University of Ottawa cancels yoga class due to cultural appropriation

Nov 23, 2015 | News

Tabaret Hsall at the University of Ottawa. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Tabaret Hall at the University of Ottawa. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Martino

A free yoga class offered at the University of Ottawa has been cancelled over concerns about cultural appropriation by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO).

Students and alumni have been reacting to the federation’s abrupt cancellation of the class.

Madeline Smolarz, a University of Ottawa graduate and former executive with the  Students Association of Classical Studies took yoga during her undergraduate years and was baffled by the SFUO’s decision to cancel the class.

“I was confused why someone would choose to do this now. I also never heard anything negative at all from participants in the classes I took,” said Smolarz.

“I’m severely disappointed that what may be one small piece of joy in someone’s week is being taken away. I’ve never felt proud of the SFUO in general, and that sentiment continues beyond graduation. They don’t seem to think through the lasting impact of some of their actions – it’s as though they live in this closed-off bubble blinded to real student issues – and their chief concerns are benefits to them as a group, not the entire student body,” said Smolarz.

“This all comes from the SFUO’s own world view,” said fellow alumnus Michael Kelly.

“It isn’t like someone directly was offended. There was a thought about some larger concept of offending people and cultural appropriation that they themselves raised.”

“I’m touch and go with yoga. As long as you’re doing it respectfully, as it sounds this class was, then I’m fine with it. If it’s a novelty yoga class like Glow in the Dark yoga then I get unsure, but if it’s part of this yoga culture like the commercialization of yoga then I am not okay,” said third-year chemistry student Iden Djavani. 

Jen Scharf, the yoga instructor at the Centre for Students with Disabilities, told CBC news that she offered to change the name of her class when she was alerted it would be cancelled.

She said she did not want her class to offend and the intention was physical awareness.

Scharf said the class was cancelled after a long thread of e-mails between members of the federation concluded that a bilingual name for the class couldn’t be found.

Scharf was unable to speak with Humber News, but posted a status to her Facebook late Sunday night in response to some of the feedback she has received as a result of the incident.

The Washington Post obtained the e-mails between Scharf and federation representatives.

An unnamed representative cited the commercialization of yoga as well as “oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy” in the reasons why Scharf’s class could not be offered.

SFUO president Roméo Ahimakin told Radio-Canada the suspension of the yoga class was part of a federation-wide initiative to make programs more inclusive and accessible.

After multiple requests by Humber News, Ahimakin and the SFUO were unavailable for comment.

The Centre for Students with Disabilities website shows the yoga class is still active.

The University of Ottawa’s athletics program still offers yoga classes throughout the week, and a free yoga class on Parliament Hill runs Wednesday mornings from May to September every year.