Of Course Yoga is Cultural Appropriation: All Culture Is.

Canadian college pulls the mat out from under a free yoga class and unintentionally reveals truth about all activities.


Ottawa Sun

Via The Wall Street Journal comes this account from the Ottawa Sun about the University of Ottawa killing a free on-campus yoga class.

The reason?

Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that "while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice," according to an email from the centre….

The centre goes on to say, "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."

The centre official argues since 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 practising yoga."

The teacher of the class, which had about 60 students, had this to say:

[Jennifer] Scharf, a yoga teacher with the downtown Rama Lotus Centre, said the concept does not apply in this case, arguing the complaint that killed the program came instead from a "social justice warrior" with "fainting heart ideologies" in search of a cause celebre.

"People are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find," said Scharf.

"There's a real divide between reasonable people and those people just looking to jump on a bandwagon. And unfortunately, it ends up with good people getting punished for doing good things."…

"I'm not pretending to be some enlightened yogi master, and the point (of the program) isn't to educate people on the finer points of the ancient yogi scripture," she told the Sun.

It's not fully clear what triggered the ending of the weekly class, which Scharf has taught since 2008. Scharf suggested calling the class "mindful stretching" instead but, reports the Sun, "student leaders stumbled over how the French translation for 'mindful stretching' would appear on a promotional poster, and eventually decided to suspend the program."

Read the full article here.

It's less that the offended students are wrong that yoga has been appropriated by Westerners than the meaing of that action. What yoga "means" today is certainly different that what it meant every 25 or 30 years ago on college campuses (when it was less about exercise and more about inner peace, if my experience is any guide). Or further back, when it was only practiced by a few people immersed in eastern cultures and mysticism. How yoga is practiced is also constantly changing, too. Just ask Bikram Choudhury, who pioneered a new system and recently lost a legal battle in which he tried to copyright his sequence of poses. Anti-appropriation viewpoints depend not only a static view of what culture is but who audiences are. It is quite possibly the most constipated way to understand how individuals create meaning, community, and culture.

As Reason contributor Cathy Young reminded Washington Post readers over the summer, everything is cultural appropriation.

At one time, such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art — work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th-century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions, which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they've committed a creative sin.

To take just a few recent examples: After the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry was criticized for dressing like a geisha while performing her hit single "Unconditionally." Last year, Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar accused Caucasian women who practice belly dancing of "white appropriation of Eastern dance." Daily Beast entertainment writer Amy Zimmerman wrote that pop star Iggy Azalea perpetrated "cultural crimes" by imitating African American rap styles.

Young, who hails from the old Soviet Union, knows a thing or two about cultural appropriation and its discontents. Indeed, the commissars of her native land cracked down on all sorts of refuseniks who appropriated elements of American jazz, rock and roll, and hippie culture. And she is not sloughing over the ways in which dominant cultures fetishize "native" or "primitive" cultures, even as she notes that such appropriations typically go in multiple directions.

Appropriation is not a crime. It's a way to breathe new life into culture. Peoples have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated and reinvented from time immemorial. The medieval Japanese absorbed major elements of Chinese and Korean civilizations, while the cultural practices of modern-day Japan include such Western borrowings as a secularized and reinvented Christmas. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences — and the rapid Westernization of the elites in the 18th century. America is the ultimate blended culture.

Read Young's full piece here.

And reach Charles Paul Freund's masterful 2002 essay, "In Praise of Vulgarity: How Commercial Culture Liberates Islam—and the West," for a deep dive in how appropriation is more often a way of creating individualized and oppositional cultures rather than racist or colonialist redoubts of power:

Cambodia's prime minister ordered tanks to raze the country's karaoke parlors. Last fall, Iran announced a new campaign against Western pop music and other "signs and symbols of depravity." And only last summer, the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan—just a few hundred miles north of Afghanistan—began a crackdown on dangerous "bohemian" lifestyles. The authorities went after a number of familiar outsiders—gays, religious dissidents—but even Westerners were surprised to learn that one targeted group was "Tolkienists." It turns out that there are Kazakh Hobbit wannabes who like to dress up in character costume and re-enact scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien's novels. For their trouble, they were being subjected to sustained water torture.

Hobbit re-enactors in Kazakhstan? Where do they get their paraphernalia? Are there Kazakh Tolkienist fanzines? Have fans started changing Tolkien's narratives to suit themselves, the way Western Star Trek subcultures turned their own obsession into soft-core pornography? Do re-enactors change roles from time to time, or are any of them trapped inside a Frodo persona? Is there no end to the identities waiting to be assumed? No end to what invention makes flesh, before it tosses it aside and starts again?