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Uproar After College Yoga Class Canceled For ‘Cultural Appropriation’ – Have They/We Gone Too Far?

in YD News, Yoga Pop
Wanderlust, one of the biggest yoga festivals keeps growing - an example of yoga's popularity on the rise. | photo credit: Ali Kaukas

Wanderlust, one of the biggest yoga festivals in North America, keeps growing – one example of yoga’s popularity on the rise. | photo credit: Ali Kaukas

Yoga controversies seem so rampant you’d think Kanye was behind them. Or at least Kim. The latest brush with trouble comes from Ottawa, Canada on the subject of cultural appropriation – a hot (and quite necessary) topic as of late. If you’re just tuning in, the controversy involves a free University of Ottawa yoga class getting shut down at the school’s Centre for Students with Disabilities over concerns it was perpetuating “cultural appropriation.”

The Ottawa Sun first reported on the news:

The centre goes on to say, “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.”

The centre official argues since many of those 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.”

And it has since caught on like wildfire with major news outlets picking up the story along with online yogis bickering about it on the internets. But that’s not surprising. It’s a frustrating topic if not mostly because it’s such a complicated one. When we talk about cultural appropriation this typically pertains to the borrowing of another culture’s symbols and customs and adopting them without any regard (or respect) for their origins. But this also has to do with power, because the culture being pillaged is defined as a marginalized minority, while the the borrowers are the dominant majority.

Is the dominant culture, in this case the West, essentially stealing yoga as their own and thereby culturally appropriating it? The West is certainly capitalizing on yoga, but how far is too far? According to Michelle Goldberg (author of a new book on Indra Devi, ‘”goddess of modern yoga“) we’re all being a bit naive about the whole thing. In her recent article for Slate (a highly recommended read), Goldberg points out that if we forget about the history of India’s yoga we’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

Back then, Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism. Britain’s colonial administrators tended to be contemptuous of Indian religion; indeed, they treated the purported backwardness of Indian thought and culture as justification for their continued rule. Indian nationalists believed, rightly, that if they could popularize their spiritual practices in the West, they would win support for independence.

Thus nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s. “By preaching the profound secrets of the Vedanta religion in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ever the position of their teacher in spiritual matters, and they will remain our teachers in all material concerns,” Vivekananda wrote to a journalist friend.

Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga, published in 1896, became a best-seller and had a lasting impact on American culture. One small example: Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, heard Vivekananda speak in Chicago and was deeply moved; Baum’s biographer Evan I. Schwartz argues that the quests of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are allegories for the four yogic paths that Vivekananda elaborated.

What we know as modern yoga is just as much a hot topic as how/if/why we’re appropriating it. Today, we see yoga seeping into everything from Kevin Smith’s new movie, to Christina Aguilera’s new album, to car advertising, to the Super Bowl, to the Emmys, and lots of other examples of YogaPop(culture). There are millions of people practicing yoga in the West and that only seems to keep increasing due to the (mostly good) press it’s been receiving (about improving overall health, not just celebriyogi endorsements).

Not that all of this is wrong, but if people are getting attacked for Hindu goddess tattoos, and Urban Outfitters is offending people with their Ganesh socks and yoga pants, this is not something we hope will be ignored by the yoga practicing population, or used for culture-bashing fuel or self-righteous crusading. This goes for the entire world. (See: International Yoga Day controversy.)

“People are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find,” said Jennifer Scharf, the teacher of the Ottawa class told the Ottawa Sun. ”There’s a real divide between reasonable people and those people just looking to jump on a bandwagon. And unfortunately, it ends up with good people getting punished for doing good things,” she said.

Though we feel bad for the people missing out on the yoga class in Ottawa, the positive side we see to this controversy is the ongoing conversation, because in talking about it maybe we will actually reach a better collective understanding. It’s not productive to continue on in a yoga vacuum or isolated bubble, especially if that bubble is already absorbing other culturally-distinct bubbles. We can look to the historians and scholars for guidance on origins and historical facts, but on a more personal level, we can also use this opportunity to ask ourselves if the decisions and statements we’re making are appropriate or appropriating. There’s a big mirror being held up right now…what do we see?

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12 comments… add one

  • S.

    This is a tough one, but I have to side with the basic civil rights to teach misappropriated yoga vs. outright censorship based on fear someone may be the victim of “microagression.” Last time I checked, the US and Canada have laws protecting free speech, religion, and right of assembly. On a side note, she was teaching disabled students for free for 8 years. Much more refreshing than someone charging $4000 to do a teacher training…one month after they completed their $4000 hour teacher training.

    The deeper question is how did we as a community let Yoga get to the point where it could be so easily targeted by social justice warriors for cultural misappropriation? (cough Yoga Alliance) (cough)

  • K

    I think this discussion is a valuable one and I don’t mean to imply cultural appropriation doesn’t happen or doesn’t matter,,, but while sure the west HAS modified what most of us call yoga, I don’t think most yoga teachers are pretending it’s “theirs” versus a tradition from India. Even yoga sculpt – which everyone loves to hate, most likely without ever going to a class – names yoga as a root of the physical practice. Isn’t Pilates, for instance, more of a cultural appropriation for supposedly taking the spirituality out of yoga and giving it a new name?

  • k4k

    This article gave no real context for the action shutting down the yoga class. Therefore it seems, quite frankly, cruel to deprive people with disabilities of a practice that may be healing and enjoyable. What could possibly justify that?

  • The cultural approbation of yoga is no more valid than to say that jazz solely belongs to Americans, in fact, African Americans. We are all one, or should be. It’s so funny that Urban Outfitters got singled out for their socks. I remember a few years ago that were selling a Jesus Action Figure.

    I don’t see much transcendence or liberation in folks being offended. When people become this defensive it simply shows their lack of confidence in their spiritual path or religion.

  • John

    “Modern” yoga is all about cultural appropriation. A small group of Hindus back near the start of the last century hit on appropriating Scandinavian gymnastics, colonial school exercise routines, “new thought” philosophy, European nationalism (applied to India) and European and American physical culture and combining it with esoteric practices appropriated from Indian sects previously disdained as “only interested in physical development” and calling the whole thing “yoga”. They then enthusiastically marketed it across the globe as an unchanged ancient practice, complete with snake oil health claims, celebrity endorsement, and self help pseudo philosophy.

    Given one of their goals was to use it as part of creating a national identity for an independent India of which they would be in charge I can understand it’s not in the spirit of their work to modify practice in light of medical advances, never mind let lower caste Indians, foreigners, women, or even (heaven forbid) Muslims teach.

    Just as the citizens of modern India, a nuclear power with global influence, are careful to recognise the Greek origin of their democracy, the British origin of their national sports, and all the various foreign traditions their daily dress, food, work, homes, and entertainment draw from so as to avoid microagression and cultural appropriation so we should revert entirely to only practicing yoga in the way krisnamacharya’s gymnastic display troupes did

  • Asananine

    This strikes me as a simple case of academic authoritarianism. I have read many online comments by native Hindus related to this news story. They all seem to express pride that yoga has taken hold in the West. Admittedly, this is a random sample, but it raises the question of what agency those protesting against the class have to speak on behalf of an entire culture? Seems to me it is less a case of cultural appropriation than of cultural misrepresentation.

  • MY YOGA IS BETTER THAN YOUR YOGA

    Some of you commentators don’t know squat about civil rights — and that is probably even less than you pretend to know about yoga.

    No public or private institution is COMPELLED to propagate yoga. Spiritual megalomania is not a civil right. If you think preserving an existing yoga class is a “right,” it only goes to show what a true yoga fascist you’ve become.

    My long-distance, completely unsolicited, suggestion:

    After 7 years of the same insufferable class and the same insufferable teacher, simply on grounds of 1) novelty, 2) greater openness, 3) spiritual pluralism, and 4) common sense, the school should replace the class with…

    Tai-Chi or QiQong or some other interesting and healthy spiritual modality which UNLIKE YOGA involves:

    1) students of ALL genders, races, ethnicities, ages, and body sizes, in a spirit of love and joy, with none of the competition and commercialism, codependency and brain-washing, and outright vampirism, of today’s yoga (and much of yesterday’s, too)

    2) teachers that aren’t so utterly starved for status and recognition that they have to pretend to be “goddesses” and “priestesses” so that someone, anyone, will finally truly love them (“I’m ready for my close-up Mister Friend, Mister Choudhury, Mister fill-in-the blank, my long last Daddy – or Mommy”)

    Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?

    Consider this, in the very bowels of Yoga, Inc. — Canada — home to the industry’s corporate flagship, Lululemon, the great spiritual unwashed are finally saying:

    NO, ENOUGH OF YOU WEIRDOS

    Remember the earlier conflict in Vancouver where the mayor tried to enforce a Yoga Day and shut down traffic on the bridge, and the city rebelled and she withdrew the entire event and retreated to obscurity.

    That was the first great NO. This is the second great NO. (Or maybe the third. The Washington, DC city council’s successful push-back against DC yoga’s attempt to declare itself exempt from local taxation was another).

    Amazing, some people are finally telling yoga’s pagan flower children NOOOOOOOOOOO. No, boys and girls, NO.

    You’ve heard of the POWER OF YES? This is the POWER OF NO.

    William Broad warned the entire yoga movement three years ago to “grow up” — change your ethos, learn to serve something and someone other than yourselves, and forge new structures of collective accountability. And guess what — you haven’t done that.

    So, now, in the heartland, you’re starting to be told: GET LOST. BYE BYE.

    Hey, guys, adapt — or die. It’s the choice every living organism faces if it wants to avoid extinction.

  • John

    Any one who had done any tai chi or chikung would know that the people involved are even worse than the yoga mob, and an equivalent of singleton is long over due. At least the yogis don’t claim imagining energy travelling round your body turns you into an invincible fighter.

    There are good tai chi/chi Kung teachers, of course, just like there are good yoga teachers, in about the same percentage, but tai chi and chi Kung are extremely boring, so less popular, so the number of good teachers is even smaller

  • Asananine

    If you are pretending to know about “Tai-Chi or QiQong”, at least spell them correctly.
    It is Tai Chi and Qigong. While there are alternative spellings, none of them are the way you have done.

  • k4k

    Dear “My Yoga is Better…”
    Simply, why so hostile? There are thousands of great yoga teachers and classes out there. Yes, there are also the bad ones. Go to a good one. Or not. Your choice. What’s the problem? Why make that a problem for everyone else?

  • MY YOGA IS BETTER THAN YOUR YOGA

    Exactly my point. So why complain if a sponsoring body decides that a class it supported no longer serves any useful purpose — for any reason. It’s up to them. Why all this defensiveness when ramming yoga down someone’s throat repeatedly finally leads them to barf it up, and demand something better for themselves? You’ve had a class there for 7 years. It’s not a government sinecure. It’s called consumer freedom. And for yoga, it’s called growing up. Yoga’s undoubtedly great for some who have no other path to spiritual formation — and really shitty and stupid and irrelevant for others. Get over it. Stop telling institutions what to do with their space, time and money.

  • Jake Frederick

    What is the main philosophy of Yoga? Yoga itself not what it was used by someone in the 1890′s. I ask because I don’t know. If it’s about health and being present and increasing body awareness how could that possibly belong to someone? This seems to be getting out of control. Elon Musk released patents because there wasn’t enough competition in his field. People need education not taboo to make their own personal conclusions and not have them dictated to them. The world seems to be getting to very dangerous concepts when someone can tell me that by practicing a healthy concept I am disrespecting other’s cultures to the point of shutting down the act. If you believe that Yoga is being disrespected that’s fine. If you stop a group from practicing Yoga because you believe they are being disrespectful that’s absurd.

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