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By: Annie Mills

Yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf had been offering free weekly yoga instruction at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Students with Disabilities for the past seven years. 60 students were enrolled, with and without disabilities, to take part in this year’s class. That is, until Scharf received notice in September that the class had been suspended. The rationale from the centre was that yoga had become too controversial due to “how it is being practiced” in regards to cultural appropriation.  In response, Scharf offered to change the name of her class to “mindful stretching,” but in the end, the class was cancelled regardless.

There is no doubt in my mind that the practice of yoga has been culturally appropriated. Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture, often historically the oppressor, borrows elements of a marginalized, historically oppressed culture without considering its cultural significance. Yoga is a practice that millions of Westerners now turn to as a means of improving their health, wellness and fitness. It is a trendy, commercialized practice, and is now a multi-billion dollar (Westernized) industry. Between out-of-my-price-range elitist yoga studios and stylish Lululemon yoga apparel, it appears that yoga has transformed from an up-and-coming “exotic” practice to a mainstream fitness regime. This has completely erased the cultural significance of yoga and its history.

It is part of a disturbing trend of the significant practices and symbols of marginalized cultures being tweaked into something considered trendy and fashionable. Examples include the prevalence of First Nations headdresses in the fashion industry, celebrity Selena Gomez donning a bindi in concert and Kendall Jenner putting her hair in cornrows. Yoga is a prime example. It has been misrepresented and altered in Western society, illustrating the power imbalance that exists between those who have wealth and privilege, and those who have been marginalized. The cultural rights of those who practice yoga are not being respected, and this cannot be ignored.

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Yes, yoga has been culturally appropriated; however, here comes the infamous “but.”

Defending yoga against desecration is one thing, but halting the benefits it incurs is another thing entirely.

Yoga has transformed from an up-and-coming “exotic” practice to a mainstream fitness regime.

Suspending a free yoga class provided to students with disabilities is not an effective means of addressing the cultural appropriation of the practice of yoga as a whole. While it is crucial that the commercialization and misrepresentation of yoga be addressed, stopping its practice by westerners altogether only serves to further misconstrue its true purpose. Yoga was globalized before the practice became a multi-billion-dollar industry. In its fundamental form, yoga was originally intended to prepare one’s mind and body for unity with the spirit, and to liberate a person from every worldly attachment, and ultimately attain enlightenment. While significant to religious worship such as Hinduism, yoga was not necessarily meant to be an exclusive practice. While some are thrilled at yoga’s newfound popularity, not all Hindus are as content with the practice of yoga in the West. The Take Back Yoga movement is speaking out against the commercialization of yoga. It aims to bring to light yoga’s Hindu roots, and convey the underlying meaning and philosophy of yoga that they feel are being lost.

Clearly this appropriation needs to be addressed. However, this cannot be accomplished through generalizations that treat all Western practices of yoga as identical. Instances of cultural appropriation are varied in nature and thus need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

In some instances, the appropriated practice may need to be stopped altogether; other cases need only be practiced in a more respectful, and educated manner. What is important is that we take into consideration the voice of those who feel something from their culture is being appropriated, and make changes accordingly. It is possible to do this by incorporating an educational aspect into non-religious yoga, where teachers explain the historical and religious roots of the practice.

Incorporating religious symbols and meditation is not necessarily positive, and in fact if practiced incorrectly, could lead to further cultural appropriation. Rather, mutual understanding and respect for the complex historical practice, and considering its lack of accessibility due to commercialization are positive steps towards allowing people to respectfully enjoy the practice.

The practice of yoga by Westerners does not need to be eradicated; it needs to be decolonized.

Photo Credits: Peninsula Pilates and Huffington Post

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