The University of Ottawa yoga controversy: a disabled person’s response

The recent wave of media coverage of the cancellation of a yoga class at the University of Ottawa is a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with mainstream media.

Some context: sometime last week, the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD), a service of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), put its free yoga class on hold. The teacher of the class and media reports are saying that it was because of concerns about cultural appropriation. A statement from the SFUO says it’s because the CSD is reviewing it’s programming, while a staff person from the CSD elaborated on Facebook that nobody has been showing up to the classes.

An initial news report in right-wing tabloid Sun News reported on it over the weekend, almost entirely from the point of view of the “shocked” teacher of the class (obviously probably upset because she was laid off). Today, the one article turned into a media storm as all the big news Canadian outlets, and even a few international ones, jumped on the bandwagon.

To say that the incident has been blown out of proportion is only the beginning. All the headlines say things like “University Of Ottawa’s Free Yoga Class Scrapped“, which is completely factually incorrect. The action was taken by a service of the student union, which is a separate organization from the university (actually, the university still has its own free yoga class, which it was happy to point out on twitter today). Some of the headlines say that yoga has been banned, which is also wrong. Staff of the CSD have also stressed that they have only cancelled the class for this semester (which is only about two or three more weeks), and they’re reviewing it for next semester – so “scrapped” is also quite a stretch.

Then there is the problem of how the media has treated the question of cultural appropriation. South Asian activists have been saying for years that western yoga is based in cultural appropriation (and if you’re interested on learning why, you should just google it, there is plenty out there written by actual south Asian people and I won’t try to speak for them) . Almost none of the news outlets covered this aspect of the issue. The one that I could find that did, barely mentions the existence of south Asians who are against the commercialization of yoga, and gives fully two paragraphs of attention to one south Asian person who disagreed — which is biased reporting at best.

The mainstream media loves to talk about “political correctness”. When you accuse a left wing organization of stepping on “freedom of speech”, and advocating “political correctness”, it basically guarantees that you will go viral. (In case you need a quick political science lesson: the CSD is not a government and they are not stopping anyone from expressing themselves, so it’s not a freedom of speech issue. Political correctness is a concept invented as backlash against feminists who wanted to talk about the importance of language. It’s actually designed to silence the left.) Regardless of whether they are correct, the accusations are excellent click bait, so of course every news outlet is only too happy to report on them. The full story gets completely lost in the process in a world where online media is all about getting the story out as quickly as possible.

I was a disabled student at the University of Ottawa who used the CSD – it was a safe place for me to talk about my disabilities and how it affected my studies. I used their resource collection and sought advice from the staff there at the time. I also served as Vice President, University Affairs for the SFUO, and I collaborated with the CSD on several projects, including advocating for better learning conditions for disabled students.

What seems to be missing from this whole conversation is, how is the CSD benefiting it’s service users? The Centre is not like a lot of services for people with disabilities. It is not a charity. It is run with dedicated student union funding, and it is intended to be a service for disabled students, by disabled students. If students with disabilities aren’t attending the yoga classes, it doesn’t seem like a good use of the Centre’s budget to be paying for these classes. Moreover, since the SFUO does (or did when I was involved there) strive to work from an anti-oppressive view point, they should absolutely be engaging on issues of cultural appropriation and acting accordingly. That’s what student union solidarity looks like.

If you’re not a disabled student, you don’t get to decide whether the CSD is using it’s funding appropriately. And if you’re not a south asian person, you don’t get to decide whether yoga is offensive or not. We need to be willing to be engaged about this. I’m actually appalled at how often this has to be said — not just to the right wing folks who are right now harassing the CSD’s staff, but to left wing activists I know who still read Sun News. We need to see past the media’s sensationalism and have an actual calm and nuanced conversation.

20 thoughts on “The University of Ottawa yoga controversy: a disabled person’s response

  1. Good morning –

    The teacher was a volunteer for six years. You may want to revise your argument to address the cancellation from the students federation given it was an unpaid position.

    Having had significant time in student unions in my own university time, I think they missed an opportunity to have a great discussion. What a panel this topic could have formed! Such a big conversation given the wide ranging scope of yoga.


  2. There are many South Asians who don’t find anything wrong with Western yoga. Talk to my parent’s generations, or our religious leaders or cultural leaders.


  3. I was unaware that the organization hosting the yoga classes was the Centre for Students with Disabilities, that has not made it to the coverage I’ve seen. Interesting.

    Thank you for the perspective.


  4. Studio 330 – Jennifer Scharf, the yoga instructor who led the classes for the CSD, was paid to provide instruction, she was absolutely not a volunteer. The classes were free to access but the instructor was paid. There is no question about this. You should correct your statement.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. She accepted a very small amount some years. Not even every year, because the center offered, not because she asked for it. It was her intention of doing it for free.


      1. I think the point is:
        If your offer of help is declined and you continue on insisting to help with the powefull mass-media on your side, your “help” is not exactly NOT HELPING. Your help is simply choking and overbearing. “No” means “No” in all contexts! This is what the Yoga teacher refuses to entertain.


      2. I think the point is:
        If your offer of help is declined and you continue on insisting to help with the powerful mass-media on your side, your “help” is NOT HELPING. Your help is chocking, overwhelming and overbearing. “No” means “No” in all contexts! This is what the Yoga teacher refuses to entertain.


  5. You had me until you indicated that I don’t get to have opinion on an issue.
    That is a Ridiculous stand to take and eliminates any moral or reasonable merit your article might’ve had otherwise.

    I’m assuming it’s obvious that it is not a defensible position. The basic demonstration, taking it to its extreme, it reads “you do not get to decide if denying education to women is ok, unless you’re taliban”.

    I understand immediate reaction to that is “that’s different!!”, but I’d like to hear Reasoned argument why one external judgement of a cultural issue is obviously ok, and other is not.


    1. I think the extreme would be more like.. “you do not get to decide whether to deny education to a woman unless you are that woman”.. As in this case, the author sees the determination of what’s best for students with disabilities/whether yoga is cultural appropriative as something that ought to be left to students with disabilities and South Asian people..


  6. I have to agree with Nicola on the point she made. Just because I dont live in poverty or have a penis doesn’t mean I shouldn’t advocate for the poor or for an end to routine male circumcision. Also, I have been working in developmental services for a decade and our mission statement has always been inclusivity. While it makes sense that the center would hope that people with disabilities would utilize that class, you cant discriminate because non disabled people have a habit of enjoying that opportunity more frequently. I thought we were trying to get away from segregated activities? Anyways, I think that an adult discussion could have been had on how to make the yoga class more ‘traditonal’ to its origins if thats whats participants wanted without cancelling the class all together. Now no body wins.


    1. Hi Tina. Thanks for engaging. I think the important thing here is that we are listening to oppressed groups and how they talk about what they need. So yes, its okay to have an opinion, but if your opinion is not shaped by what disabled people are saying about their own needs, then it is ableist. The problem I am referring to is the fact that people weren’t attending these yoga classes. If disabled people aren’t using them, then it’s not fair for able-bodied outsiders to be telling the service they jave to keep running the program. Similarly, if south asian activist are saying that westerm yoga is culturally appropriative, even if they disagree about the solution, it is important that we white people listen and engage. Which the yoga teacher and the media were clearly not willing to do in this case. You can have an opinion, but it isn’t solidarity if you’re not taking the people affected by it seriously.


  7. Great article and thank you for bringing this to my attention. My only issue would be in your conclusion where you suggest that denying people an opinion based on their ethnicity or ability is acceptable. It is not acceptable to deny any opinion based on ethnicity or physical ability.
    I have practiced yoga and I am of Northern European descent and I will continue to do so. I call it sharing and appreciation. Certainly there are issues surrounding negative cultural appropriation but to stop sharing and learning and occasionally adopting other people’s cultural and religious practices is the antithesis of a multicultural Canada. Instead, your conclusion seems to propose a supposed separate-but-equal system based on ethnicity, religion and physical ability. I would suggest a more open system where we listen, learn, adapt, adopt and evolve together.


  8. I write this at the of end a day where my spouse, a woman with an acquired brain injury, was in small-claims court, against all odds, trying to get money back from someone who ripped her off. And it is clear that nobody involved in her case realizes how hard she has to work, how hard she has to be trusted, to be believed, to be taken seriously, to be understood… All because she does not appear normal, her brain works differently!
    And this is what bothers me so much with this news story: none, absolutely none of the outraged articles that reached the world, quoted, interviewed, cited, got the opinion or even mentioned one student with a disability. Students living with a disability were the ones primarily affected by this decision, and yet they were, once again, completely left-out of the discussion.
    To expand on what a South-Asian women said on the radio: This is a marginalized group that attempted to extend courtesy, respect and, dare I say love, to another marginalized group.
    Does the Western practice and commercialisation of Yoga unfairly appropriate from another culture? I have no clue. But who the hell am I, an able-bodied guy, to dictate what people with disabilities should or should not think. In the end, they know what’s best for them! LET THEM TAKE THE TIME TO DECIDE.
    The story for me was about a woman who did not like that her practice of Yoga was questioned by people who have less power and less clout than her. She used the heavy-hand of mainstream-media to teach these people a lesson. It was all about who has most power!
    And nothing about the lives, the struggles and the hateful posts on Facebook, that the students with disabilities have to process! Nothing about that was mentioned in the media.
    And despite it all, my spouse who acquired her brain-injury as a child, soldiers on, putting one foot in front of the either, fighting against all odds. This is why I love her!

    Liked by 1 person

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