Yogagate: The Downward Dogwhistle Story
Last updated: December 6th.
Liquid Facts, Solid Derision
On Friday, November 20th, the Ottawa Sun broke a story that went viral. The global backlash has distorted and minimized an issue that South Asian thought leaders in yoga culture have been grappling with for years.
“Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students,” the story began, “ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of ‘cultural appropriation.'”
The class was administered by the student-run Centre for Students with Disabilities (hereafter “Centre”), under the umbrella of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (hereafter “Federation”).
“Jennifer Scharf,” the piece continued, “who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.”
The Sun reported that Scharf was told via email that:
“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.”
In a phone interview with me, Sun reporter Aeden Helmer clarified that these quotes came from a single participant in a 17-page email correspondence between the Centre, the Federation, and Scharf that ran from September through November.
The Sun article concluded with the comments of Federation official Julie Seguin, which argue against the validity of the cultural appropriation reasoning. Helmer confirmed via email that Seguin’s quotes were drawn from that same correspondence, which suggests that the Centre and the Federation were not in agreement on the issue as it was being discussed.
Scharf confirmed to Ottawa Magazine that concern over cultural appropriation came from a single Centre official, whom she will not name. In the Sun, Scharf is quoted as calling that official out as a “social justice warrior” with “fainting heart ideologies”.
“Social justice warrior” is such a popular pejorative it has its own acronym: SJW. In Ottawa Magazine, Scharf referred to Centre officials as “over-entitled so-called ‘crybullies’.”
The Sun’s “cultural appropriation” scare quotes and Scharf’s epithets quickly dogwhistled an internet puppy pile. Ottawa Citizen, CBC, National Post, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Jezebel, Macleans, Time, Yahoo. Fox Business News had a good chuckle. The Independent and the Daily Mail tittered in the U.K. There were countless Twitter trails, including one from David Frum, who used to write speeches for G.W. Bush.
By the time the story bounced into the Sydney Morning Herald, key terms had bloated: the class had gone from “scrapped” to “banned”. That same day, the U.K.’s Spectator completed the flip, arguing that expressing concern over cultural appropriation is itself “borderline racist”, and a demand for “cultural segregation.”
The verdict from trial-by-comment-thread was unanimous: the Centre and Federation administrators must be whining fools. Any discussion of cultural appropriation in relation to modern yoga practice — or anything else — is absurd, laughable, and reverse-racist against white people. Trolls squabbled over whether the University administration was Marxist or fascist. “The inmates are running the asylum,” several squawked.
But an easily-missed comment from an unnamed Centre administrator trying to push back against an avalanche of right-wing Facebook vitriol suggested that the initial story might have missed a key detail.
I interviewed Scharf herself to follow up. In our forty-minute phone call, she repeated her statement to Ottawa Magazine that in previous years “there were as few as 7-8 people [in attendance] and as many as 60.”
But via email, she also added this: attendance for the class since September had been nil. She blamed the Centre’s failure to advertise for the fact that “nobody showed up.”
The original wording in the Sun article led some commenters to believe that Scharf had always volunteered her time. Scharf furthered this impression in a radio interview, saying: “All my classes are free, because to me it’s a passion, and I don’t think money needs to enter into it to be valuable.” But via email, Scharf wrote that in some years she was paid “a small stipend for tax purposes.”
Via email, Scharf also suggested that the class hadn’t been suspended over cultural appropriation concerns at all. I asked her to comment on sources that told me there’d been complaints about her teaching style and content. She denied any such complaints, but then wrote:
I am very upset that someone’s personal issues with me have been the true cause of this, as I suspected all along. This is proof that cancelling the class is nothing more than a PERSONAL ATTACK ON ME.
So, with just a little digging, it now looks like additional context for the suspension may have included low attendance and a possible personnel issue involving a position that was sometimes paid. But out of a long communication process, the remarks of one official in a student-run service organization have been spotlighted and magnified.
By phone, Helmer told me he contacted the Centre and the Federation for comment on Nov. 19th after hearing of the class cancellation from a source. He spoke with the Federation’s acting president Roméo Ahimakin. At that point, Ahimakin didn’t bring up any concern over “cultural appropriation”.
“He didn’t seem to have a very clear understanding of what the issue was,” Helmer said. They made plans for a followup interview the next day.
On the morning of the 20th, Helmer spoke to Scharf, who sent him the email exchange. After reading the comments of the unnamed Centre official, Helmer emailed Ahimakin, asking directly whether the class was indeed cancelled due to concerns over cultural appropriation.
Ahimakin replied with an official Federation statement, which the Sun went on to publish, well below the fold.
Ahimakin said that the intention of the suspension and review was to ensure that the class be made “better, more accessible and more inclusive to certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces. … We are trying to have those sessions done in a way in which students are aware of where the spiritual and cultural aspects come from, so that these sessions are done in a respectful manner.”
After the controversy erupted, the Federation attempted further clarification by releasing an update statement on November 25th. They asserted that the email remarks quoted by the Sun were outdated, and did not represent the official position of either the Centre or the Federation. They confirmed the low attendance issue, added some detail, and requested relief from harassment:
The consultation process [on program assessment] has been going on since the beginning of summer 2015 and because of that, the CSD has had a lot a feedback on how to improve the program to better accommodate their members. The statements quoted by the Ottawa Sun were a small-misrepresented message out of a larger conversation around the program. For example, the following concerns needed to be addressed.
First, the attendance of the Yoga classes was declining, this program has been running for the past 8 years without any re-evaluation and we wanted to ensure that students’ money and resources were being used in a responsible and efficient way to better promote the centre. There were some real concerns about how yoga was not meeting the mandate of the centre, and serving the needs of students with disabilities namely, students with physical disabilities and mobility issues. As the primary goal in the mandate of the CSD is to ensure that activities put on for the service users are accessible, it is our responsibility to address the issues and act upon them.
It is important to stress that the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa is very disheartened by the rhetoric being used around our due process to evaluate our service centres as we all take our jobs very seriously and work tirelessly to represent and support our students.
We do not condone and are very disappointed by the harassment and violence some of our staff experienced, due to the misrepresentation of our process. Acknowledging that many students are not given access to safe spaces in and around their campuses, the CSD in no way thought that suspending this program for the semester with the intention of improving it for a January return would cause this much uproar. Let us please revaluate this conversation and have a more conducive dialogue around how to make our campuses more accessible to those who do not feel safe.
It’s unclear why the Centre and Federation didn’t originally cite low attendance to to the Sun, although Scharf was aware of the attendance problem. This single PR mistake is at the root of the firestorm.
Via email, Helmer tells me that the Sun was unlikely to publish “a story about an on-campus yoga class being cancelled due to poor attendance.” It’s ironic that this is effectively what happened. Except that the poor attendance bit was missed in the original story.
But then, it was ignored.
On November 26th, the Sun published a sequel to the original story in response to the Federation’s official statement. The angle of the sequel implies that the Federation backtracked from the cultural appropriation argument in the face of international ridicule by resorting to a doubtful claim about class attendance.
The sequel repeats that the class was “attended by as many as 60 students, according to the instructor, both with and without disabilities. The CSD has disputed that number in a separate posting on its Facebook page.”
The sequel fails to reflect that I wrote to Helmer the day before — and told him again by phone ninety minutes before the sequel was published — that I had Scharf on record confirming that since September, attendance for the suspended class was zero.
The attendance number wasn’t “disputed” by the Centre. They wrote “no one attended”. So did Scharf, and you’d think she would know. Helmer was aware of both sources, but expressed no concern over the problem that the lede of his original article was now possibly inaccurate. Several hours after the Sun published his sequel, Helmer wrote via email that “the # of students in the class is irrelevant to the story I wrote.”
Helmer speculated via email that the Federation’s update statement is “poorly-doctored spin”.
But is it really “spin” when someone else has already decided the terms of the story?
My own calls and emails seeking clarification from the Centre and Federation have gone unanswered. I stopped after several attempts, because a source told me that they’re overwhelmed with media attention.
I also figured they must be too busy doing things like actually helping people with disabilities, running the U of O Food Bank and the Pride Centre to have the stomach for taking yet another call from another reporter who might decide who speaks for them, what publication deadlines they must serve, and what the relevant narrative should be.
The politics of a media pile-on can be surmised by what it leaves out, and what it laughs at. And the effectiveness of dogwhistle language can be deduced by how quickly the dogs come running.
First: leaving out.
Not a single writer who rehashed the Sun story interviewed any actual people with disabilities who attend the Centre’s programming to ask how they felt about the class review. Fortunately, Liz Kessler stepped into the gap with this balanced post. Kessler was a disabled student at the University of Ottawa who used to use the Centre, and a former official at the Federation. She describes the Centre as
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…. The Centre… 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 its funding appropriately.
Second: laughing at.
The Centre’s comprehensive understanding of disability presents the kind of nuanced mandate one can imagine generating many 17-page email threads as its officials continually struggle to achieve inclusivity.
It also makes the following commitment to the intersectionality of the issues it is trying to address:
At the CSD, we strive to create as safe a space as possible for our staff, volunteers, and centre users. We also acknowledge that ableism is not a siloed issue, but one that affects a variety of communities and individuals. In working to dismantle ableism, we also work to challenge all forms of oppression including, but not limited to, heterosexism, cissexism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, queerphobia, HIV-phobia, sex negativity, fatphobia, femme-phobia, misogyny, transmisogyny, racism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, sexism, and linguistic discrimination.
The Centre’s Safe(r) Spaces Practices statement was quoted verbatim by the National Post to close its warm over on November 22nd.Within minutes, the Post article was reposted to the Gun Owners of Canada forum.
The Ottawa Citizen republished the Post’s paragraphs the following day. Both the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen are owned by Postmedia, the behemoth of rightwing Canadian media. Postmedia also owns the Ottawa Sun.
The same day, Roger Kingkade at News Talk 770 in Calgary showed that the Post’s citation of the Centre’s mandate was not exactly serving the goal of narrative depth. Kingkade reposted the mandate, framing it with the line: “it looks like they have it in their code to crusade from time to time.”
That same day, “Boomer expert, author, speaker, consultant” David Cravit reblogged the Post with the intro: “The money quote, for me, comes right at the end where the article lists all the “forms of oppression” the Centre for Students with Disabilities is fighting against…. In a world in which terrorists are burning people in cages, crucifying children and gunning down people in nightclubs and cafes, this is what they’re worrying about at U of Ottawa.”
Right. Because as long as terrorists aren’t burning you alive, life is good, and it’s totally frivolous and entitled to work against social injustice.
The 24th found blogger “Dr. Mabuse” calling the mandate an “SJW litany, to be recited kneeling.”
Strangely, similar sentiments streamed in from the heart of the left-coast yoga world. It took San Francisco Yoga teacher and columnist Mark Morford just under a thousand words to mock the Centre and Federation several times, name-drop his Berkeley pedigree, lecture his readership on what yoga really is, and link to his brand. He asserted the class suspension was due in part to “a complete failure on the part of the university to impart sufficient critical thinking skills”. This made me wonder what class I could take at Berkeley that could teach me how to demonstrate critical thinking by inventing stuff out of thin air.
Via email, Sun reporter Helmer emphasized his objectivity. “A lot of people are turning this into a left-right thing… I’m a reporter, and this is a news story, not an opinion column. Many people have discerned a political bias because of the language and tone of some key phrases, but it is not intended to have any tone. And I do not have a bias.”
Bias, however, doesn’t just come from what one explicitly thinks. It also accumulates in the shadow of what one doesn’t know. Via email, Helmer also admitted that the debate as to whether yoga constitutes a form of cultural appropriation was something “I previously had no idea even existed.”
For her part, Scharf’s understanding of the issue of cultural appropriation in yoga has shared the same sharp learning curve. When I asked her if she knew that cultural appropriation was intersectional with other equality issues that the Centre and South Asian theorists in yoga discourse are addressing, she asked me to refrain from using made-up words.
But when I asked her whether she knew that “social justice warrior” was a pejorative used to mock equality discourse, she granted that “Well, maybe I shouldn’t have used that term, if it’s hurtful towards people trying to do good work.”
“I’m really an ally,” Scharf said, near the end of our phone call. “I want everybody to be happy, and self-realized.”
This much is clear. The Ottawa Sun and every outlet that quoted or plagiarized it constitute a high-speed clickbait echo chamber designed to find what it’s looking for, and report on it in the language they’ve market-tested on its readership. This can only distort issues and bolster dominant narratives.
Here’s an example. Rachael Pells of the Independent contacted Nigel Walker for his view on the story. Walker is a University of Ottawa graduate and works in a partnership between one of the yoga studios he teaches at and Community Life Services to provide free yoga classes to U of O students around exam times. In an interview, Walker told me:
[Pells] was asking me to comment on the idea of yoga and cultural appropriation. She was trying to get me to support her idea that it was impossible that teaching yoga could involve cultural appropriation, and how this was something that universities were pushing to bring down activities across campuses, and that this was limiting people’s free speech.
“I tried to stake out a middle ground. I told her that cultural appropriation was something we come across as yoga teachers, and it’s our job to be aware of it. In Scharf’s case, I didn’t know what her classes are like. So my answer was “It’s possible, but I don’t know the circumstances. When [Pells] realized I wasn’t directly supporting the opinion she was presenting to me, the conversation went nowhere.
Walker didn’t hear from Pells again, and wasn’t cited in her article. The Independent article lumped the Centre/Federation discussion in with a list of other supposed outrages involving university discourse around safer spaces and trigger warnings. The piece topped off its list of red herrings by suggesting that the class suspension is comparable to the actions taken by officials in the central Russian town of Nizhnevartovsk this past June to ban yoga, as they said, “in order to prevent the spread of new religious cults and movements.”
The article has been shared 25K times, and adorned by dozens of racist and sexist comments.
Neither Pells nor the Independent have responded to requests for comment.
Cultural Appropriation Is Intersectional With Other Equality Issues
There’s something a lot uglier than media hackjobs.
Deriding the very premise of cultural appropriation in yoga — or anything — can be white person catnip. And getting high on scorn and outrage is great for obscuring a whole range of thorny equality issues that strike close to the bone.
I know this dynamic, because I’ve participated in it. But not any more — at least to the best of my ability.
When I first became aware, almost exactly five years ago, that some South Asian thinkers were challenging the ways in which yoga is being globalized, I was skeptical. I got on my high horse to declare the “Take Back Yoga” Campaign of the Hindu American Foundation to be historically naïve, practically inactionable, and too tied up with the powers of saffronisation to speak inclusively. Any educated white person can reasonably argue that these remain good grounds for skepticism.
But I slowly came to understand that really listening to the HAF meant uncovering histories and emotions that all modern yogis should take an interest in if they say they’re committed to fairness. Also — I learned that it takes a little more contemplation to admit to the defensiveness that lies just beneath that first sneer.
On the way, I spent years flailing through the weak if/then equivalencies argued by other white people over the past days. If one endorses the cultural appropriation in yoga argument, it would lead to …
white people banned from playing the blues, or…
Yo Yo Ma banned from Bach, or…
non-Arabs banned from algebra, or…
non-Canadians banned from playing hockey.
What these straw man arguments miss is that the modern yoga space, unlike the blues bar or the ballet theatre, is explicitly advertised as a universalist site of equality to which everyone can repair for self-inquiry and healing. It certainly doesn’t consider itself provincial or nativist. Talking about cultural appropriation is related to talking about how that advertising can ring hollow in other ways.
The conversation has unfolded through the years. I’ve tried to listen more deeply. I’ve learned from Roopa Singh, who directs South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America. Nisha Ahuja gave a presentation at a social-justice-positive Toronto studio I taught at. I read a piece by Nikita Redkar on the generational tensions at play in the Indian diaspora. This helped me understand why white boomers are so mystified by the concern over cultural appropriation. Their own Indian teachers adopted liberal rhetoric in part to help them assimilate into Western culture. But the children of those teachers feel differently about how their natal cultures are now commercialized.
I also learned from the nuance of Prachi Patankar and Meera Nanda how the cultural appropriation argument can indeed be marshalled by regressive and classist agendas aligned with right wing Indian politics.
If you actually listen to a spectrum of voices, the conversation is complex. Increasingly, it has shown me that the issue of cultural appropriation in yoga is inseparable from examinations of white middle-class privilege, structural racism in yoga and meditation spaces, cultural inequality, accessibility issues, and the creation of safer space. These are the same intersectional issues that have been conveniently ignored in the media uproar. Michelle Goldberg’s deftly-argued piece in Slate provides the best example here. She links to what is perhaps the key site for the confluent examination of these issues, Decolonizing Yoga, only to dismiss it in a single sentence.
One fine day, I was granted an epiphany in cultural sensitivity by an elderly Indian man who was visiting the yoga studio I owned in downtown Toronto. He was there for a meditation programme. At a break, he came to the front desk and asked where the bathroom was. I showed him. When he came out, he approached me with a smile and his hands folded in prayer at his heart. He told me that it was not proper that I had hung a painting of Krishna and the Gopis in the bathroom. I asked him why.
“It’s Krishna.” His voice was very quiet. “He’s over the toilet.” He said “toilet” very slowly, and his smile suddenly looked tired. My heart sank as I thanked him.
It was an obvious mistake, once I saw it. But seeing it led me to other questions about what I was doing. How much did I really know or care about the Indian roots of what had become my profession? Previously, I’d been smug at thinking I knew more than most. But should I be so satisfied, so confident? Learning and humility are inseparable.
Not all white people will have the benefit of being schooled by kind elderly Indian men. They will encounter younger, angrier South Asians. They will face accusations they can’t understand, and won’t, unless they take a breath, i.e., do some actual yoga, and realize “This isn’t about me personally. It’s about a history of cultural injustice and confusion.”
It’s a little late, but South Asian voices are beginning to be heard, and allies are speaking up. On the 22nd, the CBC reached out to two Indian residents of Ottawa for comment. On the 23rd, Helmer offered balance by following up his initial reports with a more complex piece that interviewed Toronto-based yoga teacher and sitarist Ram Vakkalanka about the possibility that the issue is actually an issue. “The article was widely ignored, of course” Helmer lamented via email.
On the 23rd, CBC’s Ottawa Morning offered a penetrating interview with Sheena Zain. In a reprise on Ontario Today, Zain said that if people don’t understand what the issue is about, it’s “because they’re not having conversations with South Asians.” Exemplifying how diverse those conversations can be, yoga teacher and environmental engineer Jaswina Dhillon argued a universalist position in the Ottawa Citizen. On the 27th, Krisna Saravanamuttu added to the richness with this ambivalent piece in Rabble.
Here’s the takeaway. White people need to actually research the cultural appropriation argument before going off on it. If they’re going to write about it, they need to read what’s between the lines.
Sure, the complaint: “you are stealing from, diluting, and degrading my culture” can indeed be deconstructed by anyone with a humanities degree. Sure, modern physical yoga is a modern Indo-European hybrid. Sure, early 20th century Indian yoga teachers were vigorous evangelists.
But the complaint is complex, and proximal to many other complaints.
It is proximal to: “racism still exists, you dummy” and “your Orientalism is unhelpful” and “why don’t you fix your own sociopathic Christian spirituality before playing around with ours?”, and “you called me a disgusting name in high school and beat me up” and “Monsanto is burning down seed warehouses in Bihar.”
Really hearing these things doesn’t mean that you have to hold tree pose with the exact proper deference towards Hinduism to keep your yoga. Obviously this goes too far. Faking an interest in a spirituality that may not resonate with you is way worse in the long run than simply checking yourself.
Checking yourself doesn’t mean continuing your practice with a frowny-face to prove your guilt. It means that doing yoga gives you more reason to learn about the dynamics of life in India and the Indian diaspora — not less. It means thinking a little more, and perhaps a little more quietly, about how not to contribute to the general asshatery that crowns the structural violence of globalization. There are many places to start.
I started with asking why I didn’t know that a painting of Krishna is felt to carry the presence of the divine, and that asking that presence to watch me take a dump every day might rub some people the wrong way. Then, I started asking what my blindspots might be when reading yoga literature in translation.
Then I started asking about modern yoga studio culture, and why in Toronto — one of most diverse cities in the world — I rarely saw South Asian students in my studio or any of the studios I worked at. I was studying Sanskrit texts in a small group, and I asked one of my fellow students — he was South Asian by heritage — why Toronto yoga was so white. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t go because I just feel weird in those places. I’m not sure what you’re all doing.”
I don’t have solutions here. I doubt I ever will, and I’m sure I will continue to make plenty of mistakes in my own comportment. And the irony of being another white voice soapboxing on this issue isn’t lost on me. But I will keep asking about this issue, because doing so trains me to look carefully at the unconscious and harmful assumptions that lurk in the other curves of my bubble.
Others can ask whether taking that Indian spiritual name and padding your resume with trips to Rishikesh has been of benefit to your yoga teaching career. Or whether throwing around words like “tradition” makes sense when talking about a skill communicated in a 200-hour training. Or whether getting a Tantric deity tattoo below the belt is a bright idea.
Finally, white yoga people who consider themselves progressive can ask why, as they shared this story around with snarks and jeers, they were so easily snowjobbed by a media wave that infantilized brown people working with complex and interweaving social justice issues? If they didn’t know who the Centre and Federation workers were, or where they were coming from, why didn’t they bother to ask?
They might ask themselves if their “critical thinking” skills — so well-suited to arguing historical details online or in the lobbies of corporate-owned studios — are being put to good use in picking apart the emotionally messy emergence of a language that counters systemic oppression. Or whether those skills sometimes function to avoid critical listening.
They might remember that, as Kessler points out, “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.”
They might remember that anxieties over political correctness in the academic culture wars were first articulated by a cranky English prof who wanted to protect the 19th century canon from postcolonialism. Since then, those anxieties have been used largely by the right to denigrate the nuanced work of social equality.
They can ask how much they have in common with the right, that it can be so easy to bond over a clickbait headline.
- An earlier version of this article stated that ‘Via email, Helmer also admitted that the debate around cultural appropriation was something “I previously had no idea even existed.”‘ This has been corrected to ‘Via email, Helmer also admitted that the debate as to whether yoga constitutes a form of cultural appropriation was something “I previously had no idea even existed.”‘
- An earlier version stated that “So, with just a little digging, it now looks like the yoga class might have ultimately been suspended due to lack of attendance and a possible personal issue involving a paid instructor.” This has been changed to the more accurate: “So, with just a little digging, it now looks like additional context for the suspension may have included low attendance and a possible personnel issue involving a position that was sometimes paid.”