Column: Take some calming breaths over yoga appropriation, people

Yoga classes have been long taught on university campuses as a way to help relieve stress and promote fitness. It’s completely insane for yoga to be labeled as cultural appropriation because institutionalized yoga classes are not designed to recontextualize Indian spiritual or religious beliefs in the western world.

The University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada has recently canceled its yoga classes because of concerns over cultural appropriation.

“I guess it was this cultural appropriation issue because yoga originally comes from India,” Jennifer Scharf, the university’s yoga instructor, said. She also offered to change the name of the course to “mindful stretching,” since her instructions don’t address Hindu religious practices, but to no avail.

Claiming something as being an appropriation of culture without considering the degree to which it is causing harm to a culture is not acceptable. There are real problems in the world with cultural appropriation, but this claim only proves that the concept is still not fully understood and, therefore, we should not be so eager to label it as such without further investigation.

“We believe that teaching yoga to campus students and respecting yoga’s roots is not intrinsically in conflict,” said Hindu American Foundation co-founder Dr. Aseem Shukla. “If a yoga teacher uses Sanskrit terms for asanas or if a teacher incorporates Hindu iconography as ‘cool’ accoutrements—all without a respectful understanding of their deep symbolism and meaning to Hindus—then we would agree with concerned students about the legitimate risks of exoticization and appropriation.”

This just isn’t the case on college campuses.

Taking a yoga class is meant to be a fun and easy way to dedicate time to learning how to stretch, breathe and focus on mind-body interactions. These classes usually provide students with an escape or rejuvenation from busy schedules.

Students also participate in practicing yoga apart from official classes all around campus. They do it in their favorite places on campus, places that provide them a sense of peace. There’s no escaping the presence of the practice of yoga.

It is highly unlikely that someone will confront an individual student’s practice as cultural appropriation because you can’t assume the circumstances of their practice, so why would a group of students do the same for an organized class?

Let’s think about it this way: we accuse people of cultural appropriation all the time, usually for legitimate concerns, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to take away every single thing just because an activity has roots in a different culture.

We shouldn’t be quick to assume the worst in someone’s actions unless you’re a part of the culture that someone is appropriating and you find it offensive.

Only then should you address the concern, at least at an individual level.

Cultural appropriation will likely never cease to exist, but that doesn’t mean we should take the matter to this extreme. 


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