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Margaret Wente

Is yoga culturally oppressive? That’s a stretch Add to ...

I never really got the hang of yoga. The only pose I can do without falling over is Downward Dog. I have always felt this to be a failing. Yoga makes you stronger, taller, thinner, calmer and more spiritually evolved. At least that’s the marketing pitch.

But now, yoga has fallen into disrepute. Critics say it’s just another form of cultural theft – a rip-off of an ancient religious and spiritual practice from people we have systematically oppressed.

University of Ottawa yoga class cancelled due to 'cultural sensitivity issues' (CTVNews Video)

Jennifer Scharf offers a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa. Or at least she did. The student union has cancelled the class while it holds consultations on how to make it more culturally sensitive. “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practised, and what practices from what cultures (which are often sacred spiritual practices) they are being taken from,” she was told in an e-mail from the school’s student federation. “Many of these cultures are cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy, and we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves and while practising yoga.”

The story spread at the speed of Twitter, attracting sarcastic comments from all over. Somebody suggested that we’d better rename Ottawa because the word was appropriated from the Algonquins. Someone else thinks we should give up algebra because it was invented in the Middle East.

It’s not just the U of O, though. The yoga debate has broken out all over. Many people are deeply upset that savage capitalism has turned yoga into a multibillion-dollar business opportunity. Today, there’s a yoga studio on every block. There’s hot yoga, pregnant yoga, kundalini yoga, even (yech) naked yoga. And, of course, there’s Lululemon, which has sold everyone in the world three pairs of yoga pants. (I am wearing one of them right now.)

They’re also upset that a practice invented by poor brown people has been colonized by rich white people. They have no idea where yoga came from, and they don’t care. They just want to have a yoga butt.

All of this has true believers tied up in knots. Last year Andrea MacDonald, a Canadian yoga practitioner in B.C., wrote an anguished blog about her decision to give up yoga because she realized she was one of the oppressors. “My analysis often failed to meaningfully address colonization and my participation in that oppressive system as a culturally appropriating, white yoga teacher,” she wrote.

Susanna Barkataki, a yoga teacher of Indian descent, is pissed off too. Western-style yoga, she writes, “highlights the power imbalance that remains between those who have access to wealth, an audience and privilege in contrast to those who have been historically marginalized.” She believes that those who offer yoga are, at the very least, duty-bound to create “safe spaces” for nonwhite, non-thin, non-flexible folks.

And this, from feminist blog XO Jane: “The romanticization of both ‘yoga’ … and India has created a heady mixture of appropriation and imperialism.”

Fears of cultural appropriation are everywhere today. Even eating Chinese or Mexican food can get you into trouble. In the online magazine Everyday Feminism, Rachel Kuo has a piece instructing us how to eat out in a non-imperial, culturally sensitive manner. “The dominant culture can try the food and love the food without ever having to experience oppression because of their consumption.” she criticizes. “Folks might love Mexican food, but not care about different issues such as labour equity and immigration policy that impact members from that community.”

Consider that the next time you’re hankering for a taco.

Fortunately, according to Ms. Kuo, these issues do not apply to European food – only to food created by non-white people. Which means that anyone can appropriate the cuisine of my forebears – sauerkraut and haggis, mainly – to their heart’s content. Not that anyone would want to.

Back at the U of O, Jennifer Scharf, the yoga instructor, hopes the yoga issue will eventually be resolved. She says she offered to rebrand the program as a “mindful stretching” class to soothe offended sensibilities. But her offer was rejected. It seems that no one could decide how to translate “mindful stretching” into French.

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