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CC, Amanda Mills

Yoga teacher says suspension came from concerns of cultural appropriation

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) is at the center of a social media firestorm resulting from the suspension of an on-campus yoga program.

Yoga teacher says classes cut because of cultural appropriation

Jennifer Scharf, who taught the program, claimed that the program was cancelled over concerns of “cultural appropriation” brought on by the complaints of one student. The program, which was designed for students with disabilities, had 60 members and was free. She said she was told in email correspondence with the SFUO-run Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) that “there are cultural issues and implications involved in the process; (they’ve) heard from a couple students and volunteers that feel uncomfortable.”

“It turned out to be one person who basically had a chip on their shoulder and was stonewalling everybody,” she said.

In a Facebook post on Nov. 25, the SFUO stated that they never indicated that cultural appropriation was a reason for suspending the program in their interview with the Ottawa Sun.

“Never did the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa, or the Centre for Students with Disabilities, release the statements around cultural appropriation to the Ottawa Sun in the interview that we had with them on November 19th,” reads the post.

The SFUO continued that the statements used in the Sun’s article came from old emails between the CSD and Scharf, and misrepresented their message.

“These emails, we would like to highlight, are outdated and have led to a lot of miscommunication about our program,” wrote the SFUO. “The statements quoted by the Ottawa Sun were a small-misrepresented message out of a larger conversation around the program.”

“We understand that cultural appropriation in popular media has been talked about with yoga, but that is not the main focus of this,” said Nicole Maylor, vice-president equity of the SFUO, in an interview with the Fulcrum.

The term “cultural appropriation” refers to situations where elements considered to be specific to a certain culture are adopted by another culture, especially if that culture is deemed the “oppressor”. There have been concerns that the widespread adoption of yoga in the West from its origins in South Asia is a form of cultural appropriation.

Class to return in January

The SFUO says the classes were never cancelled but are just under review. “The yoga classes were never cancelled, never did we say they were cancelled, they were put on hold,” said Roméo Ahimakin, vice-president services and communications of the SFUO.

Maylor said that the program had not been up for review since its formation in 2008, and that all programs are eventually put under review to ensure quality. “As a responsible student union, we need to do our due diligence to re-evaluate the programming… to fit in with the mandate of the centre.”

She said that the CSD is currently reviewing comments from users to improve the program as part of a “holistic approach” to make it more inclusive. Ahimakin said that they were looking at all aspects of the program, including the physical aspect itself.

In their Facebook post, the SFUO said that one reason for the review was concerns that the program was not fully “serving the needs of students with disabilities namely, students with physical disabilities and mobility issues.”

Another issue the raised in the post was declining attendance in the program. In her interview with the the Fulcrum, Scharf said falling participation rates rested on the SFUO. “The interest in the class simply depends on  the promotion of the activity, which (the SFUO) were refusing to do for dubious reasons,” she said.

Maylor said the CSD chose to suspend the program in September.“That decision was made by the (CSD), just to open a process in which they could have feedback from the students, so they could present a program that is more inclusive,” she said.

Scharf says she was not informed that the program would return in the future. “There wasn’t even a door left open,” she said. “When I got the final cancellation notice… they didn’t even have the courtesy to email me directly.”

“I’m starting to get upset that now these not true things are getting said by the federation, and it’s making me wonder why I had been so kind to these people when they are now trying to disrespect my practice.”

Ahimakin responded that the SFUO appreciated the program. “The program has done wonders on campus,” said Ahimakin. As for Scharf’s instruction of the class, “(the SFUO) are so thankful for the work that she’s been able to do, the time and dedication she’s been putting into the program.”

Internet backlash

The Ottawa Sun broke the story on Nov. 20, and news outlets around the world picked it up. These outlets include the British Daily Mail, the Independent, the Guardian, as well as America’s Fox News and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. The University of Ottawa was also a trending topic on Facebook in Ottawa as a result of the story.

The coverage was followed by immediate backlash on social media, as people derided the SFUO for allegedly cancelling yoga classes over the issue of cultural appropriation.

Some papers have also said the university made the decision to suspend the yoga classes, however the University of Ottawa has distanced itself from the issue, saying in a tweet that “The decision to cancel a yoga class at #uOttawa was made by the Student Federation.”

Some papers wrote that the yoga program had been cancelled,  however Ahimakin maintains the classes were never cancelled, and will be back in January. “We read reports saying the program was cancelled and we were really surprised, never did anyone release any information saying it was cancelled,” said Ahimakin.

The SFUO echoed his sentiment in their Facebook post.

“The CSD in no way thought that suspending this program for the semester with the intention of improving it for a January return would cause this much uproar. Let us please revaluate this conversation and have a more conducive dialogue around how to make our campuses more accessible to those who do not feel safe.”