative feelings about the situation, added that she has reached out to Shah several times to extend her compassion, but has not received any response.

“A lot of people have tried to speak from a position of authority on yoga when maybe they don’t have the credentials for that,” she said. “Which is kind of what happened with the students [SFUO]. They took a position of advocacy for yoga without realizing that you can’t do that to a person who is practising respectfully.”

In November, Scharf told an Ottawa Sun reporter that she learned in September her yoga class had been cancelled over concerns of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation — a hot button topic on campuses and in social justice circles — refers to the adoption or exploitation of elements of one culture by members of another culture.

A volunteer yoga teacher, Scharf had been leading the free class for students with disabilities at the University of Ottawa since 2008.

The University of Ottawa’s Centre for Students with Disabilities, run by the student union, initially acknowledged that “cultural issues” were the primary concern, telling the Sun in an email:

“While yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice. [Some cultures] 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.“

Less than a week later, the Sun reported that the student group had changed course and had released a statement attributing the cancellation to declining attendance and a need to “ensure that students’ money and resources was being used in a responsible and efficient way.”

No one from the SFUO or the Centre for Students with Disabilities responded to requests for comment.

Soon after it was published, the original Sun report went viral resulting in dozens of articles, editorials and blog posts about the boundary between cultural appropriation and appreciation, with most scathingly critical of the student union’s decision to end Scharf’s classes.

Jaswir Dhillon, a British Columbia-based yoga instructor and environmental engineer, said she wrote her editorial — No, yoga is not cultural appropriation — after she felt “triggered” by the SFUO’s initial statement referencing “cultural issues.”

“What does practising yoga have to do with my culture, because I don’t see it,” she told Yahoo Canada News.

“I see yoga as a way for everyone, Indian or not, to gain some peace within yourself. It doesn’t belong to the Indians. Sure it may have originated from India, but the way I was brought up in my culture, if you have really something good it’s your responsibility to share it as widely as you can.”

On social media this week, reaction to the reinstatement of the yoga class was nearly as derisive as reaction to its cancellation.

Some condemned the entire situation as “political correctness run amok,” while others expressed concern that the concept of cultural appropriation was itself being trivialized by the debate.

“Ppl who complained about cultural appropriation in yoga need to learn what cultural appropriation actually means #IgnorantOutrage,” tweeted Algonquin Times reporter Dave Hobbs.

“PSA for non-Indians,” wrote blogger Venkatesh Rao on Twitter. “Ottawa lefties arguing yoga is appropriation have unlikely ally: far-right Indian wingnut fringe argues the same.”

Jeremy Nuttall, Parliament Hill reporter for The Tyee, also weighed in on the news.

“This is such a stereotypical white answer to a problem that didn’t exist.”