A mind-bending act of political correctness by student leaders at the University of Ottawa has sparked an international backlash on social media.As reported by Errol McGihon of the Ottawa Sun, January 26, 2016:
Student leaders at the university have halted free yoga classes over concerns that its practice was not sufficiently sensitive to yoga’s cultural roots.
The decision earlier this fall meant that about 60 students in yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf’s weekly class lost out on the program, which had been offered through the university’s Centre for Students with Disabilities since 2008.
Scharf even offered to rebrand the program as a “mindful stretching” class to distance it from any controversy over cultural appropriation, but that idea was rejected because a suitable French translation of the phrase could not be reached.
The story became an international talking point when New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo retweeted it to his legion of followers, among them Canadian-born Conservative pundit David Frum.
“Yes, so unacceptable the way Indians appropriated European calisthenics to create modern yoga,” Frum tweeted, citing a story published by the online Yoga Journal that examined western influences on the yoga tradition.
Former New York Daily News columnist Bill Hammond tweeted that applying the same standard for cultural misappropriation would require the cancellation of university algebra courses — the branch of mathematics has its cultural roots in ancient Babylonia — along with jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, which evolved from the musical expression of African-Americans.
From Las Vegas, Doug Ritter tweeted that Ottawa itself is a name appropriated from native culture: It derives from an Algonquin word, adàwe, meaning “to trade.”
Popular U.S. blogger Matthew Yglesias, a Vox.com contributor and liberal writer, also tweeted about the controversy. “Universities shutting down yoga classes over cultural appropriation concerns seems like a great way to get conservatives into yoga,” he wrote.
Yglesias said he couldn’t understand “why cultural appropriation is bad or how stopping it would be feasible or desirable.”
In Britain, London’s Daily Mail newspaper published an online account of the U of O yoga controversy that attracted more than 285 comments, almost all of them expressing outrage. Reader Alesha Brandt was representative of the online reaction: “Someone got their yoga pants in a twist. How utterly full of PC crap.”
Acting student federation president Roméo Ahimakin could not be reached for comment Sunday.
He has said that the yoga program is on hiatus while consultations take place to make the class more accessible and inclusive: “We are trying to have those sessions done in a way in which students are aware of where the spiritual and cultural aspects come from, so that these sessions are done in a respectful manner.”
A video on the Centre for Students with Disabilities’ website continues to highlight the yoga service, which was suspended because of the ongoing debate about the “cultural issues” that surround it.
Also on the centre’s website is a description of its effort to create a safe space at the university. It highlights the complexity of the centre’s commitment to “challenge all forms of oppression.”
“We also acknowledge that ableism is not a siloed issue, but one that affects a variety of communities and individuals. In working to dismantle ableism, we also work to challenge all forms of oppression including, but not limited to, heterosexism, cissexism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, queerphobia, HIV-phobia, sex negativity, fatphobia, femme-phobia, misogyny, transmisogyny, racism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, sexism, and linguistic discrimination.”
Little more than two months ago, many — yogis and non-yogis alike — were outraged to hear that a yoga class at the University of Ottawa was cancelled. The problem wasn’t a lack of interest, the class’s teacher said. It was concerns yoga was taken from India, a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it.
For those enraged about political correctness and trigger warnings — and worried about free speech — on many university campuses, this appeared to be Exhibit A demonstrating that the youth of North America have gone crazy.
“Just take a semester at UOttawa, and you’ll have 100s of useless controversies thrown in your face,” one commenter wrote on the Facebook page of the campus group that canceled the class. “Oh yeah, and your tuition money pays for that.”
Now, it appears the controversial class is back on — with an Indian teacher, who is wondering if she was hired because of her race.
“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,” Priya Shah, the new teacher, told the CBC. “When I read [about it], I was kind of thinking ‘Did they hire me because I’m Indian?. . . I was born in Calgary, I grew up in Canada but my background is Indian and I’ve been there once before. I was there for about five months.”
She added: “There are many people in my family who practice but I’ve never had the thought that since I’m Indian that I’m a better yoga teacher.” (Shah did not return a request for comment from The Washington Post; the student group that previously cancelled the class was not immediately available for comment.)
In a blog post, ousted Caucasian teacher Jennifer Scharf, who taught the class for up to 60 people at the school, expressed her thoughts.
“I heard today that my old yoga class is back on,” she wrote. “Maybe since I called my foes ‘SJW’s’ [social justice warriors] 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.”
I have heard from a couple students and volunteers that feel uncomfortable with how we are doing yoga while we claim to be inclusive at the same time.
Scharf also said replacement Shah had been caught in the system. She added: “I do not care that someone was a jerk to me, it happens all the time, just please stop using other people in your ideological bullying!”
In November, Scharf told The Post she had taught a yoga class since 2008 through the school’s Centre for Students with Disabilities — part of the university’s Student Federation — until she got an email explaining it had been eighty-sixed.
“I think that our centre agreed … that while yoga is a really great idea, accessible and great for students, that there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” Scharf was told by a student group representative in an email. “I have heard from a couple students and volunteers that feel uncomfortable with how we are doing yoga while we claim to be inclusive at the same time.”
Not long after the story – which was widely shared on social media — exploded, the student group posted a statement saying the class would be back.
“We would like to stress the fact that the classes were not cancelled,” it read. “They were put on hold to allow the CSD to do proper consultation amongst themselves, with Service Centre users, and interested students at large, in order to provide better programming …. We are excited to reintroduce a program that is beneficial for the CSD service-users, in the Winter semester.”
Scharf is not looking back.
“I already have other classes that I teach,” she told the CBC. “I’m writing a book. I’ve got a lot of outreach work I do in the community …. I wouldn’t say I need this class. I would love to teach it again but if they’re happier with someone else, what I care about is the class happening.”