University Of Ottawa Shuts Down Yoga For Disabled Students Because Of “Colonialism”

After a recent series of e-mails from The Centre for Students With Disabilities at The University of Ottawa, yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf was forced to shut down her yoga classes dedicated to disabled students. The e-mails expressed concern, stating that although her classes aimed to be inclusive, they could be considered cultural appropriation.

The email reads:

“I think that our centre agreed as a [whole,] that while yoga is a really great idea, accessible and great for students, that there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice. I have heard from a couple students and volunteers that feel uncomfortable with how we are doing yoga while we claim to be inclusive at the same time.”

Scharf expressed both frustration and concern at the emails, assuring them it was never her intention to claim spiritual leadership with her yoga teachings, but that it was for the sole purpose of providing exercise and stress relief. As an attempt at compromise, she even offered to rebrand the class under the name of “Stretching for Mental Health,” and felt strongly that pulling this class would be detrimental to many of her disabled students who had few other safe, effective exercise options.

Despite her attempts at compromise, the class was still canceled in order to make classes “more interesting, accessible, inclusive and responsive to the needs of students.”

Here’s the thing: there is absolutely an issue with Western re-branding of yoga that connects to cultural imperialism and appropriation (white people making a living from a stolen practice is a real problem and nothing new). But of all the yoga classes available that are taught by white instructors, it seems outright shitty that one of the few exercise programs at the University of Ottawa developed specifically for disabled people is taking a bullet for a larger issue. The fact that the instructor openly admitted it was purely about stretching and exercise, and was willing to rename it in order to continue the class for her students, shows that this was not the battle to be fought. In this case, yoga was the foundation template for an exercise class for people who have limited options.

There are tons of white people who call themselves yogis and are paid substantial money to spiritualize yoga, despite having grown up in a Western environment. But this woman is not one of that school. Protesting one yoga class – especially a class for another marginalized group – in an attempt to curb appropriation feels akin to making a smoothie for someone with a terminal illness: It’s a gesture, but it’s not even scratching the surface of the real problem.