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.”
Please excuse my poor sentence structures and my rambling thoughts. I am not as erudite as yourself. I would love some thoughts on this. I am confused by the cultural appropriation bit.
I am a child of the hippy 70’s. And from my experience Indians were giving away Yoga as fast as the West could consume it. Is it cultural appropriation if the Gurus are setting up ashrams, taking the accolytes money and teaching all over the world? AND inviting their disciples to teach and train others. Hare Krishna’s, Mahara-ji, Muktananada, Baba Hari Dass, Satya Sai Baba, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, BKS Iyengar, Desikachar,Sivananda, Meher Baba, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Prathabi Jois, Swami Shaum, Gurumayi, and Sant Kirpal Singh roll off the top of my childhood rolodex without even trying ( I met a few of these guys I am proud to say). Not including the Zen masters, Theravadans, Macrobiotics and Tibetan types….
I totally get hanging Krishna over a toilet is cultural appropriation. That is a Hindu God after all. Jesus over the toilet might offend a Christian, too. Your teachers (these gurus) never taught you (us) to hang a picture of a God over a toilet. Your teachers taught you Yoga. These Gurus never said one needs to be Hindu to practice or teach yoga (maybe Hare Krishna’s). One is born a Hindu or one isn’t. Yoga, it seems is for anyone who has the discipline to learn. Interestingly, our trips to Rishikesh may trip us up as we become enamored of the drama of Hinduism, redolent in splendour, and seek to ‘spiritual’ up our spaces. The iconography is stunning. The mythology around the imagery is deep and beautiful. But that’s were we need tread carefully. Yoga is a philosophy steeped in Hinduism, that we as yogis must necessarily become acquainted with. But Hinduism is a religion that one is born into. We, as teachers and practitioners can love Ganesh for the deep teachings involved in his iconography that we have been taught but we can’t go put his face on a bikini. One is respectful cultural interchange and the other is cultural appropriation. Right?
BTW, thank you for clearing up yogagate! I wrote the school, too.
I started doing yoga as a young child with my parents in the 70s (white Massachusetts liberals who had gone to Woodstock together a few years before I was born.)
I remember being taught that yoga was a gift from India that was being shared with the world for the betterment of the world.
thank you! i was waiting for this thoughtful response. i felt like the lone voice on facebook all week. here is what i wrote:
“after the initial outrage, hoping this can be a good chance for reflection. i’m guessing the student org was like “how is this class relevant to us? is the class adequately inclusive? does the teacher represent us or come from our communities? what does it mean for a white woman to present a practice that comes from india to a primarily white audience (presumably)? can yoga be stripped of its cultural and spiritual roots and still be yoga?” etc
it sounds like even tho it was sponsored by the centre for students w disabilities, it was not necessarily attended by that audience, so the jezebel title (http://jezebel.com/yoga-class-for-disabled-students-cancell…) is misleading and inflammatory. scharf herself is modifying her tone from earlier interviews–a good thing. i hope the student orgs will speak up for themselves. i think they are making some valid points that need unpacking for a broader audience. meanwhile i think this is a sign that the days of yoga classes with zero cultural context are over. to that i say, good riddance.
this is a chance to evolve as a yoga community. this is not the 1960s or 70s when cultural appropriation was par for the course and hip in america. poc and other less-represented groups are saying “wait up–first you colonize me, then you take our cultural practices to profit from them?” i’m not saying we stop teaching or doing yoga. i’m saying we need to think about what we are doing, what is the context that allows me to do this, who is in the room and who is NOT in the room, who is benefiting?”
meanwhile, i have been blogging about this issue for a while at http://stillinsirsasana.blogspot.in/2015/02/yoga-tradition-and-lulu-ji.html
may the conversation continue.
Thank you so much for sending your links! Looking forward to reading. Be well.
Thank you for this bit of sense. I have been terribly clueless about what all the fuss is about ever since I picked up the debate at The Guardian (yes, it has reached such sensible quarters too).
I’m a bit amused by it all. And I totally do not get the cultural appropriation bit. Okay, disclosure, I’m Indian, and I think compared to the majority of India, I would be rather privileged – I’m a graduate student and my family is able to afford my not being able to earn for a few more years.
Yoga for me started with a brilliant yoga teacher; she taught me to enjoy yoga – at least the physical aspect of it. I was in the existential search-for-the-meaning-of-life phase when I started exploring more into my so-called religion, Hinduism. These enquiries led me to the canonical texts, and slowly, to the realisation, that Hinduism was a desperate Western construct, the credit of which can be given to the British who were clueless with what to do with the diversity they faced in India. The rich philosophical (read philosophical, not scientific) tradition that existed in India was completely sidelined for canonical texts – the four Vedas, a few Upanishads, of course the Gita, and the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Somehow, suddenly, Advaita vedanta became the national philosophy of a suddenly constructed notion of “India” (there were many disparate kingdoms – so disparate that the languages spoken in the Western world and north India are closer related than the languages of north and south India).
Indian cultural imperialism had a major role to play in all this of course. Caste plays a silent role in everything that we do and are. Gandhi would not have been Gandhi, were he not from an upper caste. Modi would not be who he is now, were he not from an upper caste. There is *only* one notable exception in people who rose to prominence from the lower castes before the 21st century – Ambedkar. The point being, the castes which held sway, held the way. Many of our major and popular festivals are all intensely Brahminical, and we happily celebrate away without care.
Coming to Yoga, I fail to understand the cultural appropriation argument. As long as its not appropriated and trademarked, what is wrong with the appropriation? You enjoy doing yoga, well good for you! We enjoy yoga too. Because its nice to wake up early in the morning, breathe in the fresh air, fill your lungs, stretch, push yourself to stretch a bit more, exert a bit, relax, breathe, clean out your nose, meditate… There is also something quite charming about the chanting – I’ve found that vocalising in a group has a very therapeutic effect. Whether that be singing, or yogic chanting, or even just screaming together. But we have very few spaces where its socially acceptable to make the same sound together – thus, a bit of chanting every day is quite nice.
Is it taking you towards the salvation of the soul? I would believe not. Then again, that’s what I believe in, you might chose to believe in differently. But here is a sincere request: there are many intellectual traditions in India. Yes, some of them deal with prayer and worship. But there are also others which base themselves on certainty and knowledge – just like the Western philosophical tradition. Do explore a bit of everything, before you get sold to a certain theory.
And do keep in mind that these are all just fantastic pre-scientific speculations. They were rigorous, no doubt, but rigor does not make something real. Do you, really, believe in Platonic ideals, or Berkelean idealism, or Leibniz’s theory that God is orchestrating all your actions, but is doing so so fast that you think they are your own actions. Metaphysical positions from India ought to be taken with the same grain of salt… Read them for the arguments, for the training in intellectual rigor. But 2000 year old texts are precisely that – 2000 years old!
Meanwhile, Krishna, or any of the Indian gods, have nothing to do with Yoga. Yoga developed as a part of the yogadarsana, following the metaphysics of the samkhyadarsana. What we call yoga today is just two or three parts of the ashtangayoga (eight-fold path) towards liberation into the pure consciousness. Yoga has no roots in Hinduism. Rather, if any connection exists at all, Hinduism appropriated yoga from yogadarsana. The best historical approximation of Hinduism is sanatana dharma, which is a stream of thought distinct from Samkhya-Yoga, although sanatana dharma might borrow the notion of a pure consciousness, purusa, and matter, prakriti, from Samkhya. The reason why the Indian was offended by the Krishna in the toilet has nothing to do with yoga. All images and idols of gods are revered and worshipped in India. And if you are truly committed to yoga philosophy, or even advaita, I would doubt your intentions if you had Krishna hanging anywhere in your studio, unless you adore the character he is… that amazingly ineffable, flirtatious, lovable, crafty playboy.
There’s a brilliant book by Edward Said named Orientalism. Read the introduction. If you understand that, and can think it through your life and practices, stop worrying about random voices, including those who claim to be the real Hindus; India, Hinduism, yoga, nor any part of Indian culture belongs to these few pseudo bearers of Indian culture; we are all a part of Indian culture, and we all have a voice too. Go forth and practice what you wish, do yoga, teach yoga, spread yoga…
Well I thank you dearly for adding to the rich diversity of my sources above. I’ll read Said, again, for sure.
Matthew, you do great job uncovering what looks like a click-bait scam ready-made for the angry white anti-PC crowd. And I applaud you for that.
As to the overall appropriation issue, though…dude, you know I love ya, but aren’t you the guy who “re-mixed” a sacred text, the Yoga Sutras to reflect your own secular postmodern perspective? Is that less offensive to a traditional Hindu sensibility than a painting of Krishna in the bathroom? Don’t get me wrong–I think your books are great (and I would certainly hope they’re not the “mistakes” you mention). Then, I feel the same way about Stephen Batchelor’s books, but I know that a lot of traditional Buddhists would rather see a Buddha in the toilet than hear him describe his ideas about reincarnation and karma as “Buddhist.” And that’s not to mention my various yoga blogger friends with their countercultural insistence of a sacred connection between yoga and left wing western ideals of social justice. I wouldn’t try selling that to the caste-conscious yogis of India, but I think it’s great
Of course, that’s because I’m an extremely secular postmodern yogi, myself, with the shocking irreverence for tradition that goes with that. Sure, I try to be reasonably mindful about it. I don’t have an “Om” tramp-stamp. I don’t use “harekrishna” as a hashtag. I try not to present Bob Marley quotes as the words of ancient Indian sages. Hell, I’m one of the only yoga teachers I know who doesn’t post half-naked pictures of himself doing difficult poses on Facebook. But that’s mostly just because I’m a grumpy intellectual (and don’t really look that good half naked) who tries to be a little more sophisticated in my appropriation. It doesn’t change the fact that I, like you, am a very modern, very western yoga teacher who takes what I like from ancient traditions and disregards the rest.
As such, if the cultural appropriation of yoga is a problem, I’m pretty sure we’re part of it.
Thank you for this, Doctor. I’m glad you asked…
The irony isn’t lost on me, and it’s not comfortable. What I can say is that I’m a lot clearer on my positionality wrt this territory than I was in 2007-2010, not only because of the CA discourse, but also because of some sharp critique that took me a long time to hear and longer to really understand.
When I published, I used the term “remix”, and tried to make it clear in my front matter that I wasn’t working as a Sanskritist or lineage devotee, but as a practitioner and cultural critic engaging the ways in which the YS had infiltrated the modern globalized yoga imagination in English translation. I claimed no ownership, scholarly authority, lineage connection, or even editorial or publishing support. On the surface it could be said (and I didn’t deny it) that I was performing an artistic/contemplative act, which is what I actually consider yoga practice to be for me personally. The book is a practice diary recording a syncretic process, and I tried to be transparent about that.
I don’t think it’s a mistake. In fact, the general moods of skepticism, resistance to authoritarianism, and quest for the hidden narrative that I cultivated through that book and others has led me forward, even to this point, and reflected and maybe invigorated a new attitude in MPY towards received authority, especially over the body. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my book shows up at the same time that the viability of the guru in global yoga culture goes into its sharpest decline. When you stop doing exegesis on the YS, you stop doing it on Light on Yoga as well.
But what I’ve learned is that the inequities of power within how the yoga industry is organized can elevate whatever artistry I have and charisma I present it with to a level of “truth”, no matter how much I reject the idea and push back against the transference. That’s what being white and male does, in part. I’m only just becoming aware of structural transference.
Example: the avant-garde of Dutch jazz has taken the form to Mars and back, and because everyone knows they’re playing in the category of “art”, and the milieu includes pot and beer, that seems to fine. But what if their metier were felt to be sacred in a religious or spiritual sense to an originary population, and if new listeners felt moved upon listening, and suddenly it got more air time than the “Original” — so much so that the Original — whatever it was constructed to be — began to whither in memory? Further: what if that Original had very recently given moral and psychological support to a political rebellion against imperialism waged at great cost? And what if that imperialist force had been Dutch? What should that originary population do? What are the feelings involved? We can say that this is just the inevitable thing that culture does, but there’s also an arrogance or even violence to it that we can add to or lessen depending upon how aware we are.
I’m not saying that my little book has overshadowed generations of orthodox readings and a century of white-bread puritan commentary. I’m happy that it has jostled in a small way the romantic Orientalism of Anglophone devotees. I dared to question aloud the book’s relevance to contemporary life and life-sciences, to feminism, to basic issues in psychoanalysis — not in its original terms, to which I have no access, but its received, lived terms in the modern studio. Part of what I was puzzling through was: why do western people check their values and epistemologies at the door when they pick up this book in translation? What in themselves are they rejecting? What do they need it to say? Why? I tried to be transparent about my own thrust: What do I want the YS to say, and why?
What I’ve learned is that one can be as transparent as one likes with the mechanism of deconstruction, be upfront about why one is undertaking it, how progressive one’s intentions are, and what one’s limitations are, and still not be aware of the collateral damage in the process.
These are just some initial thoughts. I’m sure they’ll develop and maybe gel into a postscript for a 2nd edition, which would feature certain corrections and amendments of language.
Example: the avant-garde of Dutch jazz has taken the form to Mars and back, and because everyone knows they’re playing in the category of “art”, and the milieu includes pot and beer, that seems to fine. But what if their metier were felt to be sacred in a religious or spiritual sense to an originary population, and if new listeners felt moved upon listening, and suddenly it got more air time than the “Original” — so much so that the Original — whatever it was constructed to be — began to whither in memory?
I agree with Yoga for Cynics and Mohan above, re: cultural appropriation.
To expound a bit further on your “Dutch jazz” metaphor a bit: it seems Europeans are quite guilty of CA re jazz – as the original art form was clearly originated in the USA with the black ragtime, swing and be-bop artists and composers. The fact that a majority of jazz musicians couldn’t make a living in the USA after rock ‘n roll became the dominant pop music in the mid-1960s and many became expats in Europe from that time onwards is a testament to the adaptability of the art form, much as yoga has been “adapted” here in the west. I have a Norwegian jazz musician friend who permanently emigrated to the USA in 1979 because this is where the “real deal” was. His opinion was that European adaptations of jazz was “soul-less”, frequently manifesting in “avant-garde noodlings” while still being able to call the music “jazz”. So it goes. But…should European jazz musicians therefore be found guilty of CA? Frankly, I don’t think anyone cares, at least I’ve never heard such a politicized argument made in this particular case. There will always be fundies stating their rigid opinions on many many cultural matters – to heck with them I say! CA of course has 2 sides – positive (innovation) and negative (commercial exploitation). What is a human to do about that?
A story about a cancelled yoga class goes viral.
The teacher, Jennifer Scharf, is name-called: She is 1)agressive 2) self-agrandized 3) fanatical 4) controversial and 5) off-putting. And know for these qualities in the Ottawa Yoga Community (so sez one blogger).
Matthew Remski feeds into this understanding of Jennifer Scarf, coloring her as a rube ~~and some dishonest in this piece he has written.
1) Matthew points out that Jennifer thinks Mathew is making up words like intersectional. But really, isn’t this spin? There are other ways to interpret what Jennifer said, maybe she was joking with Matthew about his erudite articulations…. maybe she was trying to be in converstation and relational?
2) When Jennifer concedes she doesn’t know much about cultural appropriation actually, she is ‘painted’ to be ignorant, ignorant that ‘social justice worker’ is a pejorative. Jennifer, the rube, doesn’t realize that issues of equality are part of cultural appropriation issues for people of color and beyond.
The writing here does Jennifer some harm, even though Matthew admits to his own time line: Taking years and years to come to a subtle appreciation for the cultural appropriation issues and to be sensitive and, well, appropriate needlessly and hurtfully.
Finding a Jennifer Scarf is like finding a Kino McGregor.
A perfect vehicle, a vision to color a story.
To say stuff like the right wing media is a beast of hatey speech toward people of color who whine about safe space. What else is new?
This kind of pile-on is common everywhere. I mean, you cannot believe the vitriol over, like, support for animal shelters, and those who champion them.
— As any dog blogger at any local newspaper will tell you. The comments sound the same. Why spend money on dogs and cats, when children are starving? My favorite animal is… wait for it… Chicken !!
Jennifer isn’t Chicken.
I was very careful to limit my presentation of Scharf to her own words and actions, and I have to say that if anything it’s a sympathetic portrayal, given the rhetoric from social media. I can assure you that Scharf was not joking about my particular language, but in our interview cast it as the language of academic elites that would seek to censor her freedom of speech. Additionally, she showed in our email thread that she was unfamiliar with the discourse generally, and had never encountered any of the writers I cite above. Not-knowing this stuff isn’t shameful, and this article doesn’t shame her. But not-knowing does have consequences, especially when one chooses to foreground said issue, which Scharf did in every media appearance she had.
I don’t know whether she knew that SJW was a pejorative when she originally used it, but after our emails she knew it was, unless she thought I was lying. In our interview she backed away from the term. But since, she has posted on her FB wall a cartoon from the Libertarian Review’s FB page that caricatures the SJW as a suppressor of free speech. It seems she has mixed views.
What Scharf thinks or intends is beyond my purview. This article focuses on the global reaction to the words she chose, for whatever reason, and how that reaction has been sadly predictable, given the power structures of yoga culture and global media.
But you do tell us what Ms. Scharf thinks!
It is your purview to give us -your- glimpse.
Which I read as snarky.
There is the reported quote where Scarf self -describes as an “ally”. An ally to social justice and to the intersectional issues of cultural appropriation? You don’t say. Did you ask what she meant? An ally to those who articulate their feelings about ‘real’ cultural appropriation?
—— As a code word, ally, has been diminished as: Another –problem– with how white people respond to cultural appropriation. So, are you saying that when Scarf uses the word ‘ally’, you see more rube in her?
—— Because quoting someone is an act on your part. YOU are saying something. Saying what YOU have to say, about them, and other stuff too. All this reporting is and art form. Right?
Then, after you tell us that Scarf sees herself, really, as an ally (red letter A), then you paint her with her own words (spin). Well she just wants people to be happy, an um, self-realized. Sounds ridiculous. I’m sure she said this. And it feeds Your spin to choose what to ‘report’. In my reading, you make her sound ridiculous. And then, I’m sure she is!
This is how rhetoric works. Right?
From what I’ve read about the situation the –huge crux– about attendance is a red herring.
Even the reporter tells you the attendance isn’t the issue, but you insist it is the very crux.
For Heavens Sake: People were not coming to class….
–BECAUSE- of all this foo-rah.
I’m sure I don’t like Ms. Scarf at all. Given what I’ve learned about her in all this. I certainly would not be inclined to take a class from her. Ever. Anywhere.
— Clearly Scarf took: The 3 Months of ‘review’ very personally.
She says so. Is this the whole story? I mean — she never would have gone to get her whistle, if she hadn’t about lost her composure, now would she have?
What happens in the media (your story too) wrings people into some kind of viral hash, alright.
Scarf couldn’t quite ‘hold her own’ against one Centre official who got the ball rolling.
And this thrust from this Centre official WAS about issues of cultural appropriation. Right?
Most white people –who struggle to answer the appropriation accusation– that is leveled at them —do react poorly. We have seen this in the yoga blogs. Oh but the vitriol coming from those who are angry over cultural appropriation issues can really be ugly. And they tell us: We white folk shut up and listen.
That Scarf was confronted with this?
Seems to have been the case. It’s not all in the emails.
Did you, Monsieur, ask her about this?
Cry Bully. Over entitled. It seems unfortunate she used these terms instead of just telling you how she felt. Even as you pressed her with your questions.
Aside from quotes previously published elsewhere, I quoted Scharf from email and interview, only to establish, by her own account, 1) that the attendance of the suspended class was nil, 2) that she suspected that the class was really cancelled over a personal conflict, and 3) that she is not actually familiar with CA discourse as laid out by South Asian writers. These three points show that the uproar over the CA issue was overblown and that a global backlash can begin with a blindspot. The bulk of the article is about that backlash. That analysis would remain as-is even if the facts of the original Sun report checked out.
I’ll repeat that the quotes I chose erred on the sympathetic side. If you’d like to speculate further on what Scharf thinks about the whole issue, you can view her video presentation of a radio interview she did superimposed with her own captions. Scharf sent this link to me with the note that it “highlights the issues I deem most important.”
I just spent some time looking over your links. This youtube video does indeed allow me a better view of Ms. Scharf. I did spend time on her FB page too, which you mentioned in your first reply. The FB page will be shut down here soon, and Ms. Scharf is not happy about this outcome. So thank you.
Monsanto isn’t burning down seed warehouses, for fuck’s sake. Don’t just make shit up.
You’ll notice it’s a quote, thus not made up, but I could have cited my source. This was stated by yoga teacher Aadil Palkhivala in a workshop I attended in Chicago in around 2005 or so.
Looks like it’s a metaphor for a well-known fact: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-seeds-of-suicide-how-monsanto-destroys-farming/5329947.
I think Ms. Scarf has faked the imminent shut down of her FB page. To ward off trolls, perhaps. But, you all are free to comment on her FB page. I did, and she answered me! Open to the public more than any FB page I’ve visited, ever. Scarf says she is looking to use her 15 minutes of fame, and says that she thinks this may be the beginning of great things for herself (this publicity).