If you’re confused why we’re asking this question, let us start with this quote from London-based social justice writer Reni Eddo-Lodge who recently wrote in The Guardian: It’s worth questioning why, over the years, the face of yoga has transformed into something that’s thin, white and blonde, paired with clean eating, and part of an aspirational lifestyle.
Students at the University of Ottawa think so too, which is why yoga classes offered at the school since 2008 by practitioner Jennifer Scharf were recently cancelled when a formal complaint was put forth, which read:
“While yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students…there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice. Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from”.
According to The Independent, “The email went on to say that because many of those cultures ‘have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy… we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga.'”
Scharf suggested her class be renamed “mindful stretching” but the Ottawa Student Federation, the university’s independent student body which shut down the classes originally, rejected this compromise. Right now the future of yoga at the university remains up in the air, much like the debate on whether its practice in Canada and the U.S. is a living, breathing example of cultural appropriation.
Nell Frizzell, who debated Eddo-Lodge in her opinion piece on The Guardian, stated she does sympathize with the appropriation opinion and is by no means a fan of the “prospect of yoga being relabelled ‘mindful stretching.'” Yet, she wrote, “for many, this is what yoga is – a little bit of bending.”
“Yoga is not necessarily a religious practice. Nor is it held in aspic. If, as for many, it catalyses an interest in the cultural, spiritual and historical movements that came together to create it then that’s lovely. If you decide to go on a yoga retreat to India and while there go and stay in an ashram and learn more about the unfathomable rules of dharma and karma, then that’s great. If you decide, after a few months of doing yoga down at your local Buddhist centre that you’d actually like to know more about the philosophy behind the yoga sutras, then I’m happy for you. But it is by no means culturally insensitive to go to a free yoga class just because it makes you feel better. Or because you like the bending.”
Because white people have been the face of the yoga-pilates resurgence in modern culture for so long, I think a lot of other races stayed away from it because they felt like it wasn’t something for them. That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily white people’s fault. And while Eddo-Lodge says it’s for that reason that she’ll take her “yogic lead from women like Jessamyn Stanley– fat, black, body-positive and the antithesis of the willowy white women Instagram club,” simply because Stanley is a minority and not a thin blonde doesn’t mean she’s fully tapped into the origin of this Ancient Indian practice intended to be an exercise of the mind, body, and spirit.
As with most topics brought up in the cultural appropriation debate, respect of tradition and acknowledgement that you are not the originator of said tradition go a long way. Most yoga instructors I’ve come across seem to get that. Now whether the same can be said about their students I’m not certain. As Eddo-Lodge noted in her piece, “Whether it’s used as a holier-than-thou tool, as a tactic to balance out excessive drug use, or practised similarly to its origins with the spirituality that comes with it, yoga flexed by slightly clueless white bodies is here to stay.”
Is that a problem?